Taking an extended time off to travel is a dream come true and we’re having a lot of fun. Every day brings something new, we get to see beautiful things and meet great people. But it’s not all roses, so to add some perspective, let me share a story from last week.
Friday, February 24. We’re about to leave the villages of Chengyang in the province of Guangxi in southwestern China for the town of Kaili in the province of Guizhou. On the map, the distance is about 326 kilometres. It’s a grey day with intermittent rain. It’s cold enough for us to use our winter jackets, but we’re not freezing.
9:48: Our host literally pushes us out the door. I imagine he’s worried we won’t make our train and spend another night, forcing him to cook unusual stuff from the menu again, although it’s low season and he could spend the evening with his friends in front of a Chinese soap. I’m tempted to ask for take-away just to see the look on his face.
We wait for a minibus at the village entrance for about 15 minutes. The police and the ticket vendors (yes, in China, “old villages” have an entrance fee) eye us carefully. We squeeze our backpacks into the back of a grey minivan and board together with a young local. This driver is much more laid back than the Räikkönen who got us out here. He stays below 50 km/h on the small road most of the time and picks people up as he spots them: A tiny, bent-over woman who must be well over 80 years old, a lady with vegetables, an old couple carrying a grandchild in a beautifully embroidered baby-carrier.
10:45. We stop at Sanjiang’s west bus station, cross the river to the east bus station, where we’re supposed to find a city bus to take us to the south train station. In smaller cities, the fast trains tend to arrive at new stations quite far out of town. We ask the ticket vendors at the bus station and get a Chinese answer with some waving in the direction of the freelance taxi drivers. We try to make sense of the bus signs outside and make the mistake of asking some of the middle-aged men waiting around. Taxi, they say. One of the drivers sees his chance. “Can I help you?” he says in English. We explain that we’re looking for the bus, we don’t need a taxi. “I take you. 40 yuan.” Still no. “My taxi. 30 yuan. My taxi or no way.” We decline again. The men laugh and the driver walks off, muttering.
We already know this, but to repeat: Never ask a Chinese man over 40 for help. You’re a foreigner and you should pay the taxi asking price.
We switch tactics and cross the street, heading for the young girl in the pharmacy. With our best bus impression and several attempts to pronounce train station in Chinese, she gets it and draws us a map. Following her suggestions, we confirm with another girl directing pedestrians at a chaotic crossroads.
Solution: Your best bet for real help here is to ask young women. Second comes young men with a school boy look and older women. Stay away from the old guys.
11:25. “Where are you going?” Out of the blue, we’re addressed in English by a woman in her early 20s. Coincidence will have it that she and her friend are also heading for the train station. We decide to catch a bus together, but soon another (quieter and calmer) driver approaches the girls and now we have a better deal. Taxi for 5 yuan a head. Off we go.
It’s great to have an easy conversation for once. We chat with the girl, who’s studying business English in Nanning, about her home town, studies, future plans and our trip. She’s happy to get some language practice. “We don’t see a lot of foreigners here,” she says, adding that when she graduates she’d want to show Sanjiang to visitors from abroad.
11:50. The girls pick up the ticket they need and head back to town. We’re in for a long wait in the unhospitable train station and arm ourselves with chips and cookies.
This really is outside the standard tourist route and we’re an unusual sight. Two kids nearby watch us, hide their faces, then look again. It’s a game where they study us, but when we spot them they hide with mommy. The parents are amused. The old woman diagonally opposed me gives us a constant, unabashed stare. She chews on something for a long time. Looking me straight in the eye, she puts her hand out and spits whatever it is out into it. We keep eye contact. She discusses us with her less interested husband. Comments are made on our chips, I’d say. Some teenagers come up for selfies and others simply take photos without announcement. Oh, have we gotten used to “casual” selfies where we “accidentally” fit in the background.13:32. The new fast train to Duyun gets us out of a more than 10-hour bus ride. It’s quiet and efficient and we arrive in no time.
14:39. It’s raining for real in Duyun. We wander around the depressing station grounds, navigating between the freelance drivers shouting Kaili at us. They realize where we’re going. A police officer directs us to the local bus stop, annoying the drivers. Here we spot something unusual: Another westerner. A quiet one, he confirms that bus #1 goes to the Duyun bus terminal and that there should be plenty of intercity busses heading to our destination. The conversation ends there. No bonding among fellow strangers this time. Little did we know, but he was to be the only non-Chinese we would see during our week in Guizhou.
15:00. Bus #1 from Duyun’s east train station to Duyun bus terminal. Main event: Bus fills up with school children in their early teens. There’s a lot of pointing, whispers and a few hellos from the brave ones. I try to look at the city, but the window’s fogged up. I spot a large football stadium and traffic.
15:40. We make our way through another horde of drivers looking for customers into the dark, busy station. Inside, a large screen is showing videos of horrifying bus accidents. Filmed by the camera installed on every bus ceiling, you see people try to hold on to their seats when disaster strikes, but every single one flies out the window. Then images of an upside-down bus and bodies spread across the grounds. It’s spectacular footage that sends chills down your spine. Very reassuring. Why show it, you may ask. It’s to motivate people to put their seatbelts on.
16:10. The same video loop continues on the screen inside the bus and I try not to see this as a sign that we should have taken trains via Guiyang to Kaili instead. The ticket agents were trying to scare us into that option by saying that China’s bus drivers are “killers” – that’s their actual words – but we didn’t want to give them the extra sale that easily. Now I’m starting to wonder if this will be the day when the appalling driving here finally ends in an accident. The added police presence doesn’t help – we have two officers go through the bus for unknown reasons – and the driver repeatedly redirects passengers from the middle seat in the back to seats where there are belts.
18:00. We don’t die. The driving’s bad, but we get to Kaili. Somewhere in the traffic jams at the end of this trip my patience starts to wear off. It’s been a long, grey, wet day that’s unlikely to come to any kind of beautiful ending. We’re tired and fed up with transport, the yelling, the shoving, the spitting and the constant loud hawking that comes before the spitting. (All busses have trash and spit buckets, should you need them.)
18:10. Backpacks on again. The street outside the station is full of cars, vans, pedicabs, scooters, taxis, freelance drivers, busses, dogs, people and a million food carts. It’s a jumble without straight lines. Old women carry vegetables in baskets hanging from a bamboo stick they place across one shoulder. Old men walk slowly down the street. Students on their way from school eat noodles from paper cups and comment us loudly. Mothers carry their small children in colourful baby-carriers on their backs. Drivers shout for customers. About a third of Guizhou’s population is made up of minorities and you see a lot of different clothing and women with their hair in buns on top of their heads, decorated with big flowers or pearls. Up close, I notice most buns aren’t real hair, but fisherman’s yarn. You smell the exhaust fumes mixed with tobacco smoke, some kind of chilli spice and old frying oil. The rain has stopped, but the whole scene feels damp. Grey clouds hang low, just above us, threatening more water.
We join some 30 others at the bus stop and wait for #9. It’s a popular bus and very full. Standing, we try to keep our balance during the sharp starts and stops. The two-year-old girl on the seat next to me sings and draws with her fingers in the window condensation.
Kaili won’t win any beauty pageants, but if someone ever organizes a competition for most congested traffic in a city of half a million inhabitants, I’d say it has a good chance at the gold medal.
18:40. It’s almost dark when we get off the bus, but we find our bed for the night fast: 7 Days Inn, a cheap hotel chain we already tried in Harbin. Just like then, the reception staff doesn’t seem to know what to do with us, but after some communication via the translation app on Christophe’s phone we pay our fee and get our key.
18:57: We enter our room. There’s some humidity problems and you can step through the top layer on part of the floor, but the heating works and the toilet flushes.
20:00. Our quest for food in the neighbourhood resulted in two cups of our standard brand of instant noodles. Sitting in bed, I swear it’s the last ones I’ll ever eat – a promise I know I’m bound to break in a few days.
On this trip, the journey is as important as the destination. Going somewhere is not just transport, it’s a chance to live with the locals. Mostly we love it, but this day felt extra long and exhausting. We celebrated in style with food poisoning the following day. (The noodles were innocent, in case you’re wondering.)