This is China??? Where are the Mao Suits?
Trip Start Feb 03, 2010
56Trip End Jul 09, 2010
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From the border town of Hekou, with the huge help of Rachel's Mandarin, we were able to catch a day bus, leaving at 10:30 am, to Kunming. As it turned out, our bus was of the sleeper variety and we were the only westerners on the full bus. Right away, the differences between China and everywhere else I have travelled in Asia became apparent. Starting in Hekou, while looking for an ATM, it was apparent that no one spoke any English at all – even in the big Hotels. The other thing was everything was soooo modern. Coming from India and Vietnam where I thought things were very shiny and new, to China, where everything looks like it was designed last week and implemented and built this week, is quite shocking. First thing that hit me in Hekou was the lack of motorcycles and bicycles. The majority of transportation is, less Asian and more North American, full sized cars! The police were driving full sized Buicks, lots of full sized Chevs and Toyota Rav 4’s and just plain huge vehicles. And new ones. And waay less horn honking. And really wide streets with flower filled boulevards. Really nice but no English – anywhere.
As we travelled through the country side, sharing the bus with our fellow travelers, it was clear that smoking, hoarking (at least into bags) and playing one’s music loudly on their cell phone was the norm. Really annoying behavior when one is holed up on a double decker bus for, what we anticipated, 10 to 12 hours. The bus travelled past huge city after city – filled with high rises and new developments. There does not seem to be much in between from brand new high rise communities and rural rural shanty homes . Ethnic minority workers toiling in the terraced fields in their traditional tribal wear were everywhere.. The beauty and precision of the crops was fantastic. In the middle of nowhere, you would see one person hoeing a massive field, or plowing with a water buffalo – we never saw any farm equipment or machines – just individual manual laborers creating such beautiful vistas of farming. Every square inch of land is being farmed.
The toll highway was another engineering feat – beautifully constructed through the mountains: numerous lengthy tunnels and overpasses – all looking brand new as well. The mountainsides are crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of concrete meshing, stabilizing the steep walls and making for a type of woven concrete basket look. Amazing tunnels made for quick travel. Considering the engineering talent and the attention to detail of the Agrium community, it was shocking to see the toilet at our first stop. It was new, but a poorer design could not have been. Open pit pooing is the norm here for public conveyances, and that is one thing. Making pits without water or any type of slant is just plain goofy. It works like this: you drop your drawers and straddle an open pit, you do your business on top of the last business because it had nowhere to go. No water flowing or place to flush with water. I don’t know if the concept was based on the person at the top of the pit having such a full bladder that it would create some velocity somewhere???? What ended up is a stinky, literal shit hole with flies galore. And people bad mouth India! Rachel told me this engineering nightmare is copied in many different forms throughout the country…….reminds me of Egyptians who could build pyramids but can’t seem to complete one road……
Along the journey, the loud cell phones played sappy love songs – each person’s phone competing with the next. At one point I had my iPod out and Nick saw my little external speaker. He was able to fulfill a long time wish he had. Having been forced to listen to hours of cell phone music on numerous public transport venues in China, he now saw his revenge. He took my speaker, attached it to his IPhone and tuned in some raucous heavy metal music. Slowly the music of the rest of the bus quieted and God-knows-what the Chinese thought of his impromptu free concert.
I don’t think I have seen the apathy to foreigners exhibited to the degree I have experienced here already. Rachel and Nick both said that was one thing they were looking forward to – the ability to be totally ignored by everyone. In Vietnam and Laos, as in most Asian countries, people are curious about westerners and want to greet them and talk with them if they can. Usually very friendly encounters. Not here. No interest. We were in Hekou Bus Station – the only three white faces in a big town and it was if we are invisible. That would be ok if you don’t need help – but even when you ask, still invisible. No smiles, nods, stares – just blank. Odd.
Our bus travelled up and over some pretty high passes before it started to sputter and stall at the toll booths. Then it stalled and flooded. Then it just plain broke down on the ascent of a big hill. I saw the opportunity to hop off the bus and have a nice pee in the open air. Really glad I did because the bus continued to break down – they would do some repairs and let it cool and then we would make a few more hundred kms and so on. About 2 hours out of Kunming, the rain started and the bus broke down yet again. We thought another bus was on its way….nooo. We waited it out and limped in to Kunming in the pouring rain.
Arrived at the bus station of the far outskirts of town around 9 pm and attempted to find our way into the city. This involved a very frustrating routine that involved a crazy old man with a puppy in a plastic bag, in and out of a scam taxi, some stupid wet laughing officials and eventually a public bus and a taxi before reaching our destination – Hump Hostel. I was more than grateful I was not doing this all by myself, in the dark, in the pouring rain, without any Chinese. It was hard enough even with Rachel’s language skills. We three were really really pissed off by the time we arrived at the Hump. Not a good first introduction to China.
We checked into our rooms (I had had a previous reservation) and headed directly to the train station to book a way out of town for the next day. Why not? What are another few days of travel? I figured I had better tag along with Nick and Rachel because I didn’t know if I would be able to get out of town, ever, by myself…….we got lucky and Rachel was able to get us sleepers for the next night – destination Lijiang.
Before leaving Vietnam, I learned about the 'Golden Week" or Mayday in China. The first week of May, the whole country travels and all offices are shut down for the long May 1 weekend. I knew I had to have accommodation locked in for this period or I might be a pitside refugee in some rural place. I booked a place for the four days, through the weekend, in Lijiang. Seemed like a good plan. Rachel and Nick were planning to go directly from Lijiang to Shangra La.
We stayed the day in Kunmiing – I went shopping and walking – the place looks like Times Square New York – Neon and huge billboards everywhere. Women in designer everything – no recession here! Wide flower filled billboards and beautiful new office buildings. Again – all shiny and new. One really cool thing is all the motorbikes and scooters are electric. Completely silent – rather scary because they can be right behind you and you cannot hear a thing. A bicycle makes more noise. These electric bikes – look the same as any bike or scooter, have their own wide lanes. Why don’t they do this in Saigon or Hanoi? . Thousands and thousands of bikes moving silently along. I hear they hold a charge for 60 km – seem to go full speed and they have electric charging trees and extension cords in the parking lots. Now onto the toilet challenge…
Left Kunming at 10pm on a really swanky sleeper train. Very lovely and we had a whole cabin to ourselves. Super comfortable and clean and efficient. Pulled into Lijiang at 7 am and it was freezing!!!! Me? Not a happy camper – could see my breath and would rather never see that again. I miss the heat and now I miss Rachel and Nick….. and Rachel’s Mandarin.