Thursday, 14 April 2011

Claustaphobic Trip to Nanning, 16-21 February 2011

My head begins to pound in frustration as my uncomfortable situation squashed up against the window is exacerbated by the man sitting opposite me forcing his feet into my space, the man beside me had already slumped on the table that only reaches out as far as my left leg. I didn't think this journey would be as bad as it was, it even felt worse than my journey from Ulan Bator to Beijing. The temperature was constantly changing from hot to cold forcing me to remove my fleece. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get to sleep. I gave up trying in the end and sat there reading the last chapters of Dan Brown's 'Lost Symbol' but was being interrupted people interested in my e-reader. The e-reader is a fantastic device that allows you to carry an unlimited amount of books with you but as it's technology, and fairly uncommon, it does attract attention by inquisitive passers by.

Early that day my patience with Chinese customs and etiquette disappeared and everything seemed to bug me. As I made my way to the station I found myself snapping harshly at street sellers and inconsiderate people that just got in my way. They didn't really deserve it but China is a country that requires utmost patience and the ability to black out the constant spitting and shitting on the pavement. The rain was falling from the sky and all I wanted to do was get on the train and go to sleep and I knew that it wasn't going to be easy on a seat only train. I got to the station early in hope that I could change my ticket to a sleeping ticket but I was unfortunately denied this last minute reprieve. I accepted my fate and headed to McDonalds to drown my sorrows with a cheese burger, fries and an ice cream. I know it's a disgusting western thing to do but sometimes you need your western comfort food and believe me... I certainly needed it that day. I sat in the familiar plastic seats of the restaurant reading my book and listening to music to improve my spirits. I think I was just tired, although people state that I'm on holiday and that means that I can't get stressed out or tired, I can tell you it's not true. Constant travelling, finding hostels, budgeting, planning your next journey, thinking about visas etc, it takes its toll and I was in dire need for some rest.

I returned to the station and found the departure lounge for my train and eventually found an empty seat amongst the crowds of people sitting, standing, laying and squatting on or near the chairs. I sat there, retrieved my Zen from my bag and scrolled to some soothing jazz to relax my trepidation of the next 13 hour journey. Suddenly a lady came through with a megaphone and barked some orders which provoked everyone around me to stand up and quickly move. The LED sign that previously stated my train number and platform was cleared and a man noticed my confusion and moved his hands around to explain our platform had changed. I was still apprehensive as I wasn't sure whether that man was going on the same train as me so I spoke to an attendant who forced me upon a young Chinese man and asked him to take me with him. After the compulsory sprint across the train station onto the platform to the waiting train, I found my carriage and got in the 'queue' to wait for the attendants to open the doors. It was like Tesco at Christmas that had limited turkeys, they struggled to keep a track on who was entering the train as people were climbing over each other to get aboard. I lethargically found my seat, got comfortable and prayed to god no body was sitting next to me. Obviously those prayers didn't come true as I was soon joined by three other people. The train made no sense to me, why would you put all of the chairs facing one another, if they all faced front, people would actually get leg room and wouldn't be forced into playing a thirteen hour footsy battle for territory.

The train moved off on time and the man opposite spread his Chinese newspaper out across the table leaving no room for anybody else to put a drink on it. I plugged myself back into my MP3 player and began to read. Not long into the journey the man tired of his newspaper and fell asleep on top of it, I was jealous that Asians have the ability to sleep anywhere, anyhow, no matter how uncomfortable it is I can guarantee by 10pm most of them are asleep. I was tired, yet unable to sleep. I was squashed up against the window with no escape possible as the man sitting next to me slipped silently into a comatose state. Tragedy struck when my MP3 payer froze, I began to swear aloud and extreme panic set in as I was frightened that I would have to sit on the train for another 12 hours without any music to drown out the drum of the train tracks. I frantically searched for something that I could stick into the reset hole on the bottom of the device, nothing. “This never happens, why is it happening now?” The question was going round in my head. “Think Andy, think!”. I forced myself to take an emergency inventory of all the items I had on me within easy reach that could be turned into a small pointy object. “Can I get the pins from my sewing kit from my bag?”. The answer was no as it was right at the bottom and I couldn't get out anyway. “Eureka!”, I thought as I pulled out my memory stick containing personal information from my secret under-clothing money belt. On the stick it had a small, malleable key ring that I could bend straight. I placed the newly formed key ring into the whole and heard the light click from the button and to my relief the device restarted and music began to flow into the earphones that I kept inside my ears.

I was at peace for a while longer and managed to slip out of my confinement past the sleeping people and went for a walk up and down the train. Everybody was asleep. Some piled up on top of each other, some sleeping in the aisle, some were smoking in between carriages. I managed to stumble upon the restaurant car which was empty apart from a couple of workers lazing around drinking tea. I felt as though I found refuge and made myself at home in the centre of the carriage, sent my mum a text message and got back to the book. I only sat in there for ten minutes before I got kicked out by the workers and so, I dejectedly returned to my cramped and uncomfortable seat. It was nearing 3am and my anxiety was at an al time high although my energy levels were so low my body couldn't sustain it much longer so I slowly began to drift off to sleep.

I intermittently woke up when my neighbours moved positions causing a whole reorganisation of leg and arm positions. The last time I briefly became conscious I noticed sunlight was coming through the window which must have relaxed me completely as the next time I was woken up by the man next to me saying that we were almost in Nanning. Thank god for that, I was so relieved that the journey was coming to an end.

The train pulled into Nanning and I alighted the carriage entering the last Chinese railway station on my journey. The weather was dull and the clouds threatened heavy rain so I quickly followed the directions to Lotus Land Hostel and checked in. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get straight into my bed as it wasn't ready, so I waited in the most homely comfortable hostel common area I have ever been in. As soon as I got word that my bed was ready I bolted up the stairs and crashed for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon.

Nanning is a booming comparatively small city near the Vietnamese border. It is a common stopover for a lot of travellers as you can get your Vietnamese visa there and a short train/bus journey across the border into Hanoi. After my sleep I made sure I got my passport sent off immediately to the Vietnam Consulate so I could get out of China. Lotus Land Hostel provide a fantastic visa service where you just handover your passport, a photo and the fee, and they fill out all the paperwork for you and sort it out for you. As I chose the cheaper three day service and it fell on the weekend, I would have to wait until the Monday for the return of my passport. This didn't bother me as I knew I needed a rest before hitting Hanoi.

I walked around Nanning and didn't discover much of any interest, it was an industrial city and by our hostel a row of shops shaped metal into various objects. The sound was intrusive, the constant tapping of hammers began at 7am and continued throughout the day with little rest. I shared my dorm with two Italians, Claudio and Marco. They were both on extremely epic journeys themselves. Claudio was taking his 125cc scooter from Italy around the world and Marco was taking his 600cc on a similar trek. They were both in China without their bikes as the People's Republic does not allow any foreigner to drive a motorised vehicle without a CITS guide which costs a lot of money. This limits the freedom of travel for foreigners and means you cannot just head into places where they don't want you snooping like Tibet. I leaned this whilst reading 'Tuk Tuk to the Road' where Jo and Ants had to fork out for a guide to travel with them for the entire route through the country. This was an expensive bureaucratic nightmare for them but they had no choice but to comply. So Claudio and Marco left their bikes in Laos with a trustworthy coach-surfer. Also in my hostel I met Alex, a 24 year old guy who was on the same journey as me but was fortunate enough to have gone from London by Eurostar. I'm still a bit disappointed that I cheated on the first leg of my journey and caught a flight to Tallinn. I take solace in the fact that I have travelled Europe by land already and my long bus journeys to Warsaw and Munich should make up for it. I will one day fly to Warsaw and travel by bus or train to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to complete my overland voyage.

Claudio and Marco dangerously introduced me to the wonders of Dicos. Dicos is a fast food restaurant chain that spreads throughout China selling anything from chicken burgers to curry. The chicken burgers were amazing and at 5 Yuan (50p) you really couldn't complain and the chicken curry was a fantastic choice also. I think over the next few days in Nanning, I visited the restaurant everyday and maybe more than once! I became addicted to the place, it's convenience and it's price. Nanning also has a great food street where you can buy anything from dog's leg to alligator tail. We ate down there several times, although not the aforementioned dishes, just dumplings and the like.

The Chinese people are very sociable people and this is a big difference between their culture and ours. My favourite place to visit in Chinese towns and cities are not the main attractions or museums but the public parks. Chinese people congregate in parks and take part in one of the many activities that go on whether it's playing chess, cards, dancing, playing musical instruments, singing, story telling, playing Jiánzi, exercising or general lazing around. The parks epitomise Chinese culture and just to sit and absorb the atmosphere and the social aspect of their society. I have noticed that they don't need to know people beforehand, they can just talk with anyone without the fear of rejection, the sharing that goes on between strangers in the parks or on trains makes me envious. If somebody started talking and sharing food and drink on the 7am Norwich to London service, you would find them strange. Hardly anyone in Europe wants to be social to strangers, you have your friends and don't need to find anyone else so you plug yourself into your MP3 player and go about ignoring everybody around you. For me, the next time you're sitting on the train and there is somebody sitting next to you, offer them a sweet and a smile. I have been touched by the generosity shown to me by people on the trains, sharing their food and drink with me and everyone around talks to one another as though they've know each other for years.

The park in Nanning was no different, it was full with people socialising from dawn well into dusk. One evening on our way back from the food street a large group of around fifty people were participating in a group dance. It was akin to 'Saturday Night' by Whigfield but much much more technical. The temptation to join in was too much for Marco and I so we hopped in line and tried to follow their moves. I had no chance of keeping up with their flailing legs but Marco seemed to have got the hang of it for a while but then we reverted back into 1970's dance moves which made the surrounding Chinese laugh and move away from us as though we had avian flu. At the end of the song we bided farewell to our fellow dancers feeling happy with ourselves headed back to the hostel for some beers.

Monday morning soon arrived and with it, the possibility of my last day in China as my visa was supposed to arrive that evening at 6pm. Alex was feeling a little depressed as everyone was moving on, me, the Italians and three English guys we had met, and he had to stay in Nanning as he had been pick pocketed and was waiting for a replacement credit card to arrive. I felt bad for him as his Vietnamese visa was running down already and there was no telling when it would arrive. We all went out for a walk around town stopping to grab some food and headed back to the hostel, Alex had already accepted the chances of getting his card were slim at best and I was wondering whether my visa was going to turn up on time. We got back into the hostel and the lady behind reception told me that I had post. Excellent, my visa had come through but the envelope wasn't for me, it was for Alex. He opened the letter to reveal his credit card enclosed. I haven't seen anyone this happy for a very long time. On a high we all celebrated, but now at 5pm I was still wondering whether my post was ever going to arrive. We sat there talking and surfing the internet which was incredibly slow, if not non existent, that day. We wondered whether it had to do with the failed protest attempts and Hu Jintao's pledge for tighter controls on the internet or maybe the massive solar flares. I received a tap on my shoulder and the friendly girl from the reception desk handed me my passport, complete with visa! I looked at my watch and it read 5.59pm, 1 minute early! Can't complain about that service. My mood was elevated to a totally new high and Alex and I left immediately to buy our bus tickets to Hanoi.

The ticket office was about two hundred metres down the road and I don't think our feet touched the pavement as our excitement lifted us. Buying the tickets was simple, we couldn't get the 7.30am bus but the 8am service still had tickets left. Still happy we headed back to the hostel with smiles from ear to ear. WHACK! What the hell was that? A sharp pain shocked through my body starting from the right side of my jaw. A lady street cleaner stood there rather embarrassed as her broom handle made contact with my face. The shock of the situation soon lifted and I was left with a Chinese man laughing in my face at my misfortune. I did not like this and exploded into a verbal attack on the man, only to drag myself away with the thought that I needed to get out of the country and not inside a Chinese police cell. A nice end to my Chinese leg I thought!

Next time, Exiting the People's Republic of China to Vietnam.

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