July 25th, 2010
Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

We’re in Kunming, a city of about one million people in China’s south-west province of Yunnan. Our voyage here was long, tedious, and uncomfortable, and I am now going to relate it to you in great detail, which I am sure you will enjoy.

I did manage to sleep on the train, although not very well. I woke up every twenty minutes or so to grindings and creakings and rain hammering on the roof. We all woke up for good at about five o’clock in the morning when the train rolled into Lao Cai station and the crew started hammering on our cabin door. They continued to hammer on the door, and yell at us after we opened it, telling us “TIME TO GET OFF TRAIN,” even though we were clearly packing our things annd putting our shoes on. A railway man outside, similarly displeased by our failure to immediately teleport out of the train, started shining his flashlight in the window and banging on it with his fist.

“Shut up!” Chris said. “We’re coming!”

“Just a few more hours in this country,” I muttered.

The conductor eventually went off to harass some other less than prompt tourists, and we bid farewell to our Welsh cabin-mates and walked out of the train station into the blue pre-dawn light. It was raining lightly, and everyone was huddled under the eaves of the building. “Let’s get a hotel room,” Chris said.

“You reckon?”

“I didn’t sleep at all and we have fourteen hours to kill. Come on.”

We ran through the rain, across the road and straight into the Terminus Hotel. The manager let us stay in a room until noon for 200, 000 dong. It was a step down from the New Century, but it had beds and a toilet, which was good enough.

Before we fell asleep, Chris tried to fix the wall fan, which was making a squeaking noise. He fiddled with it for a few minutes before giving up and going back to bed. It was annoying me, though, so I tried myself a few moments later, and got electrocuted by an exposed wire.

“Arrgggh, fuck!” I yelled.

Chris laughed. “You idiot.”

“Dude! I just got electrocuted!”

“Yeah. So did I. I just didn’t act like a baby about it.”

“It fucking hurt. It thought I’d got my hand caught in the blades.”

Chris laughed again. “At least now I have an accurate gauge of your pain threshhold.”

We managed to get an hour or so of sleep each. At about 11.30 we checked out, left our bags in our lobby and went off to find breakfast. Lao Cai was a quiet, drizzly little town. We had our last fill of Vietnamese coffee and pho at a corner cafe, and then jumped in a taxi for the three k’s to the Chinese border.

Passing through Vietnamese border control was a mild hassle. The guard took about twenty minutes to look over my passport, and made a phone call. Eventually he determined that I was neither an imperialist spy nor a cocaine smuggler, and waved me through. Chris’ took slightly less time. We also got approached by a very persistent tout who wanted to change our Vietnamese dong into Chinese yuan. I actually wasn’t sure if there were any ATMs in Hekou, on the Chinese side, so I haggled him up to something closer to the actual exchange rate and got about 300 yuan for my million dong. I think I lost about 10 AUD there, which I can live with.

 

I’d expected the Chinese border to be quite intimidating. I mean… it’s China. But it wasn’t like that at all. As we crossed the bridge over the river, one of the guards said hello to us and asked the perennial question “where you from?” Another was quite adept at English, and chatted to us while we were filling out our immigration cards.

“You are brothers?”

“No, just friends.”

‘”I think you look like brothers!”

“Haha, no. Just friends.”

“How old you?”

“I’m 20, he’s 21.”

“Ah. You join army?”

Chris paused. “Wh.. uh… no. We’re going to England. To work.”

The guard smiled and nodded and wandered off. “What the hell?” Chris whispered.

“I think he was asking if we have national service in Australia,” I said. Although I had, for a moment, thought he was inviting us to join the PLA. I don’t think I’d do particularly well in that army.

We passed through Chinese customs quickly, shook off a few touts who were hanging around on the other side, and plunged into the quiet little border town of Hekou. Immediately outside of the customs house was a long street lined with shops; I’d assume the Vietnamese cross the border to buy cheap, shitty clothes and electronics. We wandered around for a while looking for the bus station, before I eventually gave in and dug my China Lonely Planet out of my bag. I’d put it there because I’d been told the Chinese guards often confiscated copies, due to the map depicting Taiwan as a separate country (and the book probably contains a multitude of other facts the Party doesn’t like). We used the glossary section to point at “long-distance bus,” and were eventually directed to a terminal that had been right under our noses the whole time.

The girl at the desk spoke a few words of English, and we managed to secure two tickets on a ten-hour sleeper bus that departed Kunming at eight. That was about six hours away. We plonked our bags down an waited.

China, on first impressions, gave me very strong nostalgia for the 80’s and for old movies and video games. I’m not sure why. I think it’s the alphabet, for some reason.

It wasn’t long before an American guy showed up, who was also headed for Kunming. His name was Craig and he was a very surprising forty years old, a former New York businessman who’d become a keen traveller and trekker. We chatted to him for a while, which ate up a lot of time.

I also visited the bus station’s bathroom, which was… Chris described it as “amazing,” which it was, if you think laterally about the word. Lonely Planet warns that China and India have the worst public toilets in the entire world, and for once they aren’t exaggerating. The toilet at the bus station in Hekou is basically a room with two trenches running down either side, a thin trickle of water flowing down them, partitioned into tiny cubicles – but with no doors. A true public toilet. It’s a squat toilet, of course, but it doesn’t even have a basic porcelain frame like the ones in South-East Asia usually do. It’s literally just a hole in the ground. The smell is beyond description. There’s nothing to clean your ass with, not even a bucket of water, which even the most basic of Cambodian hovels have. I have no idea what they do after they shit.

I only had to pee. If I’d had to take a dump, I would have shelled out the $20 for a hotel room. There are some things I am simply not capable of doing.

I went back to the bus terminal and we sat around talking some more. Some more Americans showed up: a twenty-something guy from North Carolina who worked with water treatment just south of Kunming, and who was returning from vacation in Vietnam with his brother and sister.

Eventually the sleeper bus arrived, and we stowed our packs in the cargo space before climbing aboard. The Americans had gone in before us, and I could hear them saying, “You gotta be kidding me.” I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

A sleeper bus consists of three aisles of bunks, two deep, arranged so that the “sleepers” (haha, there’ll be none of that) are horizontally in line with the bus, feet forward, heads back. I was in the middle row, on the bottom, at the very back; Chris was to my right, at the bottom of the starboard row.

 

How the Chinese sleep on these things is a mystery to me. It was clear as soon as I lay down on the bunk (which, at 180 centimetres, I didn’t quite fit) that there would be no sleep. I mean… it’s a bus. “I can’t imagine why these haven’t caught on in the back home,” I said.

I had to pee before the bus took off, so I paid another 10 cents to venture into that awful, awful place. I forgot to mention that – you have to pay for the privilege of accessing the craphole. I stood there at the urinal (another trench, this one without even water), trying not to breathe, thinking “This country’s landscapes are going to have to be pretty fucking spectacular to make up for its toilets and buses.”

I got back on the bus just before it pulled out of the terminal. I took my shoes off and made myself as comfortable as possible. They provide you with blankets but not pillows, so I bunched mine up behind my head. I sat there for a while watching cockroaches crawl around on the floor, before putting in my iPod to drown out the sound of the engine behind my head, and shifting my gaze to the window. It was nighttime by then, but it was also overcast, and this part of China is populous enough that all the lights reflect off the clouds. I could make out the mountains outlined against them, and lights along the ridges, and sometimes we’d pass huge valleys with cities and towns laid out in them.

I was feeling a little homesick. Part of it was leaving Kristie again, part of it was that I really didn’t want to be on that fucking sleeper bus, and part of it was that this was the first time in two months that we’d entered a new country. I was looking out the window at a landscape I knew absolutely nothing about; at distant towns and cities I had never heard of.

China is something of an unknown element. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are relatively small and Westernised countries. They’re easy to wrap your head around. We were in Vietnam for two months, and I didn’t like it, but I did get to know it. I knew its geography, I knew its basic phrases, I knew the VD-AUD exchange rate off by heart, I knew its scams and its tricks… it was manageable.

China is huge. China is something that, apart from a string of planned destinations in Yunnan and Sichuan, I know next-to-nothing about. That can be slightly frightening, especially when watching a dark landscape rush past your bus window in the middle of the night, but it can also be refreshing. I like entering a new place and getting a real sense that it’s new and different. South-East Asian countries are all pretty similar, and I don’t think I’ve had a jolt like that since we crossed the Malaysian border and witnessed the poverty in Thailand (which later paled in comparison to Cambodia’s, but by then the shock was muted). I suppose losing that feeling of shock and change is part of becoming a more seasoned traveller. I hope it doesn’t go away entirely. It throws you well out of your comfort zone, and it’s one of my favourite parts. Not a pleasant sensation, but one that I value nonetheless.

We stopped at some nameless roadside food joint at midnight, where there was another abysmal toilet out the back. I would hate to be a female traveller in this country. We stood around outside stretching our legs and talking to the Americans while we waited for the bus driver to finish eating.

“You know what I noticed in there?” Chris said. “There’s no toilet paper or hose or bucket or anything. They’re just shitting, pulling their pants back up… and getting on our bus.”

“I’ve got a business idea,” Craig said. “I’m going to install markedly better toilets all over China and charge slightly more to use them.”

“You can call it Craig’s Dunnies,” Chris said.

“Craig’s Crappers,” I said. “You shouldn’t work in marketing.”

My stomach was cramping up. I suspected that meant I had to take a dump, but my body knew perfectly well what kind of situation we were in, and was preventing matter from going any further than my intestines. It was painful, but I was more than happy with my body making that decision.

 

We got back on the bus and took off into the night again. More cockroaches seemed to have crawled aboard while we’d parked. They were just little ones, though, which I somehow find far more tolerable.

“Don’t squish them,” I said. “There’ll just be more.”

“Yeah, but this one’s on my bed,” Chris said.

It wasn’t until around 1 am – the halfway point – that I actually started to get tired. I lay down as best I could, flipping around from side to side, with my arms folded over my chest. My wallet and iPod were still in my pockets, which was uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to put them in my unsecured bag on the floor next to me.

We were hitting a huge amount of potholes, too, which caused a lot of jolts and jarring. I guess the road between Hekou and Kunming isn’t the Yunnan government’s highest priority. Because I was so exhausted, I actually managed to drift off around 3 am, but was woken again around 4 am as the poholes started up once more. I completely emerged from the sleep I’d so desperately earned just in time to experience the worst one of the night: a bump that threw almost everybody on the bus into the ceiling or bunk above them, as though we were on a plane that had hit clear air turbulence and suddenly dropped a hundred feet. This was punctuated by shouts and screams in Chinese, and cries of “Arrgh!” and “Fuck!” and “My fucking head!” from us and the Americans.

“China is not endearing itself to me,” I mumbled, rubbing my forehead where I’d smashed it against the bunk above me.

“This isn’t enjoyable,” Chris said. “It’s like being tied to a trampoline, and you don’t get to decide when to bounce.”

“And there’s cockroaches crawling everywhere and Chinese men blowing cigarette smoke in your face,” I said. “And it goes all night, so you don’t get to sleep.”

“I think a normal bus is better,” Chris said. “We can stretch out on this, but discomfort is worse than sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is torture… I miss my bike.”

“How are you doing, Craig?” I called. “Having fun?”

He looked back from his bunk a few positions ahead. “Yeah. I’m getting air.”

Overall, we did spend way too much time in the air on the bus. It wasn’t the roaches, it wasn’t the smoke, it wasn’t the tiny beds, it wasn’t even the difficulty sleeping. It was the fact that I had to keep one hand pressed against the bottom of the bunk above me, so I wouldn’t suddenly fly into it and break my nose.

We arrived at Kunming bus station around dawn without further incident, and were hit by the usual mob of touts straight off the bus. It was a significantly smaller crowd than you’d get in South-East Asia, however, and they spoke virtually no English. This meant we could quite easily ignore them, which is a very liberating thing to do after three months of being treated like an ATM with legs every time you disembark from anything whatsoever – even tuk-tuk drivers hailing you as soon as you get out of a tuk-tuk. We did need a cab, however, so we selected a man at random and showed him the guidebook, pointing at the Chinese name of the Kunming Cloudland Youth Hostel. Craig was feeling well-rested and bold after a night that Chris and I would dub “torturous” and “soul-destroying,” so he decided to hop on a bus for Dali (our next port-of-call). I wouldn’t be surprised if we run into him again; he’s planning pretty much the same Tibet-skirting route we are.

Our taxi – which was really a rickety minivan with seats not bolted to the floor – took us over the hills outside the bus station and onto a road that treated us to a spectacular view of Kunming. Neither of us had realised it was quite so large, nor quite so… Chinese. I really should have learned to read between the lines in Lonely Planet by now. I’d expected Kunming to be a fairly pleasant place, but it’s really just the same drab collection of concrete communist building blocks that you find all over this part of the world. Oh, and another thing: whenever Lonely Planet says “laidback,” it’s code for “boring.”

It is cold, though. I can say that for it. It sits at an elevation of 1892 metres and the temperature today never went above 23 C. Since this is the lowest of all the places we’ll be visiting in Yunnan (and most of Sichuan), this means our sweating days are over for a while, which makes me happy as a clam.

What didn’t make me happy as a clam was arriving at Cloudland and learning that they were fully booked. They were nice enough to make some phone calls for us (and let me use their toilet), and said they could find only one other reasonably priced hotel in the area with an available room. It was Singapore all over again.

What hadn’t occurred to us was that in South-East Asia it’s the rainy season right now, which means it’s the low season. We never had trouble finding accommodation; in fact, we were usually spoiled for choice and would pick the best out of three or four. But in China it’s summer, which is the high season. We have to get back into the habit of booking ahead.

We got a taxi to take us to the Camelia Hotel, had a great breakfast at the hostel attached to it, and then Chris went to sleep while I went for a walk. Neither of us desire to remain in Kunming for long, so I thought I’d go for a walk to the train station. It was about 5 or 6 k’s away, but that didn’t bother me, since I had plenty of time to kill.

The differences between China and Vietnam are stark. The standard of living seems to be higher, at least in Kunming. There are very few motorbikes and nice, broad footpaths along all the major streets, which is a welcome change after endless weeks of dodging motorbikes in the street because there are too many motorbikes parked on the footpath for you to walk along it. There are no hawkers constantly waving at you; you’re still a novelty to be stared at, but you can walk the streets in peace.

This city also displays China’s penchant for building big, huge things out of concrete and steel and glass. Kunming has a smaller population than Perth, but a hell of a lot more skyscrapers and apartment buildings.

 

And, unfortunately, they’re quite ugly. To be fair it was a damp and overcast day, but Kunming strikes me as a fairly gloomy city – a utilitarian place of industry and business.

Back on the plus side, though, there are traffic rules here. And – crazier still – drivers seem to obey them! What a novel idea!

Another random observation: the Chinese do spit, but not as much as I’d anticipated. They really get into it when they do, though. A big, throaty, drawn-out, lung-erupting hock of phlegm. It’s as though about ten per cent of the population has some awful throat infection.

I eventually made it to the train station, and it became apparent more or less immediately that me booking train tickets was not a thing that was going to happen. The place was swarming with people. There were maybe thirty or forty automatic ticket machines lined up against a wall, and each machine had a queue of at least 100 people behind it. It was mind-boggling. This photo shows just a fraction; there were ten times more beyond the doors in the background.

 

It’s almost as though China has a really high population or something.

I suspect it was probably busier than usual because it was a weekend, but that didn’t help me. Nor did the fact that everything was in Chinese. I eventually found a woman at a help desk who spoke a few words of English – enough to direct me to the area where the ticketing machines and their thousands of patrons were.

A bus to Dali it was.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped at McDonalds for lunch (Oh, Mitch, I’m so disappointed in you, I thought you were a traveller of the world, trying new things, sampling exotic flavours, blah blah blah). While I was eating I was approached by an old Chinese guy who was nearly fluent in English. He enunciated his words really firmly, almost as though he was shouting, but once I realised he wasn’t crazy I talked to him for more than an hour. He was a really nice guy, and quite interesting. He was riding his bicycle all over China; he wanted to ride to Myanmar and Laos but he didn’t have a passport. Surprise surprise, the Chinese government tightly restricts access to such things, and it’s not just a matter of forking out $200 like in the West. I told him about our trip so far, and where we were planning to go, and he said I was very lucky to have a European passport as well as an Australian one. (And I certainly am). He also talked about being a secret Christian, and helping American missionaries in the 1980’s stay under the radar while working in western China. Apparently Buddhism is tolerated, but Christianity is not. I’m not the biggest fan of evengelicals, but neither do I appreciate attacks on freedom of religion.

Come to think of it, I think I might keep quiet about the Chinese government while I’m here. They have the most pervasive Internet censorship in the world, including thousands of full-time police who monitor the activities of individuals, and while I doubt a Western tourist would get in trouble for that, I’d rather not risk it. Expect a frank assessment once we’re in Mongolia (which, curiously, has some of the least restricted Internet in the world; even more permissive than Europe and Australia). Until then I’ll bite my tongue, and I think I’ll remove the Chinese man’s name from the passage up above.

It’s still a pain in the ass anyway. Access to WordPress comes and goes; Facebook is out of the question, as are any google result pages containing the words “proxy,” and about 90% of images on any given website won’t display. I already have two proxies I was using in Vietnam, but apparently the Chinese are a bit more savvy and have figured out how to block those too. Like Vietnam, however, they disguise their censorship as a technical error. Bastards.

Anyway, after leaving McDonalds, I headed back to the hotel (getting quite lost along the way) and informed Chris we’d have to take a bus. We went downstairs and booked them at the travel agent here in the hotel – I’ve no idea why he doesn’t do the same service for train tickets. They cost us 163 yuan, which is about $30 AUD. The sleeper bus was about $28, and the room we’re in tonight is about $18 each – although that’s only because our hand was forced. I have to keep reminding myself that while China may be more expensive than South-East Asia, it’s still leagues cheaper than anywhere in the West. Funny how quickly you get used to local prices.

I like all the little things about shifting country. New language, new alphabet, new people, new aesthetics, new power outlets (which fit Australian, very nice), new money. The yuan is a way more sensible currency than the dong. It uses reasonable numbers like “10” and “50” instead of “15,000” and “200,000.” It’s huge, though. The notes stick out of my wallet. Every time I get it out it’s clear to any onlookers that I’m carrying a wad equivalent to $400 AUD. And, like the Vietnamese dong, every single bill has its respective country’s communist leader on it. Not even in different poses or anything. The same picture for every note. It’s confusing and annoying.

I’m starting to feel the fatigue of not sleeping for days catching up on me. I think we’ll go find a nice restaurant for dinner, then sleep, then catch a bus to Dali tomorrow morning. Yes, that sounds just dandy.

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