The valley is lost somewhere in the dirt clouds thrown up by our bus and its drivers erratic acceleration. A new curve exposes a town not entirely void of character, but seemingly so after the valleys effect on me.
The houses and shops become more current in their use and wares, and mountains are obscured by the high rises needed to support a burgeoning population. The town is small-ish, and to some degree quaint, but the pollution starts to thicken as I watch towers billowing out cloud mocking smoke.
The natural surrounds are still uniquely China, and still beautiful in their own right, but covered by development. It is an odd site to turn a corner on a bare mountain, and find dozens of ten story buildings jutting out of a slope, surrounded by houses and shops, and fields!
We continue our journey for an hour or so before pulling over to a small restaurant/toilet. The driver shouts in his unfreindly way to get off and suggests a time to return. Having no idea what he is saying, I make sure to stay near the bus and listen for his bellowing call. The restaurant fills with our bus and another, all locals, which I enjoy, but does mean that you are the focus of attention for at least awhile. You can imagine being stared at all the time, it can induce a bit of stage fright and make for some clumsy mistakes. Not eating, as the virus still has a hold on me, I mill around for awhile before deciding that I should probably have another toilet break. After searching around for a bit, I find a sign which has the obvious image of a person squatting, and follow it to its destination. Left for women, right for men, I round the corner for the mens and am immediately struck with horror!
Learn to Hold it in
I have mentioned before the unfortunate occurence of seeing two men defecating at the dwarves empire. This was an altogether more violent assault. In a room no more than 3 meters wide and 2 deep, there are three squats, each squat is about a foot and a half deep, does not flush, is not seperated by anything, and is basically just a hole. 2 of these holes were occupied by locals noisely emptying their bowels, the third was occupied by the previous locals bowel movement, and from the looks of it many more before him. As I walk in, the occupants, pressed arm to arm, gaze up at me, a look of innocence and expectation on their faces, even if I had of been able to overcome this site and still urinate, I would basically be standing with my junk about a foot away from the closer mans face, and as I have said before, they like to stare. Of course I made a hasty retreat, at what I assume to be great mirth from the all shitting twins going about their business. I can just imagine the after dinner conversation that night.
“So Xing and I have squatted down for our afternoon ablutions right, and this white guy walks in, and like, just then, Xing says “watch this mate”, and he like, lets go the filthiest load you have ever seen! And the white dude just like, went running! It was hilarious! Move over love your hogging the crapper”
So back on the bus, hoping not to need to pee for the remainder of the journey, I settle into world watching, still enjoying the scenery and looking forward to whatever else China might divulge.
Unfortunately, China had different plans to me, about 2 hours out of Panzhihua, the road gets bad, not just bad, really bad, for a long time. Panzhihua is a mining town, and about two hours out is when this becomes apparent, suddenly we are surrounded by trucks carrying god knows what, throwing up clouds of dirt and smoke and making the air almost unbreathable. The damage these trucks have done to the road is incredible, and it seems like no one is going to do anything about it anytime soon, huge slabs of asphalt point out at strange angles leaving gaping ditches in their stead. Rocks from fallen loads lie strewn across the road, abandoned to their fate of forever lying where they fell. I keep thinking “it has to get better soon”, but it doesn’t, not for two hours, or when you are pulling into the city itself. Be warned, if you take this route to Chengdu, it has some incredible scenery, but the last two hours on the bus is hellish.
Panzhihua, is a wierd, strange place. I am not quite sure whether it is the most hideously uncomfortable city on the face of the earth, or if it just felt that way because of its mining roots and the horrible road in. The first thing you notice before pulling into the city proper (aside from the terrible road), is an enormous industrial stack billowing fumes into the air, enormous as in, it looks confident sitting alongside the mountain it was built next to. This stack is followed and preceded by smaller stacks and factories strewn around the landscape. Everything here is mining, and it becomes more apparent the closer you get. The housing has that quickly erected look, the people seem harder, and the air feels like it produces two headed babies. I felt uncomfortable the moment we pulled in.
And then, out of nowhere, a city pops up and we are in urban sprawl, but urban sprawl on the mountain side! It is so bizzare, the river below is still undoubtably being fed horrifying chemicals, smoke still billows all around, but there are people in normal city clothes, doing normal city things.
The city itself would be outstandingly beautiful for its location, if it wasn’t for the damage done around it. Aside from the pollution, the sun was out, and I dont know if it is because we have come down in altitude, or because of the pollution, but it seems to burn more here. And regular readers would know, I don’t do well in sunshine.
We caught a taxi to the train station, a 40 minute ride with a real happy go lucky seeming guy. We ended up using him over the shouting hordes because he was the only one who had any idea what we were after, a common occurence in China. I am constantly astounded at how little english is spoken here. I guess I need to come to terms with not being the centre of the universe. He drove us through factories and city folk, all living in the same mixed up crazy city (it’s hard to explain, it really is a wierd place), and dropped us off outside the train station. By this point my cold/man flu was getting worse and I was really looking forward to getting on a train and lying down.
Then the ticket lady said (sort of) “No train till 22:55″. OK, that sucks, its about 18:00 now, but we can fill the time with dinner. Then she said (sort of)”No sleeper, only seat”. OK now that really sucks, it is a 12 to 14 hour train journey, overnight, and I feel like shit. We have been on a bus for 9 hours, I didn’t get much sleep the previous few nights, and, I feel like shit. Not planning ahead was starting to have consequences.
Well there was no way we were staying in this place, the mining locals had already been looking at Marty like jailbait, and I wasn’t really in the mood to have to shank someone. So we booked the tickets and set about filling our time.
We managed to fill said time by having dinner in a random little place, and it was actually delicious, some sort of pork and veg chilli dish with rice, the flavour was probably improved by my not having eaten all day, and I relished every last morsel. The entertainment was comprised of watching dangerous looking men wander around with their shirts off, or at least hiked up above their bellies (common in Thailand and China), and trying not to make eye contact, which is hard when everyone is staring at you.
The time drew closer and we bought some snacks from the local supermarket (beef jerkey which is cheap, and as long as you dont buy the one which smells like yak piss, delicious), and then made our way to the train station waiting room, the usual bag and body scan completed, we alighted to the uncomfortable metal seats to wait out the last hour (as it turned out 2 hours). Now you wouldnt think much would happen in this time to be noteworthy, but this is China, and things which to the locals seem absolutely normal, seem to me absolutely outrageous.
I sat uncomfortably, holding my aching head in my hands wishing the time away, when a young woman of probably 18 sat next to me, despite the abundance of seating, in the chair right next to me! This in itself is not too odd, but what she then proceeded to do, most definately was. She was quite an attractive young woman, at least the staring men walking past seemed to think so, so it came as a surprise when she pulled out a bag of chicken wings, chewed their yummy goodness, and then spat out the bones. I’m sure your thinking, “oh, thats not so bad”. But she spat the bones on the floor in front of our feet! And it isn’t like she had no option, there was a bin no more than 5 meters away. She ate her way through a dozen wings, all the while spitting the pieces she didn’t want into an increasing mess around us. And no one batted an eyelid! Meal completed, she proceeded to light a fag, in this, the no smoking area, no big deal, they do that everywhere. Then she threw the butt on the floor in front of us and stomped it out! OK, this is getting a bit much now! And just when I thought it was over, she made the horrible throat clearing noise ubiquiotous in China, and spit right in front of us. And still, no one batted an eyelid, at least the other locals had been hocking and spitting in the abundantly located bins. Although not outrageous in China, I do think perhaps she took it further than most Chinese people would. 10 minutes later a guy came along to sweep it up and looked none too happy at having to do so.
This, is China. It may seem disgraceful to us, but really, they aren’t ashamed of their bodily facts, and mostly they dont try to hide it. I, on the other hand, have trouble going to the toilet in a public restroom, and god help me if someone walks into the same room, I have to quietly wait for them to leave before I can continue with my business. And I can’t tell you the amount of unpleasantness I have had to swallow, because there wasn’t an appropriate place to relieve myself of the offending hack. They do things differently here for sure, but really, who has it wrong?
The gates open, and we, along with hundreds of locals make our way onto the train. We walk to carriage 15 and show the ticket checker our ticket, at first he looks at me as if to say “This can’t be right”, then waves me on accepting that I am either an idiot, or the one poor white guy travelling in China. His reason for the perplexment becomes even more apparent when I enter the carriage, a sea of chinese people, sitting on tiny seats stare up at me in unison (“what? What’s everyone looking at? Do I have shit on my face or something?”). I did not expect a sleeper, but my other fear has come true, they are basically static upright seats that dont move, and with people either side of you, that means sitting up straight for the whole journey (unless your Chinese, then you can lie wherever and on whomever you please). I start grinning ear to ear, and break out in a manic internal laugh, what else can you do. The sickness is making me feel out of it as is, add 2 already sleepless nights, and now a 12 hour train journey, sitting up… So be it.
I store my stuff in the overhead, sit down in my tiny seat, and enjoy the stare bears, curious at this strange mixed up white dude chilling with the locals.
The journey was not as painful as expected, Marty and I went to the dining carriage near the start and were informed that, if we wanted to stay there, we would have to drop 30 yuan each, our money buying dinner and stopping a dangerous precedent of every Tom, Dick and Xing from doing the same thing. With this 30 yuan we ended up staying there until about 9 the next morning, Marty sleeping uncomfortably on and off. And me just tapping away on my laptop, drawing, smoking and hoping no one made us go back!