Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ahh, Chinese buses

Hanoi, Vietnam

You know, you think you've seen it all...

China is a land of many contrasts.  I have seen so many sides of China in the last week, and so far I have no grasp on what "is" China.  The country is undergoing a massive modernization, or at least so they would have us believe.  In some ways, it is very modern - so modern, in fact, that when you come face to face with some of the less modern aspects, it's that much more of a shock.

Yangshuo was a wonderful little town.  It was laid back and beautiful, teeming with tourists but relaxing.  I think I hit it at the wrong time, though - most people go at the end of their trip and appreciate it much more as a respite from the harassment.  As I have not been harassed too much yet, I didn't need it as badly as they did.  However, I did have several large cockroaches in my room - leading me to sleep with the lights on - and the guy who got me the hotel came in the morning to offer generously to share the room with me since my bed was so empty with me there alone.  So nice of him.

However, I had a very nice tour of a cave - which I came out of thoroughly covered in mud, as the exit to the cave was a 4 meter tunnel that you inch through on your belly "like a snake" because it's not tall enough to even lift your head up.   Then I climbed the famed Moon Hill - the only karst formation with a hole in it - all 1250 steps (according to the Lonely Planet).  Tiring, but amazing views.

The next two days I hiked up to a village of the minority Yao/Zhuang people in the Longji Rice Terraces.  There were many, many stairs there too, but it was really spectacular.  The terraces are somewhere around 2000 years old and spread as far as you can see.  We spent the night in the village, and we were up at 4:45 am the next day to see the sunrise.  We had to hike up stairs for a half an hour, passing a fairly large snake, and it was cloudy, but the light reflected off the water of the rice paddies, making them look like mirrors.  It was really beautiful.  And pretty much no tourists - only a few chinese tourists, including one who kept taking pictures of me till I got mad and put my bag in front of my face and yelled at him.

After that began the adventure of getting to Vietnam.  I had (stupidly on the advice of someone who had been here a while) booked a ticket on a sleeper bus (remember the nice one from the other day?) to the border town of Pingxiang leaving at 5:30.  We had to leave the terraces a bit early to get there, but I rushed and made it.  I was told to wait.  By 6:30 or so, the guy finally grunted at me to move, and led me on a long march down the middle of the highway.  Why down the middle of a highway when there was a sidewalk 20 feet away, I will never know.  Finally he flagged down a decrepit looking bus and threw me on it and disappeared.

This was now the "other" China - the not quite modernized part.  My first sleeper bus had nice bunks that were clean, they made you take off your shoes to enter and had an attendant, air conditioning, and even gave you water bottles.  This one had tiny bunks so small I couldn't even come close to fitting in them.  They can't have even been 5 feet long.  My pack was thrown on a bunk next to me and the place was filthy.  Trash on the floor and sleeping Chinese all around who looked like they'd been there a while.  There was a guy who kept getting in and out of the bunk above me, swinging his dirty feet over my head.  There was no way I was taking my shoes off, either, even though all the Chinese were barefoot.  The Chinese were doing their usual act of burping, farting, and spitting all over the floor, the guy next to me was chain smoking, and to top it all off, a woman behind me had some sort of cold and spent several hours blowing her nose onto the floor using the one finger blowing technique (those of you who aren't familiar with this one, count yourselves lucky).  Just listening to the sounds, there were a few times I almost threw up.  Actually someone yesterday made a joke that the sound of hocking up phlegm is China's unoffical national anthem... you better believe it.

I put on my mask to try to block out some of the germs and tried to sleep.  The bus drove around in the usual Chinese bus fashion for an hour or two, looking for more passengers.  Someone came by and loaded several large cages of chickens into the luggage compartment under the bus.  We then went to every bus station in town until I guess they finally gave up.  By about 7:30 they took off on the highway, stopping several times for no particular reason and waiting for half an hour on the side of the road.

Around 1:45 am we arrived in Nanning, the major town between Guilin, where I started, and Pingxiang, near the Vietnamese border.  They shut the bus off God knows where and for an hour unloaded the cargo.  First a motorcycle cart came and unloaded four large cages stuffed full of squawking chickens.  Then a bigger, covered truck came - and this I've never seen before - they unloaded several big baskets, all lined with plastic bags and full of water leaking everywhere, with some sort of fish or sea creature swimming around in them.  They poured some of the water on the ground to make them lighter and then trucked them off.  Out came boxes of something from under the seats and several sacks of rice and fruit that were inside the bus with the passengers.  At around 2:45 they were off, and I thought we would be at the border town in about 4 hours.  Haha.

At 3am they pulled into the Nanning bus station.  The bus driver turned off the engine and opened up a pack of mosquito coils.  He lit two of them and put them on the ground, filling the bus with a horrible thick air.  Then he and the other bus workers turned off the lights and went to bed.

I didn't know what to think.  I couldn't get out - it was 3am and I didn't know where I was, and everyone else on the bus seemed to be sleeping and thinking this was totally normal.  Finally at around 5:30 people started to slowly get up and get out of the bus.  I got up and went outside and was approached by a guy who told me my bus was not, in fact, going to Pingxiang, and offered to take me to the bus station to get a bus.  Of course, this is all taking place in Mandarin, as no one speaks a word of English.  So I woke up the bus drivers and tried to figure out what was going on, and after talking to three people, i found out that indeed my bus was not going to Pingxiang, so I tried to demand my money back.  Instead, one of the drivers took me to yet another bus, which wasn't leaving until 8am, and bought me a ticket on that one.

Thankfully, after all this ordeal, the bus did go to Pingxiang.  There I was followed for several blocks by a woman trying to sell me transportation, and finally I lost her and took a motorcycle-driven covered wagon of sorts to the border.  Crossing was no problem - though I did have to buy a "health certificate" for 2000 dong - and I very happily met some other travelers, with whom I continued on.

The bus in Vietnam wandered around for 2 hours until it filled up, and then finally we went to Hanoi.  Actually, I like Vietnam very much so far, although it took me 25 hours to get here.  It's much more laid back than China, and the people seem nicer and friendlier.  I'm really looking forward to spending some time here - and not on the bus.  I'll tell you all about Vietnam after I've finished my time here, but suffice it to say, I am very tempted to just stay here for the next month and forget about China altogether.

So back to my original statement.  I think really that in many ways my experience on the buses here in China summarizes the character of China as a country (at least from what I've seen so far, which admittedly isn't much).  You never know if you'll get the clean, modern, air conditioned bus, or the horrible, hot local bus filled with chickens.  Even in the nice, modern bus, you may have to stop on the highway to let a farmer cross with his water buffaloes.  And the buses that leave from the bus station all have a departure time and are very punctual - but they then drive around town for an hour or two looking for more passengers, which makes them seriously not on time.

There are signs of tourism everywhere - tons of hotels and tour guides, at least where I've been - but not so many foreign tourists.  In fact, the Chinese point and stare and laugh at us all the time, and worst of all, take tons of pictures.  It gets annoying to have people treat you like an animal in a zoo - it's not the first time it's happened to me, but it's the first time when they had big fancy cameras to remember the moment forever.
Anyway, just a few thoughts to give you all a little taste of China.  Time to go now. Thanks for all the emails - sorry I can't always respond individually, but I really appreciate them, so keep them coming.

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