June 10th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0

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.

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