Friday, January 28, 2011

Chinese Train Travels

Being the cheap/poor/doing things the local way show-off that I am, I decided to take trains from Vietnam to Hong Kong and then Hong Kong to Laos. I didn’t have a camera until I was in Hong Kong so I was left to try to describe the experience of a hard sleeper train trip (Hanoi to Nanning, Nanning to Guangzhou Main, Guangzhou East to Hong Kong) verbally to my friends in Hong Kong. This was definitely insufficient, so for my train ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou East and then Guangzhou Main to Kunming (where I caught a bus to Mengla and then Mengla to Luang Namtha, Laos), I chronicled my adventures in video form.

I didn’t spend much time in China, but despite all of the bad luck I had there and the difficult nature of travel there (i.e. 0 English, even at train stations and tourist areas), I would definitely return to the Yunnan. I enjoyed Kunming, where I spent two days, very much. It seemed like a similar density to Toronto and the university student population adds something special to the flavour of downtown. 

Notable Heard on the Radio: Out of Bieber-less Vietnam for only about half an hour on the train, a middle aged man’s cellphone rang with a “Baby, Baby, Baby” ringtone. Less than an hour later, a different man’s cellphone had the same ringer! Bieber Fever has hit China, as well, my friends!

I felt too awkward to film the actual ticket taking areas, which I now regret. Basically, they are massive rooms with very high ceilings (like most train stations around the world, I expect) with dozens of line ups. Above each line up is a digital sign that says something in Mandarin characters. The queues could be hundreds of people long, especially in Guangzhou. I would have no idea what line to be in, as my literacy in Mandarin is at 0. My strategy was to get into the shortest line, say the name of the place I’m trying to get to (thank you brain for thinking to Google pronunciations in advance!) and then receive a piece of paper with the number of the line written on it or ask the person to repeat in English about 5 times before I understood. It was never fast but always an adventure! 

At the Guangzhou Main station on my journey towards Laos, I had over 6 hours to kill. Most of them I spent sitting outside of the station, writing in my journal. For about two hours, I played with an adorable 2.5 year old, showing him art in my agenda and guide for the Heritage Museum in Hong Kong, while his father tried to teach me a song about Mao and communicate about other things using gestures and repeating the same words in Mandarin that I didn't understand over and over again. I thought at one point that he asked if I had children. His friend, who was better with the gesturing and knew a tiny bit of English, explained as the play date was winding down that, in fact, the man was asking if I would like to purchase his son or older 5 year old child. For 21 yuan, or the equivalent of about $3. The friend also explained to me that I have bad skin and should do something about it, repeatedly. Lovely.

Then, in the train station while I was boarding, I met a lovely couple about my age. They wanted to practice their English. This eventually evolved to the young woman asking me "what it is about you that makes you single? What qualities?" Nice.

The child sale was disturbing. The awkward questioning of my personality was amusing, if a little offensive by Canadian standards. Little did I know that the fun was just beginning.

On my way from Guangzhou to Kunming, I got a little too trusting and used my laptop to work on our video for Thailand. Later that day, I suspect, as I was getting hot water for my oatmeal (each car on Chinese trains has a hot water machine that people use for Ramen noodles), someone reached into my backpack and snatched it. They didn’t even take the power cable, they were so quick. Upsetting but not life ending, when I realized it was missing, 20 minutes before we reached Kunming, I informed one of the stewardesses that “rob” (pointed at in my book) *mime typing*.

She gathered the other stewards on the train and when we arrived at Kunming, police entered the car. They checked everyone’s ID, which had already been checked to enter the train station, probably randomly in the train station (ID is checked a lot at random, especially for men, in Vietnam and China), and again on the train at least once. They tore through my things, spreading the contents of my bags on the floor of the train. They seemed surprised that my gigantic brick of a laptop was not underneath my underwear wedged in the corner of my backpack. Once we arrived at the station, they let everyone go. 

A young man stayed behind, loitering. I couldn’t figure out why he was sticking around on the platform at 1am until he offered help doing a bit of translating for us. He is a saint! His English was very basic but enough that the non-English speaking police could ask me for my passport (which they looked at upside down until one pointed out that my picture was upside down), my name, my country (which they assumed was the US…possibly why they were not trying too hard to find my computer) and whether the laptop was important. Because that makes a difference in whether you’ll find it or not? At this point, I knew the computer was gone and was just waiting for the okay to leave. Finally, after I stood in silence in front of the officers who were talking amongst themselves, they told me (more or less) through the translating dude, “We haven’t found it but if we do, we’ll call you”. So Canada, if you get a call for Angela regarding her laptop, that’s me!

When I finally got out of the train station, thanks to a guidebook from Mike, I was able to get a taxi to my hostel. But my bad luck did not end there. About two blocks away from the train station, he got a flat tire. He helped me get another cab and I was off to the fantastic Cloudland Youth Hostel! Where they told me the wrong room and I interrupted a couple having sex in a private room instead of entering my 6 women dorm room. Fantastic. (Otherwise, that hostel is really great and I highly recommend it! It has a great vibe, super comfortable pillows and gigantic comforters, clean washrooms, a good restaurant, computers, assistance with public transit, maps, table tennis and probably more stuff that I missed out on because I was only there for a day.)

My luck changed the next day when I stumbled upon the wonderful tourist attraction that is Green Lake Park, as endorsed as the #2 thing to do in Kunming by Lonely Planet. Check out the video to see for yourself… 

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