The China Syndrome

17 May

And so the next part of the adventure unfolds… armed with a Chinese visa I board the bus to Nanning. The scenery already becomes more beautiful as we head out east..emerald green rice paddies nestling in the shadows of karst outcrops… the hills here are now causing the paddy fields to be stepped, in the iconic way that we see them in photographs. Here and there there’s a temple hidden in the fields like a tiny jewel. (and because respect for their ancestors plays such a part in the life of the Vietnamese people, little tombs dot that fields too). In few kilometres more majestic, soaring peaks appear, shrouded in mist – towering shards of karst covered with trees, each jostling for my attention like the remains of a long forgotten dragon hiding in the landscape.

To Nanning (8)To Nanning (7)

And then we’re at the border. Off the bus, into a golf cart, out of the golf cart, out of Vietnam, into another golf cart, out of the golf cart, through immigration, through customs, into another golf cart and into China and onto another bus…I short circuit some of this ludicrous golf cart madness by walking some of it. Although I am somewhat surprised when the soldier on duty salutes as I enter the country – if I had been more present rather than staring open jawed at the fact I was in China, I might have saluted back.

Immigration is simple and easy.. and there’s even a little electronic survey to register our perception of the process – although I do wonder how many people, just about to enter a new country, are going to press the frowny face and risk being sent back by a grumpy immigration official.

Immediately, the agriculture seems more organised and less chaotic. Plants seem to be grown in rows rather than the jumble that seemed to characterise Vietnam. Rice is still everywhere, but the rest of the crops seem to be grown with more purpose.

And it could be my imagination, but the mountains seem more savage too, more forceful.

Eventually we make our way into NanNing – a couple of Germans are also on the bus so we form an alliance on the journey. Unfortunately, I can’t get a ticket for the next stage of my journey (Guanghzou) until Saturday evening, so I check into a hotel in NanNing and enjoy my first night in this new culture.

Nanning (4)Nanning (10)Nanning (8)Nanning (1)Nanning (14)

In some ways, it’s like Vietnam – the same Asian feel, the same core culture. But other things have changed – we’re back on indecipherable characters, but this time there’s no attempt to provide the English, or even the pinyin (phonetic Chinese) versions. It’s hours before I notice that no-one is asking me if I want a moto/cyclo/taxi/dinner/pineapple – and apart from my two new friends, there isn’t a western face to be seen. The only way to be understood is pointing and waving – my friends have a picture book which seems like a really good idea.

Pollution hangs in the air like a shroud – despite the electric bicycles, the traffic is a huge problem. Sheet sheer skyscrapers jostle with old style slums and decrepit back streets. A walk down town reveals some real joys on a Saturday – dominoes and mah-jong players in one corner, all sorts of remedies and home brewed technologies – and  early morning dancing in the park again.

NanNing Dancing (2)Mahjjong

The dancing seems to go on all day – there don’t seem to be any lessons, and neither does it seem to follow one form or another – there’s restrained tango danced at the same time as jive, a little salsa blends with the foxtrot. Even the dismantling of the loudspeakers at midday doesn’t faze the dancers, who simply pull out their own music and carry on.

And then.. the heavens open. We’re under cover and remain reasonably dry, until we make two key mistakes – firstly, an attempt to make a little progress by running for a different shelter dumps me under a torrent dropping from the roof – and then an attempt to hail a cyclo means that we have to stand in the pouring rain while trying (unsuccessfully) to explain where we are going.

And then I’m on a train. I’ve found the hot tap at the station that the locals use to make their dried noodles (everyone is eating these). I’m glad I have something to eat, because it takes my mind off the worst seat in the world for a 12 hour train trip. More like a bench than a seat. The man next to me has designed a harness to help him sleep – it looks brilliant in design and quality of stitching, but fails the practical application, and he spends half the night reengineering it, with little success. They are all quite concerned for my welfare, though, and end up taking the curtains down to keep me warm in the night (I don’t have the heart to tell them that I am quite warm enough though)

The next morning I wake to hills wrapped in mist, as if hiding from prying eyes until they have had chance to wake up. We pass mile after mile of building site, industrial wasteland, until we find ourselves deep in the heart of Guanghzou.

At which point my next challenge appears. I can’t manage to explain to anyone where I am trying to go next. This is because ‘you can’t get there from here’. In order to get to the border, I need to be at a different station. Lonely Planet to the rescue, and I work out a different route, which she does understand – and I am on the last leg of my trip… onto the bullet train, into Shenzhen Bay, through immigration and then, finally, onto a train into Kowloon. I’ve made it to Hong Kong.


Just time now to make my way to Kowloon, where I plan on staying. Kowloon, or more accurately Gaolong (‘nine dragons’) is in the New Territories, ceded to Britain after the main Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong ‘proper’ is over the harbour. The cheapest digs in town are in the famed Chungking Mansions… although mansions is a bit of a misnomer. This 15 storey building is a rabbit warren of separate ‘guesthouses’ on different floors with different owners. The ground floor is a maze of money changers, DVD shops, electronics outlets, laundries and Indian fast food stalls. The latter two will prove very useful over the next few days.

The lifts are slow, over subscribed, antiquated and over sensitive to overloading, resulting in some interesting antics from the locals trying to squeeze one more person in without overloading the car.  So I’m in a tiny room with no windows on the 9th floor – but it’s cheap – for Hong Kong – and it’s close enough to the harbour for me to be able to get out easily in the morning for an 8am start. But THAT is going to be another story….


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