By rail and road, China's trains and buses are long journeys to somewhere.
07.06.2007 - 12.06.2007 15 °C
I woke up the other morning in a half-dreamy state and turned my head towards the train window to see what I'd behold.
The countryside was lush and tropical, broken up by steeply terraced farm fields running up the edges of hills. In valleys peasants plowed using water buffalo. The scenery was visible only as glimpses through heavy mists. As the train barreled insistently into mountain tunnels, I would close my eyes momentarily and let sleep begin to overwhelm me again before I would reawaken at the other end.
This was Yunnan, China's farthest Southwest provence, a place known for its tremendous human, biological and geographical diversity. I didn't want to miss a second of it.
Yunnan, so remote that the long ago Chinese dynasties barely maintained control, feels more connected, in some ways, to Southeast Asia and Tibet.
Bordering Tibet, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, the region has tropical rainforests, extinct volcanoes, an active fault line (there was a 7.0 earthquake two days before we arrived), and high altitude plateaus rising to the Himalayas.
Many common Western garden plants are native to this area, including camilla, rhododendron, azaleas, vibernum, hibiscus, and others.
We decided to take a bit of time to explore the Western half of the province after a few days in the capital of Kunming, a modern, relaxed city at an altitude of 6,000-feet (higher than Denver) with few tourist sites (super!) and consistently excellent cuisine.
We would discover the city hours later when we arrived. But we enjoyed the journey from Guilin every bit as much.
Trains are the common way for common folk to get around China, since roads are often impassible because of traffic and connections between towns are poor.
Tickets are nearly impossible to get at last minute, though the train stations are full of people sleeping amidst their bags in the hopes they might be able to procure a spot.
Gaining entry, however, is worth the wait and trouble. Long-distance sleeper trains are clean, safe, and if not always speedy at 16-plus hours, reliably on time. Far better, in fact, than Amtrak.
Passengers line up well ahead of boarding time and when the gate opens surge forward, nearly climbing on top of one another in the typical Chinese fashion to get ahead. The rush perplexed me at first, since everyone has assigned bunks, but I later realized the value of obtaining space on the overhead luggage racks.
Once comfortably situated, passengers settle down in their cabins, usually using the bottom bunks as communal sitting areas. The bottom bunk is the most prized spot on trains, the first to sell out and the most expensive because of convenience and access to a small table.
But we found we like the middle and upper bunks, which are more private even as they require a bit of scrambling up narrow ladders.
The middle bunk is situated for perfect bedside window gazing, and it is there that I've spent many an hour watching the countryside roll on by.
With full days spent on foot exporing new towns, the trains are a chance for us to relax and interact with the Chinese who sometimes need to be around us a bit before they are comfortable enough to attempt conversation. The young men seem particularly interested in us and most able to communicate a bit in English.
The trains serve full meals, but most Chinese delve into personal stashes of raman noodles. A constant supply of hot water provides for soup and tea.
To while away the hours, people play cards, chat, doze, and stare out the window. But sometimes they are ready for anything. As I went to get beer from food car one early evening, Jacob pulled out his portable Chinese chess board to ready our game. I came back and my seat had been taken by a man who couldn't resist the temptation to play.
After beating Jacob, he was followed by a 9-year-old boy, who eagerly pressed forward with quick moves. Jacob was nearly beaten again except for the boy's few fatal errors. He was anxious to try again, and we realized he'd probably be happily at it all night. We had to kick him out so I would get a chance to play the next game.
On one ride, the indifferent stares of the older women in the next cabin changed to smiles when I pulled out my little sewing kit and began replacing the broken buttons on Tony's shirt. Needle and thread in hand, this independent Western woman had transformed, in their eyes, into a properly trained wife.
There are a few downsides. The toilets are indescribably disgusting and, to boot, get locked up for long periods of time when the train is stopped. The trains could travel a lot faster if not for unexpected stopping, sometimes not even at stations, for 30 minutes or longer. When that happens, the air conditioning shuts off, the cars heat up and the top bunk becomes a sweat lodge.
There's also little ability to plan one's own sleeping schedule. The lights go out at 9:30 p.m. and flick on at 6:30 a.m., along with music and the screech of the food cart vendors.
But we consider these rather small imperfections, easily offset by glimpses we get of Chinese life both inside and outside the train.
On the road
We've taken the bus, too. Let's just say the road to Shangri-la risks life and limb.
I was mesmerized, unable to take my eyes off the bus driver who adroitly maneuvers past slower vehicles on twisty mountain roads by using the oncoming lane with seconds to spare.
It's like watching a video game only the thrill is heightened by the fact that my life is on the line. Will the driver, unlit cigarette in mouth, be able to beat the odds, passing three vehicles around a blind corner and come out the other side unscathed?
How will he manage to zip past a herd of goats, a swarm of schoolkids on bicycles, clouds of burning trash, and a pile of hay raked purposefully into the middle of the road by peasants hoping to use the passing vehicles for crushing power?
This was the ride we faced on a seven-hour bus trip along the old Tibet highway to Zhongdian, a town in Northwest Yunnan that's remaking itself as the supposed site of Shangri-la.
Nevermind that Shangri-la is a fictional place from James Hilton's Lost Horizon. So much for everlasting life. The old people seem to be getting older this town and there's plenty of ugliness to the modern buildings near the bus station.
I'm reminded of the Third World's olfactory trifecta: human/animal waste, burning trash, and vehicle exhaust.
We'll be spending a few days in this Tibet town, drinking yak butter tea, and then are headed north into Western Sichuan for more of the frontier life.