June 14th 1984

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Chris and Val?

Another necessary early start this morning.  I’m not sure we’re being very sensible in pushing ourselves along quite so hard.  The organisational side of life in China is hard, strenuous even, + can only be borne with decent periods of rest between these harrowing travel experiences.  But it’s done now, + I’m sure we’ll survive.

Coffee + sponge was our usual breakfast, then downstairs with our bags.  We weren’t exactly sure where the bus station was, + had thought we might have to take a pedicab, but down in the lobby we discovered quite a few other travellers heading out to Dali, so we were able to get instructions for the local bus out there.  Arriving at the station, we found, as usual, that things were well-organised.  We were directed straight onto our bus, shown our assigned seat, +, with a great ringing of bells, the bus left promptly at 7.15.  We were in for a long journey, 10 or 11 hours, but it really wasn’t too bad.  Provided one is prepared for a trip like that, both physically, providing ourselves with books, snacks, etc, + mentally, they are bearable.  They’re certainly at least 97 times better than the equivalents in most of the Asian countries we’ve visited.  They’re not frantically overcrowded, there’s a decent amount of leg-room, + there are frequent stops.  Admittedly, lunch was pretty disgusting – the ticket system again, working seriously to the disadvantage of the non-Chinese speaker.  We’re rapidly going off ticket meals – just about their only advantage is that they’re cheap.

At another stop I chatted with a couple of fellow-travellers, an Irishman, who was alright, + a bloke from the north of England, who managed to get on my wick straight away with some sweeping + self-justifying statements about China – doubtless he had exactly the same opinion about me.

We were obviously over-eager to get out, all scrambling for the door at Chagwen, 20 mins before Dali, thinking we were already there.  It was quite a relief to discover we weren’t there yet, as Chagwen was an ugly little town, only leavened by a large white statue of Mao.  When we finally arrived at Dali, Val + I shot off sharpish.  We had a sketch map of the town, so had some idea where the hotel was.  The bus had stopped outside town, so there was a 15 min walk in.  We entered the town proper by a large + impressive formal gate.  Our map was not good enough to help us very much, which just shows us off for being selfish, I suppose.  After wandering about somewhat lost, we finally found the hotel, arriving there just a few yards ahead of our fellow-passengers from the bus.  Val was able to obtain a cheap dorm bed, but I had to be content with a more expensive bed in a 3 bed room.  It worked out very well, in fact, for Val was able to take advantage of the greater space + more pleasant atmosphere in my place.

The gate to the town

We made our way down to the town’s principal Western restaurant, the Garden, where we ate a fine, if considerably too large, meal.  That’s the problem with eating as a couple.  In order to obtain a sufficient variety, one is forced to eat too much.  We ate it all tho’.  In the evening, I listened to England being skittled by West Indies in the first test match.  Entirely predictable.  Apart from Gower, + sometimes Botham, I don’t think England rate as first-class any more.

An eleven hour jaunt might seem a bit extreme, but, as I explain, it really was entirely bearable. And Dali certainly seemed to be well worth it, being attractive, ethnic, different.

June 13th 1984

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Val in the Stone Forest

The bus to Xiling + the Stone Forest there left at 6.30, forcing an early start upon us.  The journey was about 3 hrs + was rather tedious.  It seemed rather foolish when we stopped for a meal just 20 mins before the end.  So we arrived at 11, + were told to report back to the bus for 3.  We thought having just 4 hours to look around might be pushing things a little, but it turned out to be more than enough.  The Stone Forest, the only attraction, was not a forest at all, but an area full of sharp towering granite crags, with maintained paths running higgledy-piggledy thro’ it.  It made an impressive phenomenon, + it was pleasant to wander at random, even tho’ the place was over-run with Chinese.  And, like most Asians, they had no conception of the damage they were causing by littering.  Very sad.  Still, we thought we’d done the place justice, + were in any case growing rather weary, when we emerged from its confines, but were disconcerted to discover it was still only 12.30.  We wandered down by the small lake for a while, + sat on a bench for a while, but time was passing all too slowly. Fortunately, we discovered the hotel had a reasonably comfortable lounge + snack bar, so we installed ourselves there till 10 to 3, reading, drinking fizzy orange, + eating chocolate. 

We thought it would be easier, returning after 6, to eat in the hotel dining-room, but the place was so dingy + squalid that we gave that up immediately, + returned once again to the Cooking School restaurant.  Our meal was a little better this evening, especially a really excellent stuffed tomato dish.  By the time we got back, Val was absolutely beat, so collapsed into bed, while I got down to packing ready for the morning.  As I started to arrange everything, I decided we had much gear that wouldn’t be missed during a short trip, so packed one bag to take with us, one to leave behind.

The relatively normal mix of sight-seeing combined with negotiating the everyday necessities of food; we seemed to get the balance about right today.

June 12th 1984

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We slept a little overnight, tho’ not nearly as much as we had expected, seeing as we must have been tired, + had a more comfortable seat.  We’d expected a 36 hr journey, so were pleasantly surprised when it became obvious we were coming in to Kunming, + it was still before 7.  It meant we missed our morning coffee, that was all – a small price to pay.

It took us some time to find the hotel we were looking for.  Val had the position down on a small sketch map, but that left out the vital information of how far away it was.  It wasn’t far, in fact, within comfortable walking distance, but we were expecting it much closer, + were trying every likely (or even unlikely) looking building, + being directed further on in each case.    We were afflicted by the already familiar feeling of hopelessness + despair, but luckily we were accosted by a young Chinese man practising his English, + he was able to give us slightly more precise directions than a pointing finger.  When we stumbled into the place, everything was once again fine – it seems to go like that in China.  The receptionist spoke English, + we were able to get a comfortable double room for a mere Y8.  We rested till about 2, both of us taking off our clothes, climbing into bed, + sleeping.  Surprisingly, sleep did not come all that easily; I imagine we were still too wound up. 

During the afternoon, we conducted various items of necessary business.  First of all we booked our train ticket to Emei Shan, thro’ the hotel reception, for a week today, thinking that would give us enough time to see all we wanted around Kunming, + visit Dali as well.  It seemed that hard sleeper would present no difficulty this time.  Next we booked our bus tickets out to Xiling, , a local scenic attraction, from an office a few yds down the road.  The Public Security Office was next, to obtain our permit to visit various cities which aren’t on the “open” list.  No problem here – a slightly time-consuming  but entirely painless operation.  And finally the Post Office, merely to send post-cards home.

Our time was our own now, + we strolled down to an area of town which is supposed to have some “minority” stores, with goods either for or made by, the ethnic peoples of the area.  I say “supposed” because we weren’t actually able to find any.  By chance tho’, we did find some local food stores with various goodies on offer: tins of dried milk, dried apricots, tins of fruit jam, some light + fluffy sponge cake.  This last is my usual breakfast – we reckoned that the jam would complement it nicely.

We tried to catch a bus back which would take us to where a good restaurant was supposed to be, but I made a mistake as to which stop we should get off.  This confused our directions considerably, + led to much fruitless wandering about, + eventually, extreme irritability.  We were about to give the whole thing up as a bad job when we were put right by some passing Westerners.  The restaurant was attached to a Cooking School, + our meal was OK, + certainly cheap, tho’ very greasy.  The best part was that we were served beer in huge soup bowls, quite a novelty.  Back in our rooms we recorded a letter-cassette for Val’s mum.  Not one of our best tho’, I think.

With another new city, another task of orienting ourselves, finding the right place to sleep, eat, see. At first. it is dreadfully confusing, but in short time we are fully at home. In the circumstances, a relatively painless introduction to Kunming.

June 11th 1984

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Hard seat

At about midnight we stopped at a station + quite a lot of people got off, + I took the opportunity offered by the relatively unoccupied aisles to pop back + check on Val.  I was a little worried in case she had needed to go to the toilet + needed me to save her seat in the meantime.  I also thought there was a faint chance there might be a spare seat.  In fact, I was just about a minute too late, as a space had become available right next to Val.  If she had been a different sort of person, she might have fended off the newcomer + yelled for me, but she didn’t.  Besides, as she said, she didn’t know whether I had already found myself a seat or not.  It was a disastrous expedition all round, for when I returned to my seat, or rather space, another man was settling himself down onto it.  I had neither the words, nor, really, the inclination to attempt to oust him.  The result was that I stood for the next 3 hours, while the train became increasingly more crowded.  As the situation worsened, the space that each person could legitimately claim became smaller + smaller, yet somehow, lacking the necessary forcefulness, I continued to be standing.

After 3 hours, however, my inhibitions were lowered so far by fatigue that I sat where I stood, + wriggled + squirmed myself enough space.  I had some luck later too, when my successor in my space left, + I was able to spread out a little.  As were a few others, of course.  And eventually, because of sheer exhaustion, I slept, my legs drawn up, my head resting on my knees.  I awoke a couple of hours later, with the sky lightening + people on the move.  There was a good bit more space around me now, but I was determined not to repeat my earlier mistake + leave my space, at least for a while, until I could be more sure I wouldn’t lose it.  I did have one aid, one of our foam mats, to give my occupation a little more authority.

Val brought me a cup of coffee after a time, made from our own supplies with the hot water constantly available – very very welcome.  I read for much of the morning, finishing off “A House for Mr Biswas” by Naipaul.  A marvellous book, the best I have read for a long time.  The main character has evoked my father for me, in the way he has made a success of his life from poor beginnings.

To stretch my legs, I went for a wander along the train, visiting the other classes to see how the other half live.  No easy matter to pick my way thro’ the other hard seat carriages – they are all so crowded that people sit on the floor all the way down the aisles.  When refreshment trollies are pushed thro’, as they are often, everyone has to move.  It’s not a satisfactory situation – I would think it is serious enough to warrant another train on the run, or another couple handling sections of it.  Soft sleeper, the 1st class, was a bit of a disappointment, having neither old-fashioned charm nor the comfort of its equivalent back home on much-maligned BR.  Hard sleeper, however, appeared very nearly as comfortable, + well-worth the money, if only we could have got one!  I ran into a German couple we’d met in Guilin.  They had hard berths, + were kind enough to let us use them for a few hours during the day.  For myself, I declined.  Surprisingly, I felt in good shape.  And I had the idea, which Val also expressed when I passed the idea on to her, that it might be just as well to be dog-tired when night came around again.

I was quick to seize on another offer a little later, however, after I’d returned to my mat, of a seat next to Val.  A Chinese lady arranged it.  Discovering a space was about to come up with someone getting off, she shuffled people round + indicated to Val that the space was for me – she indicated me by pointing + indicating glasses, but I made no objections when I heard about it.  This was really the only way I could realistically have hoped for a seat, for otherwise all forthcoming vacancies were disposed of before we got close to the station.  I was very grateful.

We bought lunch tickets, + were later dished out swill from a trolley – I resolved to try the dining car for my evening meal.  Val wasn’t hungry, so I went alone.  It turned out I was very early, so I whiled away some time gazing out of the window.  The scenery was fine + beautifully pastoral, as we flew past field after field of girls + women transplanting rice seedlings, slapping them down silently into the mud, + creating a wonderland of precisely-planted geometrically neat fields.  Behind the paddies, low grey hills rose up as a backdrop for the scene being played out in front.  It was fortunate I was early into the dining car, for quite by chance I was able to avoid the huge rush that built up soon after. 

The Restaurant operated on a ticket basis, very common in restaurants here, whereby one bought one’s ticket at one desk, + took them to another for serving (tho’ in this case a waiter performed the second function for one.)  It makes things impossibly difficult for foreigners, since it takes away the option of pointing,+ generally the ticket desks are crowded + rushed.  I circumvented the problem this time by pointing to the most expensive option on the list – it was only Y2 – + hoping that would be satisfactory.  It turned out very well – I obtained soup, rice, + a tasty meat + veg dish, a perfectly adequate meal.

The evening passed slowly, with both of us counting the hours till the end of the journey.  We were amused to see a man picking thro’ a bag of rubbish we had put on the floor, + examining with particular interest an empty pineapple juice can + a brightly coloured sweet bag – we think he kept the latter.  Generally tho’, we were disappointed with the attitude of the local people.  With the exception of the lady helping me get a seat, they had made no friendly overtures.  We are not very good at such things, but the efforts at socialisation we had made had been politely turned down.  All in all, not a wonderful trip, but we’d managed.

Oh, one more funny thing.  We ought a plastic bag with a few joints of cold meat, very tasty, + were trying to work out whether it was chicken or duck, when I pulled out its head.  Chicken.

So, quite an achievement: a whole day on the train, and in hard seat as well… though without a seat, for the most part. But, as I said in the blog, we made it, and inthe end it has become quite a story.

June 10th 1984

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We didn’t make quite the early start we had intended, + I compounded our tardiness by going to have some breakfast with Mike.  And then the bus was held up on its way to Guilin, when we had to wait for nearly an hour while the road was cleared of 2 trucks which had crashed.  We had thought that drivers in China were reasonably careful, but seeing quite a few wrecked trucks has disabused us of that notion.  The general absence of traffic exacerbates the problem, I think, since the drivers can indulge in nightmarish overtaking procedures knowing that, 9 times out of 10, nothing will be coming the other way.

When we arrived at the La La café, there was no news for us, for the man who took care of the ticketing side of the business was away – in Yangshuo – but would be back during the afternoon, we were assured.  So we left our bags in the corner, + went off to explore the city.  We went first to a park at the other end of the city, one of the few areas which survived the massive destruction during the war.  The main attraction in the park was a lone mountain called Unique Beauty, + we climbed the steps to the inevitable look-out pavilion in the shape of a pagoda at the top.  It offered a fine view out over the city, + we could at last see where Guilin’s reputation as a beautiful city had come from.  I still prefer the intimacy of Yangshuo.

From the park we wandered across to the river, + as my stomach was demanding relief, we paid the pittance of an entrance fee into the grounds around another of the city’s mountains (Whirlpool Mountain, I think) entirely for the sake of getting at the toilet there.  Even when I’d relieved myself, neither of us had the energy to do anything g but sit + munch some sweets, then rouse ourselves to walk back to the café.

The guy was there, but had no good news – no hard sleeper.  He did make some sort of promise to get us one each for tomorrow, but even if this was legitimate, we didn’t want to hang around in Guilin for an extra day.  They could have got us a couple of hard seat tickets for tonight, but they would want paying for these in FECs, + on our walk back we’d had a better offer.  We had been walking past another restaurant, when out had dashed another ticket hustler to say hello – we had met him in Yangshuo when we had first arrived there.  He offered to buy our hard seat tickets for us too, but taking only half-payment in FECs.  So, since this would save us a couple of dollars, we reclaimed our money from the La La + went back there.  I thought we’d made a balls-up of things when, at first, he wasn’t around.  And time was running out – the train left at 9.  But it all worked out fine.  He returned a little after, +, while we ate a meal there, he dispatched someone to get our tickets for us.  Evenings like that aren’t good for my blood pressure, tho’.

Just in case it might help us in the future, he wrote “Student” in Chinese across our Hong Kong ID cards.  We walked down to the station + joined the other 2 dozen or so other non-Chinese travellers waiting for the train – we had a whole huge waiting-room all to ourselves.  When the train arrived, however, 15 mins later, it really made very little difference.  We were released at the same time as the locals, + once on the platform, it was every man for himself.  We scrambled onto the first hard-seat carriage we came to, + by remarkable fortune were able to find one vacant seat that wasn’t being kept too vigorously, so Val plonked herself down.  Its previous occupier can’t have been too well-liked.  He returned in a few mins, + indignantly voiced his grievance.  If he had been joined by the concerted voices of his neighbours, we would doubtless have relented + given up the seat.  As it was, his was a voice alone, his neighbours disinterested – but not uninterested – spectators, + with a mixture of feigned incomprehension + real stubbornness, we won the day.  I felt no remorse.  Hard seat class is an every man for himself jungle, + he had a far better chance of obtaining a seat later than we would have had.  (Sure enough, he was comfortably settled at the first stop.)

With Val now established, I set out to find a niche for myself.  No possibility of a seat, of course, + even a reasonable amount of floor space was not easy to find.  For a time I sat right in the joining section between 2 carriages, above the coupling, but a guard moved me on from there.  He was quite right – the 2 plates of the separate carriages were grinding together horribly, + a carelessly trapped finger would have been chewed + gobbled greedily.  So I stood next to a young German, who was sitting + guarding a couple of bags in the carriage doorway.  Sure enough, his friend returned shortly, having exchanged their tickets for a berth, + took him away.  I threw myself down into the vacated space, small enough, but with the virtue of a wall to lean my back against.

And after the relaxation of the previous day, back into the fray with a vengeance – buying tickets, fighting for a seat, all of that. But unless you want to stay in just the one place, there is no choice. And eventually one becomes more used to it.

June 9th 1984

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Our chopsticks, still going strong

Began the day with cake + coffee for breakfast.  Altho’, much to my surprise, I enjoy my evening meal immensely, I am quite unable to face local food for the morning.  We hired bicycles from the hotel, just Y1 each for the whole day, intending to visit some of the smaller, outlying villages.  We didn’t intend to go too far – apart from any other considerations, we have heard that the local police are liable to confiscate film from one’s camera if they consider you have roamed beyond acceptable limits.  So we rode out for just a short way in several directions, once disappearing down a narrow + bumpy track, which ultimately ended in a dead end by the river.  Especially once one got away from the town, the countryside was quite beautiful, with the brilliant green of the paddy fields running up against the base of the pinnacle mountains, pastoral + peaceful.  I was becoming increasingly annoyed with my bike, however.  I could put up with the fact that the brakes had negligible effect, but the adjusting nut on the saddle was loose, + the saddle kept tilting backwards – uncomfortable.

We stopped for a cold drink at the ice-house, but when we re-emerged, thinking to try the one direction we’d so far neglected, we discovered the chain was off Val’s bike.  We weren’t too far from the hotel, luckily, so, since neither of us fancied dirtying our hands, we wheeled them back, thinking to have them fixed  before taking them out again in the afternoon.  In the meantime, we took a siesta.  Not a particularly Chinese habit, I know, but necessary in the sort of heat we’re experiencing right now.  When we emerged again, we were still unable to find anyone to see to our bikes, but we used the afternoon profitably, first to visit the bank to change some more money – we understand Guilin might provide our last chance to change any for quite some time, I mean change FECs for RMBs, so we want to be able to take advantage of that.  It’s unlikely we would get stuck with it, even tho’ one can’t change it back officially into a foreign currency, since, once away from the black market centres, there are likely to be plenty of travellers eager to get their hands on it.

We also bought me a vest.  They have excellent sleeveless workers’ vests here, made of good quality material + in bright colours.  I bought a royal blue one.  Later still, we ventured down to the tourist end of town once again, this time with Mike in tow.  (Allen moved on this morning – as Mike has put it, his mind is already in Kashgar, + his body is hurrying to catch up.)  Mike + I bought a couple of cans of American beer each, we all bought our own private pair of chopsticks, + after some deliberation, I splurged on a nice set of 10 pairs of carved wooden chopsticks.  It’ll be a pain to carry them around China, but I’d kick myself, I’m sure, if I didn’t buy them.  After a fair amount of recent abstinence, both Mike + I got mildly pissed on the beers.  As usual, I became garrulous + extrovert… just like my Dad.  Only when he was my age, he was married with a kid, +m had been struck down with TB.

We at last found somewhere different to eat – the hotel dining-room.  It wasn’t at all bad either, + the service was much better than the usual offering at the Lotus.  And of course, the evening finished in the usual way – coffee + BBC.  The reception was very good tonight, + I listened to the Saturday sports programme into the small hours.

A couple of comments – the girl at the Friendship Store wanted to know why so many travellers nowadays had so many RMBs – a recent development.  She was highly sceptical of the faltering explanation I stumbled out, tho’ far too polite to suggest, even obliquely, that I might be lying.  The other thing: since moving on from Guangzhou, my opinion of China has altered considerably – I am now very fond of the place, + to my huge surprise, am able to relax + enjoy myself.  Travelling, and all the disruption associated with it, is still a huge worry, but I think the answer is to take long rests between the various stages of one’s journey around the country.  When one knows where one is staying + where there is somewhere good to eat, everything is comfort + relaxation, so one should enjoy those bits whilst one may.

Fancy me extolling the advantages of slow travel. But that’s what happens when bureaucracy is so painful, so should be encountered as little as possible. And today was a most pleasant day, enjoying the local countryside, the local food, all very pleasant.

We still have the fancy chopsticks, still use them on a regular basis.

June 8th 1984

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Decided to take a boat trip this morning down to the village of Fuli.  It was very cheap, just Y5 per person, + as we’d decided against hiring a boat to go in the opposite direction to Guilin – we’d met some American girls there who hadn’t thought much of it – we thought we would take this opportunity to see something of the river.  It was unfortunate that 2 of the other 3 doing the trio today were the English couple we’d met + taken an instant dislike to, in Gunagzhou.  We were fated to be together, it seemed – they had travelled with us on the same boat from Guangzhou to Wuzhou.  My opinion of them wasn’t improved when first they turned up late bat the meeting point, then, forgetting something or other, returned to their room, twice, to fetch it.  The English-speaking guide was equally as pissed off with them, + his annoyance was increased when none of us would pay in FECs.  But by the time we boarded the boat, his good temper had returned.  There were 10 of us aboard the small, flat-bottomed launch, we 5 passengers, the guide, one woman manning the outboard motor, + 3 younger ones acting as deck-hands.  The engine was switched off frequently during the early part of the trip, + as we drifted downstream, our guide gave us a commentary on the mountains rearing up all around.  It was, however, the sort of commentary with which I have little sympathy or interest – no geology, no geography, no history, no sociology, all myth.  The mountain is the old man, beating his son, that one the dragon, that range the 8 fairies.  Achingly tedious + dull.  The Chinese seem to have a passion for allegory.  I didn’t understand any of the commentary yesterday in the caves, but I would bet a large sum of money it was largely along the same lines.

We disembarked briefly from the boat to take a short cut across Snow Lion Hill (see what I mean) + this was the only time that, unprompted, our guide referred to something of contemporary interest, when he pointed out the location used by a Hong Kong film company to shoot a recent film.  It has just occurred to me that the exclusive use of mythology, for someone in his position, has the advantage of being entirely safe, ideologically speaking.  But then, so does geology.

The boat was waiting for us on the other side of the hill – from there, we motored pretty much directly to Fuli.  Today was market day in this small town, + we spent nearly an hour wandering around.  It was about the right amount of time.  The heat of the sun pounded down, + in any case I at least was ready to leave after that time.  Asian markets are crowded affairs, + soon enough I grew claustrophobic + rather bored.  It was interesting enough, nonetheless, with the usual array of the exotic, home-grown, home-made + commonplace.  The particularly odd here was a couple of baskets full of whining puppies.  And in view of their likely fate, well might they whine.  Val was offered one for Y3, quite a bargain, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The journey back, fighting the current with an inadequate engine, was very long.  It can’t have helped that we had a couple of hitch-hikers along, old men riding along with their bamboo rafts in tow.  Not that I’m complaining – I’m just glad we brought our books along to help while away the time.  We hadn’t had any breakfast, so when we got back we ate a lunch at one of the town’s local  restaurants, then bought + wrote some postcards, before whiling away the rest of the afternoon with the Frisbee out in the huge courtyard, + we even had a local feller join us.  We were determined to eat somewhere else tonight, but once again were frustrated when the place we had in mind was closed, so, out of force of necessity, trailed once more into the Lotus.  They must have sense out disloyalty, for the meal they served up was very poor, lukewarm + greasy.  Finished off the day with the evening ritual: cold drink, back to the BBC.

Boat trips always seem attractive, and generally stargt well enough, but nearly always, by the time you get off (and on this occasion there was also the tediously long return trip) you are very very happy to do so. Still, it did make for something of a change, and gave us the opportunity to explore another small town.

June 7th 1984

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A propaganda poster

The 4 of us breakfasted together at the Lotus café, this time avoiding the “Western” breakfast, + fared much better as a consequence.  We were all heading to Guilin, a 2 hr bus journey away, for the day, all of us with the same objectives in mind.  It was the next town along our route, + supposedly very beautiful, but we wanted to check it out before committing ourselves + lugging our bags up there, particularly since we were so happily + comfortably settled in Yangshuo.  Even more so, Guilin was by all accounts a bitch to get out of, since it was half way along the immensely popular route from Shanghai to Kunming.  The journey from Guilin to Kunming took 36 hrs, + unless one was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, no easy matter, the prospect was hellish, since there would barely be room to stand, let alone sit.  So we were all hoping to reserve a sleeper (known as “hard sleeper”, tho’ it isn’t, being simply cheaper than the thoroughly luxurious “soft sleeper”) either at the station itself, or, failing that, at one of the cafes.

A bit of confusion at the bus station about what time the bus went, but we sorted it out in the end.  The journey – 2 or 3 hrs – was uneventful – I killed the time with my book.  We got out at Guilin station, thinking first to try the direct method.  I was called away by the god of my bowels, so took no further part in the negotiations.  They were unsuccessful in the end, but not a waste of time, as we learned a thing or 2.  Most important, Val discovered that our International Student Card commanded no respect whatever, especially in a place like Guilin, which has seen enough travellers to be a bit canny.  However, the pink Taiwan card that Mike + Allen both have (bought in HK) did pass muster at the window, + they could both have bought hard seat tickets for tonight’s train.  But reserving sleepers for some days hence could not be done at the window – one had to see the lady in the office.  She was, by all accounts, decidedly unhelpful, + suggested they try CITS.  In her defence, we later discovered that Guilin, being in the middle of a very popular run from Shanghai to Kunming, receives a negligible number of sleepers allocated to it, so she probably wouldn’t have been able to help even if she had wanted to.  Which she obviously didn’t.  So we gave up for the time being, + went round to the local travellers’ café, the La La, for coffee + info. 

The guy in charge of the place, English name Luke, spoke fluent English, + was able to give us some good concrete stuff, about times, prices, availability, etc.  We also found ourselves somehow drifting into philosophy + the nature of man.  It must be something to do with the country to promote such activity.  Luke maintained that people are all selfish, while I (more for the sake of argument than out of force of conviction) said that the nature of man is like sweet + sour sauce, good + bad inextricably mixed, so that on taking a spoonful, one never knows which taste will predominate.  Luke offered to buy our tickets for us – he would obtain his commission by being paid in FECs – + Mike took advantage of his services, but Val, always a fighter, wanted one more try at the station.  When that proved unsuccessful, we gave up + caught the local bus out to see one of Guilin’s premier attractions, an extensive complex of limestone caves.  The trip was a bit of a washout, however.   Not that the caves weren’t impressive – they were as good or better as any cave system we’ve seen (with the exception of Niah) but, as is so often the case, there had been a liberal application of cosmetic “improvements” – a concrete path, massive use of coloured floodlights, etc.  Very pretty, of course, but like a meal of sticky buns, unsatisfying.  We 4 were the only Westerners, + as the commentary by the guide was entirely in Chinese, we entertained ourselves by whispering disparaging + cynical comments.

When we emerged into the daylight once again, we were greeted by a ferocious rain-storm, giving us a hefty soaking on our run down to the bus-stop.  Only Mike, equipped with a HK telescopic umbrella, was able to escape.  Val + Allen got off the bus early to go to the China Tours office.  She thought this was worth a try, even if it might cost a little more, they might be able to guarantee a hard sleeper, something the people of the café couldn’t do.  Mike + I waited for them at the La La, where we sipped green tea + chatted about China.  I’m liking the guy more + more, the better I get to know him.  Beneath the consciously-cultivated roughneck image, he is intelligent + sensitive.  And of course he has a good sense of humour, a necessary requirement for someone so that I can get close.  Val + Allen returned empty-handed from their mission, having been given the run-around in various offices – ultimately it turned out that they were no more in a position to give a firm guarantee of a berth than the café.  So, finally admitting defeat, we paid up our FECs + asked them to reserve is a couple of berths for Sunday night – they promised to do their best.  Mike had already booked for Monday night, + Allen reckoned he would buy his own ticket + travel hard seat.

We ate our evening meal at the La La – it turned out to be quite magnificent, quite the best meal we have had yet in China, ranking, for Val + I, among the top 10 meals of the last 3 years.  (Some day, when I have time, I’ll wrote out the complete list.)  And then we walked along to the bus station to catch the bus back, leaving ourselves plenty of time, for this was the last bus.  As usual in such situations, being anywhere where one requires something specific, we were a little lost, but a kind young lady slopped off thro’ the mud to buy our tickets for us, + made sure we got on the right one.

Travelling back to Yangshuo, we were all affected by the comforting + reassuring feeling of returning home.  We hadn’t been impressed by Guilin, which struck us as too big + bustling.  Tho’ the surrounding landscape was similar to that at Yangshuo, the mountains couldn’t dominate the place in the same way.  Guilin was too big to grasp, I suppose, while Yangshuo had that village feeling, + accessibility.  Val + I went for some cold drink + cake at the govt ice-house, before returning for the ritual listening in to the BBC sports report + news.  India is dominating the latter, has done for some weeks.  Fighting between Moslem + Hindu, Hindu + Sikh, this last culminating in a storming of the Sikh’s holiest shrine in Amritsar to dislodge Sikh militants operating from there, with the inevitable violent backlash such a move has.  Just as well we’re in China, I reckon.

A dispiriting and time-consuming encounter with various bits of bureaucracy, though all associated with getting to Kunming in a reasonably comfortable manner… and failing on every front. Nor did we think all that much of Guuilin, so not the best of days all round, though much improved by our return “home” to Yangshuo.

June 6th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0

The day did not begin well.  I was unwell again – this is becoming boring.  And then we had problems obtaining breakfast.  The Lotus café seems to have breakfast well-organised, with a special menu with standard Western foods – toast, coffee, orange juice, etc.  But not only were they deadeningly slow, the foods they offered were only imitations of the real thing.  The orange juice was weak orange squash, the toast was sugared.  And they managed to mess up what few things they had on offer.  A couple of French guys were waiting over an hour for an egg + tomato sandwich.  Eventually, they were brought toast, with sugar inside.  When they complained, this was taken away, only to be brought back a little later with tomato inside.  And then, after further complaints, egg was added.  Egg, tomato, + sugar – a truly revolting mixture.  Our own breakfast was not quite as disastrous, but it wasn’t much better either, + took just as long.

When we finally re-emerged, we strolled around town.  It’s not very big, about the size of Welwyn village, + picturesque, in its own, severely functional, way.  We headed for the town park, dominated by a high steep hill, Xi Lang (Western Boy) with a pagoda on top, in the centre.  The park itself was cool + peaceful, with many shady paths, but severely unkempt.  We had paid 10 fen each as entrance fee, but it didn’t appear that these contributions were being used for maintenance.  But perhaps we had caught it at a bad time, a woman in curlers.  In any case, the degeneration hadn’t yet reached a stage where it made the place unattractive, even in what was officially designated “the artistic plot”, what had formerly been the formal garden, now looking all the more dishevelled in contrast.  We climbed the steps leading up to the pagoda, + were rewarded with a fine view over the town.  Another traveller had told us one could easily spend 3 hrs up there looking around, but this wasn’t for us.  Having came + seen, we felt we had conquered, + descended once again.

Pagoda in the park

Down on the riverfront, we were amazed to see 15 to 20 tour buses sitting there, all waiting to collect the tourists off the boat from Guilin, + whisk them back.  And the souvenir + craft shops had their wares out on display ready to tempt them all.  I’ll confess I succumbed, in that I bought a cold coke.   But it had been bottled in China, + wasn’t very nice.  We found Yangshuo’s Friendship Store – these are special stores for foreigners, + tho’ this one wasn’t particularly well-stocked, we did find chocolate + cold pineapple juice, + indulged in both.  The cans of American beer we left for another occasion.

Wandered back to the hotel via the market, + played Frisbee for a while in the courtyard – we got some curious stares, but nobody else joined in.  I gave Val a hair cut, not doing at all a bad job, + then we lazed around the room until the other 2 returned from their own explorations, + we all went out to dinner.  We were determined to go to a different restaurant if possible, the Lotus had depressed us too much this morning.  The first place we tried had been doing a thriving trade when Val + I had looked in on it at lunchtime, but now they were just about closed.  “Mayo, mayo,” the old lady told us.  We’re going to be hearing a lot of that phrase over the next couple of months apparently, accompanied by a vigorous wave of the hand.  It’s Chinese for “no can do”.  But it was our own fault – we’d already been warned that ordinary Chinese restaurants closed early.  We tried the restaurant in the town’s major hotel next door, but it was the same story there, so we were forced, it being the only place open in town, to go to the Lotus after all.

The evening did not turn out well.  They were very crowded – it’s a tiny place – + the atmosphere was noisy + confused.  Mike in particular was distressed by an old lady noisily + persistently beating a small child, who was, understandably, demonstrating his distaste for the procedure by bawling loudly.  At which offence, + presumably to shut him up, she beat him some more.  This was all in full view of the restaurant – she even took to carrying him up + down the narrow gangway between the tables, slapping him as she went.  Mike eventually stormed out before any food arrived, presumably before he committed violence upon the old lady.  As there was nowhere else to buy any food, this meant condemning himself to a supperless night.  Ironically, not long after he left, the place quietened down considerably, + when the food came, it was once again very good, tho’ to no one’s surprise, they made a mistake in the kitchen, + left off a dish.

Afterwards, we went to a govt run ice shop, which dispensed fresh sweet buns + ice cold sugary drinks at very reasonable prices, + seemed to be open nearly all day, early morn to late night.  Returned just in time to catch the BBC’s Sports Report + World News.  My night was disturbed.  We’d been presented with a fan in our room, but I found they made the mosquito problem worse.  The mossies were far too numerous to be driven out by the fan – all it succeeded in doing was blowing up the side of my mosquito net, giving the buggers free access.

Incidents and stories… which is all that travelling is, in the end. Plus scenery, of course. We are enjoying the small town vibes of Yangshuo far more than the bigger cities we have yet seen, allowing for a more peaceful and relaxed pace.

June 5th 1984

posted in: The way back | 1

Annoyed to be struck down once again by the shits.  Even the Lomotil tablets that I am taking, supposedly with the efficiency of a large cork, are having no effect.  But we have some other tablets, obtained from the same source, Brunei hospital, so I’ll try those.  We were later arriving than we expected, but no time was wasted.  We were herded straight onto a waiting bus, + away!  The boat had carried us as far as Wuzhou – we now had an 8 or 9 hr journey to Yangshuo.  On a Nepal bus, that journey would be murderous, but here it was passed reasonably comfortably.  The bus itself was reasonably new (+ certainly uncrowded – private vehicles, other than bikes, aren’t allowed in China); there were frequent stops to stretch one’s legs, go to the toilet, eat; + in any case, once I’d spent a little while gazing out of the window, I spent most of the journey with my nose buried in a book.  Actually, tho’, as the journey wore on, the scenery became increasingly spectacular, with tall limestone mountains rising up sheer out of the paddy-fields, grey giants marching across the countryside.  They weren’t concentrated into one range either, but scattered almost randomly.  And so they could appear + be appreciated in different ways – close-to as massive + imposing, far-off, veiled in mist, strange + mysterious.  A Tolkien landscape.

On arriving at Yanshuo, we were able to go directly to the cheaper of the town’s 2 hotels – Mike had a map, drawn for him by another traveller.  The town seemed small, attractive – the mountains could be seen towering above the place from almost everywhere, + there were many ponds – + infinitely more welcoming than Guangzhou had been.  The hotel was an extraordinary place, ramshackle stone buildings ranged around a simply enormous courtyard.  It was difficult to believe it was all part of the hotel (The Xi Lang Hill) but I think it was.  There was no difficulty about getting a room, tho’ it took a bit of stubbornness on our part before they would accept local money.  Our room was a little dingy, but adequate, with mosquito nets for each bed.  There were 4 beds, + we were sharing with Allen + Mike, with whom we’d arrived.  That sorted out, we went out to eat at a local restaurant, one geared for foreigners, The Lotus Flower.  Things were chaotic there – they were obviously far too popular for their own good, + weren’t able to cope, but the food turned out to be excellent.  With 4 of us eating together, we were able to have a real feast.

That night we discovered one of the drawbacks of the town – with all the still water about, it was a haven for mosquitoes.  So we quickly dived under our nets.

It seems that we, or at the very least I, are becoming used to life here, and starting to enjoy it. Negotiations with authority are nearly always problematic, but I think we are benefitting from the fact that the place is newly opened to travellers like us, so they have not got used to our devious ways, in terms of getting the cheapest possible deal in all situations.