Two Hundred Miles as the Mole Burrows

Picture of train.

Hard-seat class in China.

Mar 4 - 6, 2015
Days 230 - 232

A bus dropped me off in Lao Cai, Vietnam and I walked toward the Chinese border. A few minutes later I heard a telltale screeching of tires, followed by a crashing of vehicles. This was such a common occurrence in Vietnam, I barely even looked up. In fact, with so few road rules in the country, I was surprised I didn't see more accidents.

When I reached the border gate, I met two Germans named Philip and Jan. They weren't particularly moved by the motorcycle accident, either. The three of us went through the formalities of getting stamped out of Vietnam, walking across a bridge over the Honghe River and getting stamped into China. It was good to be back in my old stomping grounds. If nothing else, I was comforted by the sound of Mandarin, a language I was at least somewhat familiar with, for the first time in three months.

I shared a taxi with the Germans to the train station at the other end of Hekou, on the Chinese side of the border. Along the way, I learned of Philip and Jan's ambitious plans: they were only going to spend a week or so in China, then cross into Mongolia and Russia, and finally take the Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Europe. If all went well, they would travel from Vietnam to Germany in three weeks, without flying. Their itinerary was a bit too crazy for my taste, but I still wished them well.

When we reached the train station, the cab's meter said that we owed 12 yuan. I handed the driver a 20. Instead of giving me change, he said something in Chinese that I struggled to understand. Then I figured it out: he wanted 30 yuan for the ride. The Germans couldn't believe his audacity and refused to pay any more than what the meter said. But the driver had the upper-hand – our backpacks were locked in the trunk. I finally caved and paid the man. I was elated to be out of Vietnam, where many people saw me as a walking ATM, but now I understood that this treatment would continue for a bit longer. If you are a Chinese taxi driver and you can read this, please understand that foreigners are human beings who do not have infinite money. It is disrespectful to your country to charge them two and a half times the going rate for a ride.

The three of us boarded a train bound for Kunming, a small city of three million, about five hours away. Our tickets were for a sleeper car, with beds stacked three high. But instead of using all of the bunks, everyone sat on the bottom one, four to a bed. I ignored this convention and went straight to the top bunk, where I organized my backpack. Soon I felt a yank on my foot, and then I heard a continuous, angry shout. I turned around and saw a train employee who reminded me of Nurse Ratched. Apparently, the “convention” of sitting on the bottom bed was actually a “rule.” After I climbed down, Nurse Rached yelled at me some more, then stormed off. Per an eery custom in China, everyone else around us was locked into a distant gaze, as if completely unaware of the scene unfolding before them.

I sat on the bottom bed next to the Germans and listened as two of the Chinese passengers played violent shoot-em-up movies on their phones, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear. Nurse Ratched had no problem with this. But whenever she walked past, she always stopped and checked the top bunk to make sure I wasn't there. I crouched low, though not by choice – the middle bunk above my head prohibited me from sitting up straight. I bit my lip whenever Nurse Ratched made her rounds, not wanting to find out what they did with rule-breakers in China.

The train soon entered a dark tunnel. It took a full five minutes for us to emerge into the bright sunshine, and then we promptly entered another tunnel. This pattern continued for two hours. I marveled at this fete of engineering. Kunming is about 200 miles from Hekou as the mole burrows, and for a while I thought we would spend the entire trip underground. But then we exited another tunnel and crossed a long bridge, high over a canyon. We were gifted with jaw-dropping views of the gorge far below, and of the mountains, towering overhead. Later the sun set and the full moon rose from behind the mountains, putting the final touch on our scenic ride.

We arrived in Kunming at 10:30, with necks and backs sore from crouching. But before stretching our bodies, or even leaving the train station, we bought tickets for the 17-hour journey to Chengdu the following night. There were no sleeper tickets left, so we would have to sit in hard seats. This trip was turning into a repeat of my journey to Inner Mongolia, half a year prior.

The taxi drivers were all over us when we left the train station. We gave one of them the name of a hostel; he wanted 50 rmb for the trip. That was far too much money, but at least he told us his price beforehand. The Germans could not accept this. They insisted that we find a driver who would use his meter. Obviously they hadn't been in China very long. We wasted half an hour in our search, then finally caved and negotiated one driver down to 30 rmb.

The ride to the hostel was shorter than the price justified, but still not within walking distance. An old man wearing a brown fedora and smoking a cigarette was working at the desk. He clearly didn't speak a word of English, because he handed us a card explaining that we would have to wait until morning to check in. Then he led us to a nice room with rock-hard beds. I blew up my air mattress and passed out, after one of the longest and most bizarre days of my trip.

* * *
Picture of blossoms.

Peach blossoms.

The next day, while the Germans slept in, I walked to Green Lake Park, one of the largest in the city. As I neared the lake, the sound of screeching seagulls overwhelmed my ears. We were nowhere near an ocean, so I didn't understand how so many of these pests could be concentrated in one place. I looked around and soon understood: vendors were selling little loaves of bread to the locals, who broke off small pieces and held them out for the birds to swoop in and take mid-flight. The locals were having the time of their lives. The boats, and everything else near the shore, were covered in guano.

I walked across a bridge and the seagull madness gradually abated. The cacophony was replaced with something much more pleasant. Many groups of Chinese people were singing, dancing and playing instruments to large crowds. Most of the performers were middle-aged or elderly. Spring was in the air; the peach blossoms and tulips were in full bloom. It was wonderful to stroll through the park, constantly taking in the flowers and the song and dance. In my time away, I had forgotten how alive Chinese parks felt.

I also walked through an outdoor market with lots of trinkets for sale. It wasn't very different from many other Asian markets I had been to, apart from the fact that nobody pestered me to buy anything. This was a pleasant change from Cambodia and Vietnam, and it showed me that China (or at least much of the country) had yet to be spoiled by mass tourism.

Picture of lake.

A guy cleaning the lake.

The Germans and I reunited late in the day for our trip to Chengdu. Luckily, our train car was nearly empty. Philip and Jan each took two seats across the aisle from me. I sprawled across my three-seat bench and fell asleep. Luckily this time there was no Nurse Rached to chew me out.

Picture of tulips.

Tulips in the park.

I felt a yanking on my foot sometime in the middle of the night. Nurse Rached? Nope. I sat up and saw that the entire car was now packed with people, including two who were none-too-happy that I was occupying their seats. Many of these new passengers were shouting at each other, apparently to decide which of them would have to stand for the next eight hours. Eventually a family occupied the remaining seats around me. Two filthy four-year-olds with mohawks sat to my left. One of them fell asleep right away, but the other one struggled. I felt bad for him and handed him my pillow. His mom crawled onto the floor – the same floor where people were spitting and throwing their peanut shells – and fell asleep under the seats. I wished I had thought of that first. Instead, I leaned forward and lay my head on my hands, on the table between the benches. When I woke, my hands were numb. I awkwardly flopped them onto my lap and lay my head directly on the table. Fears of amputation kept me awake for most of the night. Eventually I must have drifted off, though, because I opened my eyes and was disoriented by the darkness. Shouldn't dawn have come by now? But then I was blinded by the light of the outside world. We had just exited yet another scary-long tunnel.

The train remained packed all morning, to the point where I couldn't even move my feet without hitting a neighbor or someone sleeping on the floor. The kid I had given my pillow to was now slapping his brother and laughing. Occasionally one of them would tackle the other onto my lap. I liked the fact that kids were free to be kids in this culture (or at least in some facets of it), but not when it came in the form of pouncing on my sleep-deprived body.

We arrived in Chengdu, a medium-sized city of five million, at one in the afternoon. Hundreds of people shoved their way off of the train and funneled through a tunnel. We reached a single narrow staircase with no escalators, and everyone had to drag their suitcases up, forming a giant bottleneck. It seemed to take another 17 hours just to exit the station.

Once we were finally outside, the Germans and I parted ways. They had slept as little as me the previous night, yet the crazy bastards were going leave in a few hours for yet another overnight trip. I wished them luck in maintaining their sanity for the next few weeks and made my way toward a hostel. After a couple of really long days of travel from Vietnam, I was now deep into Chinese territory, and in great need of a nap.

More Kunming photos

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