Guangxi to Guizhou in nine hours and six modes of transport

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.

 

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Chengyang Bridge.

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.

 

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Our new friends from Sanjiang.

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.)

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The bus station in Kaili.

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.

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Kaili. The picture’s unfair, as the traffic’s very light, but no one had the time or energy to pull out a camera or phone during peak rush hour.

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.)

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7 Days Inn. The sweet end of a long day.
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On our way to Hong Kong ! 

Just made it!!! Both Eva and me were convinced the train departure was in the afternoon. But actually it was leaving at 11:41 and I realised this at 9:20 in the morning after waking up calmly and taking it easy, because we had so much time left… . If we wouldn’t be in one of the biggest cities in the world, Shanghai, I wouldn’t have reacted as stressed. 

Why do these situations always occur when it’s important ? For us it was important because during this season trains generally are sold out for Chinese New Year and we have to leave the country to not overstay in China.
Shanghai – Shenzhen will take us 18hours, it is slow and I can’t help to have a nostalgic feeling of our russian adventures. This because we are traveling in a sleeper train equivalent to the platskart (3rd class) in Russia but Chinese style. The Chinese version is rougher and dirtier but it has all the ingredients of making an epic journey :

  • kids staring at us
  • people shouting in the wagon 
  • a person sitting at the opposite of me in statuesque like manner, really impressive this from 11:41 – 23:58. How does he do it? Is he medidating?
  • salesmen walking around, selling their food. It looks good, but nooooo way I won’t fall for the trap and sit for hours on the toilet
  • a very friendly women talking to us in English about her life and sharing chocolate. That’s always a winner with me
  • a cute couple giggling next to me. I tried to socialise with them, without success though. As far as I understood they went to Shanghai for holidays and are now on their way home to Ganzhou to celebrate New Year with their family (this like the majority of the passengers I assume)
  • a guy telling Eva that I’m handsome, cool I’ll take any compliments since I’m starting to look like Tom Hanks in Castaway…
  • yezzzz I can stretch my legs completely without anyone bumping continuously against my feet
  • fireworks being launched in the villages we pass by
  • 21:30 “LIGHTS OUT!” was yelled loudly by the carriage attendant and a couple of minutes later all lights were out and no noice was to be heard. Really impressive. In Russia people would still be talking/whispering, drinking together, singing, playing guitare… . Yeps this is definitely Chinese style 🙂
  • waw I can see the stars shining, beautiful, how fitting together with Coldplay’s Midnight, goosebumps

I’m enjoying the ride so far and try to occupy myself by listening to music and reminisce about our travels. Thinking about the places we have been to, the people we have met,… 

It’s been now almost 9 months Eva and me started this trip. It’s an amazing experience, I never thought I’d be able to handle this. These were so far the challenges I encountered.

You need to :

  • adapt yourself continuously, you are a guest and not home
  • find ways to make yourself understood, some people will do effort to try to understand you and many won’t 
  • learn to accept that you are a passenger. You will have to say goodbye to great people you meet and amazing places you go to. This for me has always been difficult and still is. I hate goodbye’s…
  • learn to not be scared of strangers, be focussed and observant of what’s happening around you and trust the right people, some people will try to get the better of you and you have other people that will dedicate a part of their day giving you a helping hand without asking for anything in return.
  • enjoy the now, the time is here and now, so be present. In the beginning of the trip I was continuously thinking about pictures I should take or stories I should tell to share with family and friends without focussing with what mattered and was happening in front of me
  • be aware that there are times you’ll be homesick. I miss my family and I’m looking forward meeting them again

06:15 the lights are on, we are the only ones but 4 left in carriage number 9 and are soon arriving in Shenzhen. Afterwards we’ll leave China and head to the mythical Hong Kong. Let’s get ready…

Arrival in Vladivostok

Connecting Moscow and Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian railroad is 9,288 km long. We arrived in Vladivostok 80 days after leaving Helsinki. Including detours, we had travelled more than 13,000 km by the time we reached the cross-country train terminus. It was a summer on the move, a good one.

We mainly used platzkart, the Russian third class, where the wagons accommodate 54 passengers and you sleep in bunk beds, six organized together so that they create a common space. However, for the last leg between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok – a 13-hour night train – we went for two bunks in kupe, second class, sharing a compartment with a young, female army officer and an older woman who spent most of her awake time with friends in another compartment.

We loved Vladivostok. Just as much as we loved St Petersburg (in my case – Christophe will still put SPB a notch higher than Vlad). It’s rather perfect that the two cities are located on opposite ends of the country for anyone wanting to cross it. You start off somewhere wonderful and you end somewhere beautiful, no matter if you go east or west. Both are located by the sea – something we missed during the months in the middle of the continent. Another detail they have in common is smelt, a small fish which we ate in St Petersburg in May, as it was in season then. The (French speaking!) waitress told us the only other major city in Russia that would serve fresh smelt would be Vladivostok.

We passed a lot of nice towns in Russia, several which we felt we could have spent more time in, but Vladivostok is the kind of place where we could live. Get an apartment, a job, friends and habits. Walk through the fog on the way to work, watch the sunset at one of the western embankments, catch a gig at the Mumyi Troll bar and spend a summer weekend on one of the islands or a nearby beach.

Primorskiye nature is not far away and in the city we really liked the small alleys and courtyards where you could find all kinds of interesting shops and cafés.

A peculiar little detail we noticed: Vladivostok is close to Asia. It’s obvious for anyone with a map, of course, but elsewhere in the Asian part of Russia you only clearly see Asian tourists in Irkutsk and to some extent in Khabarovsk. I’m not counting people travelling for work or to see family. But Vladivostok had a lot of Chinese tourists – I suppose they take the direct trains and busses from Harbin – and you could regularly spot signs in Chinese around shops and restaurants.

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Asian products in the grocery store. This time mainly Korean, I’d say.
We visited Russky island twice, a place with a strong military history (note cannons and forts) and the brand new Far Eastern Federal University. Just in front of campus is a beach with a view of Vladivostok and the big bridge built for the 2012 APEC conference. Christophe was ready to sing the enrolment papers as soon as he realized he could get away with “studying” by the beach.

We heard you could rent bikes to see more of the island, so we did just that. “Bike around the campus” sounded a bit basic so we headed toward one of the bays further away. First there was the motorway to tackle, but we’ve spent enough time walking on Russian motorways (or equivalent) not to find that strange anymore, but we were sure to find a nice, quiet country road after that. Sure enough, the motorway ended in the middle of nowhere and you could choose between either going back or taking one of two dirt tracks. We turned down the track heading right, together with what seemed to be the rest of the day-trippers. It wasn’t pleasant. Come to think of it, it almost never is when we go biking in Russia. It was muddy, bumpy, long, hot and humid. All of which was fine. But then there was the traffic. It’s like you would have squeezed normal city traffic onto one small countryside road, which probably helps to explain the mud and the bumps. Our lungs turned another shade darker while we were cursing the four-wheeled feckers* showing absolute disregard to the rest of the world when bouncing forward to get to the coast first. One of the few poor sods in a normal-sized car – clearly losing the race – seemed to get stuck near one of the lake-sized puddles. My heart bleeds.

Bon, we arrived at a pretty pebble beach overflowing with Russian campers and it was all worth it. Some middle-aged Russian women in bikinis laughed in disbelief when we dragged our bikes between tents to a free spot by the water, asking just how long it would take us to get back. The cloudy sky had turned into full sun, the water felt like the Baltic Sea and between soaks we watched the people on standup paddleboards pass by and the fog come in. It’s so cool how that happens. You can really see this big, grey blanket roll in here, like a slow wave submerging the landscape bit by bit. The way back to campus was just as tough, but this time we lacked both energy and illusions. It might not sound good, but it was a great day. The satisfaction of managing, handing in the muddy bikes to the disbelieving guy who wondered what we had done when “bike around the campus” seemed to be the non-sludge activity of choice, and silently inhaling two ice creams each next to the corner shop while catching the last direct rays of sunlight. That was good.

We were walking down the Sportivnaya Nabarezhnaya embankment when we noted a lot of warships on the Amur Bay. Really, it was more than average, even by Khabarovsk standards. Then there were some loud bangs, which we realized were shots. Either the North Koreans had arrived or this was one of Russia’s military show-offs. The latter turned out to be right. How fitting that we arrived in Russia to see the Victory Day celebration in St Petersburg three months earlier and we caught the dress rehearsal for the Navy Day in Vladivostok just before leaving.

Our marvellous hosts Tatiana and Alex invited us to their hometown Ussuriysk, almost 100 km north of Vladivostok, to experience some real Russian banya at the dacha of Tatyana’s dad’s. We had tried banya at Uch-Enmek in the Altai Republic, but while that can only be described as a torture chamber of heat, the Ussuri version was pretty good. Warmer than the Finnish saunas I’m used to, but very manageable. We got the full treatment with two different veniks (bath brooms made of branches), homemade wine, delicious vegetables grown in the dacha garden and, of course, shashlik (grilled meat on a skewer).

On our last evening in Vladivostok Christophe and I went to the Tokarevsky lighthouse to watch the sun go down over the same sea we would cross the next day.

No matter how much you want to stay, every visa has a limit, or however that old saying goes. Thank you Russia for a great summer and thank you Tatiana, Alex and Vladivostok for a wonderful week. Hope to see you again.

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Bye bye Vladivostok, farewell Russia!

*Kudos to HR Pauline. It’s the only appropriate word to use.