04 Aug Heaven and Hell, public transport in China
I worked out the other day, that since landing in China, I have spent around 70 hours on trains. That is, 70 hours in about a month and a half. And it would have been over a hundred, had I caught the train to Beijing (they were sold out, a blessing in disguise). This truly is a vast place, and it is its scale which makes it so diverse and interesting to travel around. It also makes one a lot more patient when it comes to long journeys, you have to be, or you would go mad and batter the first Chinese fellow to hock up and spit, while you are staring into a bowl of “I can’t eat that shit” train noodles.
Arriving at Xian train station at around 5 in the morning, you are met with a hundred or so people, sprawled across blankets, newspaper and luggage. Early morning travelers, saving a bob or two by sleeping in the great outdoors, even if it is outside a bus station, next to the road, and on solid concrete. There is a faint smell of urine in the air, accentuated by the already intense humidity and heat, despite the sun not yet making an appearance.
Having left before breakfast was served, we made our way to the only thing open, a 24 hour McDonald’s, and treated ourselves to a Mc Chicken burger, Mc ice coffee, and about 1000 grams of Mc saturated fats. Then into the station to sprawl with our fellow passengers and wait for the call to rise.
About 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time, some unheard trigger activates, and a mass of people join an already bustling line. By join, I don’t mean in an orderly fashion, basically in China, you find the weak link (generally the foreigner, old people or small children), and insert yourself between them and the front of the que.
Normally no one cares, normally I don’t care, except for today. In the west I was fairly adept at giving (and receiving) the filthy looks associated with line jumping. So I raise my eyebrows and throw out a nasty comment, something derogatory about their mums I believe.
Of course it has no effect,
A. because no one understands me,
And B. because I say it softly enough to not have to deal with the consequences of someone actually taking offence.
I put my uncalled for behavior down to all the saturated fats and the early morning wake up. Or just being a bastard.
10 minutes after the yell to get on, the train is leaving, on time. If you are late here, tough, they aren’t going to make everyone late because your slab of concrete was to comfy. That is the communist way, the individual is not as important as the whole, it is evident in so many little things in China, from train journeys, to the instant camaraderie you witness amongst Chinese tourists, to the group beating I would have received if my dislike of their mothers had been heard. And it seems to work.
Despite being on a train at 6am, and this generally being the time to wake up (Although 9 or 10 is more true nowadays). Sarah and I managed to sleep through just about the whole thing. We had a few snack breaks (that is, a break from sleeping), watched a movie, and checked out the occasional bit of scenery, but otherwise…slept. Then hey presto, welcome back to Chengdu, dead on time, at 10 in the evening. Such a pleasant way to spend a journey.
We booked back into Mix hostel, where I was greeted like the returning hero (well, someone remembered me), and were off to bed. No showers or changing of underwear for this fellow, I had more sleeping to do.
Aside from another visit to the pandas for Sarah to have a look (yep, still cute, and I saw a baby one this time), Chengdu was relatively uneventful, and more a jumping off point for our westward migration, or, our attempt to see a bit of rural China, and get as close to Tibet as we could (there are a lot of restrictions on travelling in Tibet, to the point where it is nigh on impossible for us…no brits allowed, under any circumstances, our reputation obviously precedes us).
And so it was, we found ourselves on a bus, somewhat randomly, heading to Kangding, and the final destination, Tagong. If your thinking to yourself, “Hmm, Kangding, doesn’t ring a bell”, that is because it is one of many small (Chinese small) towns, out in the boondocks, and not really on the tourist trail, i.e. Perfect to escape the hordes.
It is around 8 hours to Kangding, through a landscape which becomes more impressive the further away from the city you get, within 3 or so hours, you can’t believe that you were even in a city such a short time ago. The West is marked with mountains that stretch out in every direction, towns and villages are speckled among them, occasionally broken up by a small city/large town, that you would be hard pressed to find in any guidebook.
Distance only enhances the landscape, and you find yourself climbing cliff faces, higher and higher, until your ears pop and chip packets seem about to explode. It seems at times that the bus might tip over the edge, the broken narrow road forcing too close for comfort views of the river far below. All the while the driver puffs away at a fag and chats to a mate on the phone, showing little concern for the deteriorating roads perilous surface. Oh well, no one else seems to mind either, what’s the worst that could happen.
We stop once for a “hole in the floor” break, about an hour before our destination. Really it is so the bus driver can get his bus washed on the clock, and also so that the locals can make a bit of cash off the tired, desperate for a piss passengers. They charge 1 yuan (about 15 cents) to use the facilities. What that money goes to I’m not sure, if the mound of feces I attempt to wash away with my stream is anything to go by, it isn’t maintenance. Next time I will take a leaf out of the locals book and use the attached restaurants road side wall. I envy their ability to disregard hygiene, but I’m not there yet. Anyway I got to meet a couple fellows who were very friendly and gave me their “qq” numbers (like hotmail i think), we sort of talked, they stroked my beard (not a euphemism) and we laughed at lord knows what, and then were on our way again!
It amazes me, that even out here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, where plumbing is a luxury there are huge bridges, hydro-electric dams, and tunnels that stretch 4 km’s through the mountains. The amount of money these things must have cost, and yet they are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, at least that is what you think until you come through the other side of one of these snaking tunnels, and are faced with an enormous town built into the valley, almost as if it belongs there, as though someone laid a pile of brick manure on the soil and it just sprouted into a well laid out city.
After talking to locals, it turns out a lot of these places are brand spanking new, and are getting bigger, real fast. The construction offers jobs to the growing workforce, and the product thereof a place for that workforce to live, a cycle which ensures exponential growth, and something for all those people to do. Another tick for communism (is it still taboo to side with the Commies?).
Which brings me to Kangding, one of those undoubtedly small towns back in the day, and now a bustling, modern, sprawling beast, stretched across a beautiful valley, flowing as naturally as the river which divides it. At around 2700 meters, it is pretty high, but not so high as to induce the headaches, nausea or shits altitude so often bestows upon ones countenance… Or is it?
Read on next post to find out whether our hero, yet again, will have to battle his way through the indignities of squat toilets and diarrhea! (Hint, he does).