Travelling without Pedalling

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of China  , Guangxi Zhuang,
Sunday, July 31, 2011

The bus reached Kun Ming shortly after dark. Curiously, the bus driver dropped us off in a random side street far from the bus station, on the edge of the city where a fleet of taxis was conveniently waiting. Whilst I needed only load my bike and cycle in, the rest of the passengers had to hire cabs to get to their destinations. I was pretty suspicious, and later found out that this is a scam some bus drivers pull in cahoots with the taxi drivers!

I searched in the dark for the bus station, intending to complete the marathon day's journey with a sleeper bus toward Gui Lin, but was told the bus station I needed was many kilometres distant, so decided to find a place to sleep. I checked into a very cheap type of hotel called a Zhu Su ('live room') with the intention of staying a couple of nights. I knew Zhu Sus were a little tetchy about hosting non-Chinese guests, perhaps due to the police paperwork obligations entailed, but the young and friendly reception staff seemed unfazed. The next day there came a knocking on my door and I was told to pack my stuff immediately and go - I had been seen by a cleaner and the management informed. Feeling a little dejected, I headed into the city centre and booked into an eight bed dorm in The Hump hostel.

After a few days the ribs were feeling a little less tender, but still not right. I got to know some of the people in my dorm, and the enthusiasm for chess of a Frenchman named Sam rekindled my interest in the game. Several of the Westerners were there on a semi-permanent basis, studying Mandarin, or Chinese medicine. Sam and I wandered the streets and tried to understand the game of Chinese Chess men played in the parks. Kun Ming was about as modern and shiny as any city I've ever seen.

For a while I had been mulling over how I would make my way back to New Zealand, and at this juncture I had a decision to make: whilst I could probably have continued travelling for a great deal of time yet, the call of a rural idyll somewhere in New Zealand exerted some pull and promised purpose for the perhaps purposeless traveller. Earlier I had wanted to turn south for Vietnam, but now with the uncertainty about my injured ribs this was less appealing; retracing my steps from here back down through southeast Asia, then Indonesia and Australia, seemed like it would take a long time and cost a lot of money. Now I was starting to lean towards going eastward to fly home from Hong Kong.

Guang Xi, with its Karst landscapes was a region I'd dreamed of visiting ever since seeing pictures many years earlier, and would be a step towards Hong Kong. The earliest I could buy a sleeper ticket for the 18 hour train journey to the city of Gui Lin was three weeks away, so I ended up with a ticket for a so-called 'hard seat'. I dispatched via the rail freight service my bike and luggage, the latter placed in a heavy bag and reassuringly sewn shut by a man with an enormous needle. I had heard that actually securing a seat might be a case of being willing to jostle and elbow a bit, so I waited nervously on the concourse. At last the gates opened and there was an orderly procession to the carriages, where my ticket was good for a seat. I was sat before a table with a bunch of friendly young Chinese guys who offered me food (I declined the ever-popular chicken feet), while a few others in our carriage, lacking reservations, stood, sat or slept in the aisle. They had my sympathy.

Awaking in morning's light from half-sleep, head on table, the massive, stalagmite-like, green hills of Guang Xi rolled past the window. I had not expected these marvellous formations to encompass any great area but they accompanied us all of the way to Gui Lin, where we arrived several hours later. I alighted and went to find a place to sleep.

A day later I hiked across the city to retrieve my bike and gear from the rail freight station - was I paranoid or were there signs the bag had been opened in transit? Nothing missing, at any rate.

I passed some more time convalescing, and a young Beijing-based American in the hostel demystified Chinese Chess for me. Then, an assiduous Internet trawl turned up a relatively cheap ticket Hong Kong to New Zealand in 3 weeks' time. The certainty felt good after so much somewhat impulsive roaming that had, frankly, begun to feel a little self-indulgent with all that was going on in the world. There was just the nagging issue of there being a week between the date my Chinese visa would expire and my flight.

A half-day's ride brought me to the town of Yang Shuo, where on arrival I had the good fortune to meet a young Australian guy on a bridge where I stopped to photograph a fountain. We got talking and Nicky told me he was teaching English in a local school in exchange for food and board. A couple of days later, I was doing the same. The demand for native English speakers in China is massive, and if you're serious about it you'll get a good salary and all the comforts. For me though, it was strictly a casual affair - normally just two hours of free-form discussion with a roomful of mostly adult students in exchange for a bed and two hearty meals per day. Once or twice a week, some of us would go to a 'summer school' where we played with and casually taught younger Chinese kids who studied English 12 hours a day.

A session at a roof-top bar for Lao Wei (foreigners) with some others from the dorm led to missing the dorm's 12:30 am curfew lock-out and a massed, drunken midnight river swim with half of the bar (I was the only abstainer, upset at missing out on my bed!). Meanwhile some merry vandals amongst our number violently detached rubbish bins from the embankment above and hurled them toward the river. Someone on a boat in the river, awoken by the disturbance, shined a bright light in our direction, then on seeing our racket wasn't going anywhere started their engine and punted downriver some way with typical Chinese fortitude. One of the swimmers knocked over a bottle and promptly stepped on the broken glass, leaving a bloody mess. I lay on my back by the river's edge and lamented western civilisation on tour. A few of us later eloped to the roof of a nearby guest house and waxed philosophical until sunrise, and the night was redeemed.

One day French Sam turned up at the school out of the blue and started teaching. We filled our leisure time swimming in the warm river, practising Mandarin and cycling the dirt tracks through the local villages, with their water buffalo and rice paddies. And so it went. I shelved plans for cycling to Hong Kong and ended up buying a bus ticket to Shen Zhen instead.

A few days short of departure I came down with a gastro-intestinal infection that had broken out in the school. The thought of 8 hours on a bus in this condition was unappealing, but Immodium saved the day. I farewelled everyone and headed to the station, hoping that excessive punctuality, charm or bribery would facilitate getting the bicycle onboard as luggage. The bus conductor was impressively bad-tempered, but eventually acquiesced and I got the bike on before there was no room left for bulky items. Then I stepped aboard the bus, took off my shoes and climbed up to my bunk to sleep the journey away.
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