Friday, 7 December 2012

Leaving China.

Just as China rushes, I rushed out of China. After hitch-hiking to Lijiang with my Tiger Leaping companions, I had 24 hours in the city to rest my weary legs and organise my journey into Vietnam. I bought my train tickets, I'd be doing back-to-back trains for 30 hours, firstly to Kunming, a few hours wait there and then another half day to Nanning, where I'd be able to get a ticket to Hanoi. 

Lijiang has a beautiful, quaint and picturesque old town, with cobbled streets, stone bridges spanning clean open waterways, and old-style Chinese  architecture. It's a tourist mecca however, and nothing about it felt genuine, it may as well have been a part of Disneyland. I had to navigate across this vast area of shops and cafes to find the ticket booking office, located in what I now find more traditional Chinese;  busy boulevards, scruffy pavements and nondescript commercial property, with none of the charm of the old town, but the modern town was probably older than the so-called 'old town'. Finding my way through the cobbled streets was difficult. I barely saw a road name or street sign, and the layout was a warren of shops I had little interest in. I cynically thought that the lack of signs was a ploy by the town planners to keep tourists lost and spend unnecessary time amongst the shops. I eventually emerged the other side of the maze and got my tickets. The rest of the afternoon I spent relaxing in the hostel and writing the previous blog, before my train left in the evening.

Lijiang old own.
A more traditional Naxi woman walks through the town filled with Chinese tourists.
Quiet courtyards and old style architecture. 
I wandered to the bus stop in plenty of time to catch my train. I waited for nearly 30 minutes and no bus came. I was aware of some Chinese around me with luggage who were also waiting for a bus that wasn't coming, so I grouped together with them and we shared a taxi to the modern and clean station. In the station I met Tom, a guy from Suffolk I'd met in the Tiger Leaping Gorge two days previously, so we had a beer and took the same train to Kunming. My carriage was a double decker, the first time I had been on one and it was quite impressive, and I found I had a soft sleeper when I thought my ticket was for a hard sleeper. I slept all the way to Kunming, and arrived when the sky was murky blue as the first light of day was just over the horizon. Tom and I had a couple of hours until our connecting trains, though we were going to different places, so we took breakfast in a Chinese fast food restaurant, and then idled away the time in the for once quiet departure lounge. 

Dawn in Kunming departure lounge.
I slept for much of the train to Nanning, there's little else to do on these trains but doze and be rocked to a lower level of consciousness, where thoughts can form more freely and take on a direction of their choosing. I'd enjoyed travelling around China by railway, apart from one journey they'd all been comfortable, fairly relaxing and sometimes a nice way to meet local people. I arrived in my final Chinese city at midnight, and had booked a hostel five minutes walk from the station and one that was easy to find by foot. I settled in and stayed up late online, not feeling tired having snoozed for most of the day and night before. 

The next morning I met Petra, a girl from Prague who had no experience of China, so she came with me to buy a train ticket and a walk around town. Petra was a classical pianist, and was heading to Beijing to take the Trans-Mongolian railway home. She found China cold at around 16C, Siberia is currently -40C, so it was about to get a whole load worse for her. We had some lunch in a restaurant and an explore of the city, it didn't seem any different from any other Chinese mega-city, the same scruffy commercialism and endless flow of people. I did notice I was being looked at more in Nanning though, not many travellers come here and so I assume we were more of a novelty than in other places.

Street crossing in Nanning.

Old Chinese men playing mahjong, which involves pieces similar to dominoes or rummikub. 
After exploring the neighbourhood, which was fun and interesting as always, but at the same time offering nothing spectacular, we returned to the hostel to wifi to our hearts content. I had a couple of hours to pass before heading to the train station to take the six o'clock to Hanoi.

In the waiting room I didn't spot any other foreigners taking the train, and I was expecting some as quite a few people enter Vietnam this way from China. After boarding the train I met a foreigner to talk to in the smoking bit between the carriages; Ilkka. Somehow I'd failed to spot three guys from Finland in the departure lounge, but maybe they'd been hiding under their hoods. I was taking a hard sleeper, and sharing my compartment with some social Chinese, including Carrie, who was from Shanghai and spoke pretty good English, as she worked for the British Arcadia Group. We had to get off the train at both sides of the border, about an hour apart, for the usual passport and customs checks and it was as straightforward as it could be. 

Looking down from my top bunk, my last train in China.
The train arrived in Hanoi at a pre dawn hour, perhaps 5am. The streets were asleep and the sky showed no sign of day, but the stillness in the air indicated it wasn't far away. I took the bus with the Chinese from my carriage into the city centre, and not having any small Vietnamese notes from the ATM I visited, Carrie paid my bus fare, which may have been 15pence or so. We got off by the lake in the old quarter, the blue-grey dawn made it look like the city was underwater; the area was busy with people exercising or getting ready for the day and I set about finding my hostel.

Taking the local bus in Hanoi.

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