In which I nearly have an accident; Yangshuo to Hanoi; Leaving China at last

Our plan had been to take a side trip from the town of Yangshuo to the village of Xingping for a couple of days. Xingping is said to be picturesque and tranquil. But the weather and the visibility were bad, and with Typhoon Koppu forecast to bring worse, we decided there wasn’t much point if we couldn’t see anything. And we’d spent longer than we meant to in China as it was - the clocks were ticking on our 30-day visas for Vietnam, which had started ten days before. Better to just get back to Guilin, we thought. There was a rumour that it was possible to reserve berths in Guilin for the international train that runs from Nanning to Hanoi, and it would be comforting to know that that was taken care of.

The bus ride back to Guilin from Yangshuo brought to mind that old parental admonishment: “You should have gone before we left!” I’ve travelled halfway around the world on buses. That kind of experience gives you superhuman bladder-control and teaches constant strategic planning around the timing of toilet visits. Alas, even the most experienced can be caught off-guard. Every minute of that hour-long trip was pure torture. Each little bump in the road made me seriously think my bladder was about to rupture. Half an hour of that and I was in pain - an hour and I was in agony. I could really, really have done without the traffic-jam getting into Guilin. Just as I thought I was going to pass out, the bus finally ground to a halt. But there’s no public toilet in Guilin’s bus terminal, I discovered.

Increasingly panicked, I tried to rationalize peeing against the nearest wall despite the throngs of people. How bad could it be, I thought? To say the least, bodily functions are not accorded the same level of privacy here in China that Westerners are used to - sometimes none at all. Babies and toddlers here wear pants with a split down the crotch so that they can squat anywhere, anytime, I found early in our visit. Nowhere is safe; they’re allowed - encouraged - to pee or defecate wherever they happen to be standing (in Shanghai I saw a toddler hunker down and empty his bowels on the floor of a supermarket. I wish with all my heart that I was joking. Afterward his father picked him up and strolled blithely away leaving the mess on the tiles).

I couldn’t do it though. Partly it was due to the fear that releasing what now felt like fifty or sixty litres of urine had a very real chance of actually drowning some innocent bystander, but mostly I just couldn’t be that rude. Call me inhibited, tell me I have body-consciousness issues, I don’t care - I just think of it as having a little goddamn class. But standing by your principles costs, as we all know, and this time it was killing me.

The only thing that saved me was remembering in a flash that there was supposed to be a hostel somewhere near the bus terminal. Hobbling painfully I crossed the busy road and, finding a sign for the place, around the corner and down an alley or two. There wasn’t anybody minding the desk but luckily for me the door was unlocked. That toilet was a blessed sight, I can tell you. (And I can report with no exaggeration that I peed for 120 seconds straight. I know this because I timed it, like the character in that Graham Greene novel Travels With My Aunt). The girl now sitting back at the reception desk looked warily surprised to see me as I slipped out with a weak smile. Thank you and apologies, Guilin Flowers Hostel. I hope that never happens to me again. I hurt for hours afterward.

In the end the rumours were false; it’s not possible to book the Nanning-to-Hanoi International Express from Guilin. It can only be reserved from Nanning itself. We’d just have to show up in Nanning and hope there was space left on that night’s train. At least we got tickets to Nanning, though at ¥65 they were the country’s most expensive hard-seat tickets (a similar distance in Hunan cost us ¥8, by way of comparison).

That train didn’t leave until early morning. We had reservations at a hostel fifteen minutes’ walk from the station. This is definitely the part of town that people actually live in, and not a sanitised tourist district; everything was run-down or crumbling behind walls of scaffolding. The hostel was nice, though, with friendly staff and a relaxed, sociable group of guests. All except me, that is - I was in a foul mood and hid in the dorm sulking like a teenager. Sometimes I make myself tired.

Typhoon Koppu blew in overnight, lashing the city with high winds and heavy rain, and the roads were littered with leaves and fallen branches as we made our way to the train station at dawn. One possible reason for the high price of the ticket became apparent quickly. I thought I’d seen more or less everything Chinese trains could throw at me, but this train was different from every other I’d seen so far - a double-decker commuter train like a grimy version of Toronto’s GO trains.

For once we managed to board early before the crush, take our seats and get our packs stowed, and were seated happily congratulating ourselves when up walked the man in whose seat I was sitting. Our seats were upstairs. God damn it. I can’t win at this. Whose bright idea was it to number the seats the same upstairs as downstairs? If I could read Chinese I’d have known which mysterious little ideogram meant “upper” or “lower” - being an illiterate, stupid laowai I’d just followed the conductor’s finger and it had definitely been pointing downwards. To add more embarrassment, I’ve been on enough sleeper trains that I really should have noticed the upper/lower characters because they’re probably the same ones that distinguish lower berths from upper ones.

The train had filled up in the meantime - more than filled up - and so an infuriating circus followed. The train was so packed I had to crowd-surf over a huge clot of people and wheeled suitcases with our heavy packs to get to the stairs, (making no friends at all among the downtrodden masses) and then rearrange the already jammed luggage racks on the upper level to try and wedge our packs in - incurring more hostile stares of loathing from their owners (after five weeks in China I’m not really bothered by hostile stares of loathing, however). Naturally our real seats weren’t as nice as the ones we’d had to relinquish. I was stuck between Sheryl and a fat man with a terrible gas problem who’d stolen the window seat because he’d gotten there first. Between the crowding, the heat, the choking acrid clouds of cigarette smoke and the fecal stench arising periodically from my left, I was feeling very ill by the time we finally made it to Nanning six long hours later. I consoled myself during the trip with the thought that it was my second-last train in China.

Fortunately for my fraying sanity there was no trouble getting berths on the train to Hanoi leaving that night. The price difference between hard-sleeper class and soft-sleeper was small enough and I was cranky enough that we decided wordlessly to treat ourselves. Spend enough time with someone and you often know what they’re thinking without talking about it - and we’ve spent nearly every waking and sleeping moment of the last sixteen months together.

There didn’t seem to be much in Nanning that we could really get into in the space of a few hours. We killed the time in the usual ways - finding lunch, stocking up on train food, and managing to spend all of our remaining Chinese yuan. It’s not technically legal to take yuan out of China, but the real reason was that I prefer not to deal with monychangers whenever possible. The exchange rate from the ATM is always better and I don’t need to worry about being ripped off. So every time I leave a country it involves a tricky process of trying to guess how much of the local currency I’ll need so that I don’t have too much or too little. In this case it worked out nicely and we’d be leaving China with less than ¥2 (about C$0.30) left over. It was a bit of a gamble, though, because since it’s also illegal to take Vietnamese đồng out of Vietnam it meant we’d be entering the country with no currency of any sort (barring a few US dollars I’d had stashed away since Africa against emergencies). This becomes important later.

Normally we’d have wasted the remaining hours until the train at the internet place we’d found, but there were too many heavy chain-smokers in one room (which is to say, everyone except us) and with no ventilation there wasn’t any breathable air at all. I couldn’t stop coughing and my eyes were bright red. China has destroyed my breathing. I have a horrible, persistent smoker’s cough and I’ve never touched a cigarette in my life. (Deafness I can blame on India. Likewise, when I’m diagnosed with lung cancer I know exactly where to lay the accusation). We fled after an hour and spent the rest of the time in the station’s waiting room watching Rude Frog And Hippo public service cartoons on the wall screens.

The train was comfortable, but wasn’t much of a sleeper train - not in the sense of how much sleep we actually got, at any rate. That wasn’t a surprise; we knew we’d be crossing the border in the middle of the night. We reached the Chinese side of the border at Pingxiang around 10:30 and were stopped for about an hour and a half. Customs was a bit of a joke - we all schlepped our baggage off the train and into the border post, stood around aimlessly for ten or fifteen minutes and then got back on the train. They didn’t even bother making us run our bags through a scanner - surprising, given that you’re required to do so roughly every half an hour while travelling inside China. Like a lot of border guards, these ones seemed to be of the opinion that anyone leaving the country is ipso facto Not Their Problem. I’ve never had a breath of trouble getting out of a country - it’s getting in that’s sometimes tricky.

To that end, we stopped another hour at the Vietnamese border. None of the Vietnamese or Chinese passengers on the train had to disembark, so there were only half a dozen foreigners squinting in the stuttering fluorescent light of the border post. There were the usual forms and passport inspection, but again nobody seemed at all interested in what we might have had in our bags. They were only interested in our “medical examination” (i.e. taking our temperature to see if we had Swine Flu) and then shaking us down for a so-called “Medical Examination Fee” of 2,000 Vietnamese đồng each. It’s a pathetically small amount of money - about a dime - so I’d have just rolled my eyes and paid up, if not for the small matter that I mentioned above: We had no money of any sort. I’m not sure how they realistically expect everyone crossing the border to pay, if it’s not allowed to take either currency out of its respective country. I think they’d probably have let it slide, since it was undoubtedly just the official’s little scam on the side. But there was a friendly Englishwoman named Elizabeth who was returning to Hanoi from her short trip into China and who had defied the forces of government oppression by smuggling some đồng out, and she paid for us and for two Germans who had the same problem. Nice lady.

With the Medical Examination successfully completed, I listened intently and with held breath for the sound that’s become one of the sweetest and most satisfying I can hear - the kthunk of a stamp hitting my passport. As it was handed back to me I nearly wept with joy. I was really, truly leaving China. It didn’t matter what trials might lie ahead, what annoyances or horrors or unpleasantness. I’d greet them all with a smile because they wouldn’t be happening in China, and that’s the only thing I gave a damn about right at that moment.

Flourish

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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 16th, 2010

WE DID IT!!!!! And you my love have survived China. Why is it people either love India and hate China or reverse??
Anyways we made it, and your bladder is still intact.
YAHOOOO!!!!

¬ Sheryl
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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