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April, May 1999
May 2002

My 1999 trip to China began with a morning flight from Bangkok to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. It was a two-hour flight and mostly empty. A large tour group had laid siege to the back half of the plane but the rest was sparse. I wasn’t even out of Thailand and I was already getting a reminder of where I was heading - I was in a plane with a noisy tour group, so it must be China.

Kunming (pop. one million) is an attractive city but, unlike my 1998 trip, I had no desire to spend time in cities, so while I passed through Kunming three times, I never really explored the city. But from going around the city procuring bus tickets and the like, I got the impression that Kunming is healthy, and like most healthy Chinese cities, it's experiencing a major facelift as high-rise hotels and office buildings sprout like bamboo shoots after a spring rain, displacing many an old neighborhood.

The main tourist attraction of Kunming and the surrounding area is the Shilin Stone Forest, an 80-hectare park of limestone pillars ranging from 50 to 100 feet in height, 60 miles southeast of the city. It’s an extremely popular destination for the domestic tourism market and the presentation is geared towards that market. The reports from other foreigners have been mixed. Impressive? To a point, but overrated seemed to be the verdict so in the name of time I skipped it.

I surprised myself with how easily I settled back into China mode. Any country will be easier the second time around, but as I stepped out of the airport it felt like I had never left. I knew the taxi systems, the hassles, everything, and it all came right back to me. I painlessly got a taxi, and cheap - the airport is practically in downtown Kunming, and headed for a reasonably cheap hotel - the Camellia. This was to be the first of only two nights on this trip to China that I would spend more than the equivalent of $10 US for a room - the other night being my last night in the country, also in Kunming. I took a room for 140 yuan ($17.50). It would also be one of only four nights in a month I’d have a private bathroom.

I spent the afternoon in Kunming hunting down an express bus ticket to Dali. At the time, Lonely Planet had just published (November 1998) a Southwest China guide. Was the express bus terminal and ticket office where they said it was? Of course not. And I was to find out in due time, just about everything else LP said about buses and highways through Yunnan and Sichuan provinces had changed since that recent publication.

My first destination would be Dali, a very popular place in western Yunnan, that until very recently required hellish ten or even fifteen hour bus rides to reach. But thanks to road improvements, that ride is now down to six or seven hours (1999) and may even be down to four or five hours now (2002). The recent addition of express bus services makes a now easier bus ride even more bearable. Thanks to the wonders of capitalism, private operators are offering express deluxe bus services on popular routes served by upgraded highways.

These are modern air-conditioned buses with reclining seats, toilets, and best of all - no smoking and no spitting. You’re also given a free bottle of water, a free edible lunch at a reasonably clean roadside restaurant, and a silly souvenir at the end of the trip. And if that’s not enough to entice you on board, there are two TV sets that show Chinese game shows, comedies, and maybe even a Hong Kong Jackie Chan movie with the added bonus of English subtitles. In between video presentations music is provided, alternating between Chinese pop and Kenny G. And how much do you pay for all this luxury? About double the regular fare. A normal Chinese bus complete with dirty seats, no AC, and a bus full of spitting smoking travelers would cost 55 yuan ($6.88) from Kunming to Dali; this bus cost 100 yuan ($12.50). Was the extra 45 yuan worth it? Absolutely.

The first half of the ride to Dali was along a modern highway surrounded by, I think, a lot of mountains. However, as this was China and a populated area, haze, dust and pollution obliterated much of the views. Kunming sits at about 6,000 feet, so I’d guess most of the mountains that I could see were around 9,000 feet. As the highway wasn’t quite finished, the second half of the bus ride was along twisting turning mountain roads where traffic would frequently come to a virtual halt while everyone waited for a large truck to get up a steep hill.

After ten days in Dali, Lijiang, and the Tiger Leaping Gorge, I was back in Kunming for a day, ready to head up to Chengdu (Sichuan Province) by train. Although I could have taken an old rattle-trap bus from Lijiang to Panzhihua where I could get the train from Kunming to Chengdu about a third of the way through its 26-hour journey, I choose instead to ride on the comfortable deluxe bus back to Kunming, relax for the night, and catch the train from its origin.

The trip to Kunming from Lijiang cost Y155 ($19.63) and took ten hours. Again, a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie provided the entertainment but this time sans Jackie Chan. And again, exclusive of myself, the bus was 100% Chinese so I was rather thankful it was a deluxe no smoking bus.

Back in Kunming I made a beeline for the train station and commenced for the first time in my life the daunting task of purchasing a train ticket on my own. What’s the big deal, you ask? Have you ever tried to buy a train ticket in China at a large urban train station?

Kunming is like this: the ticket room is a large room with about twenty booths. Different booths sell tickets for different lines, readily identified by signs. This assumes you read Chinese. If you can’t read Chinese you have to either stand around looking hopeless until some kind person assists you (a real possibility), or an opportunist tries to sell you a black market ticket (another real possibility). You can also get out your little phrase book that has the Chinese characters for different cities and play match game.

A final option is to try the information booth. The only written English in the Kunming train station were the words “Information Booth”; this however does not allow you to assume the person behind the desk speaks English. Well, behind the desk were two people and surrounding the desk were about eight more people screaming at them. The staff behind the desk were screaming back. I nudged my way up front, barked out “Chengdu”, pointed towards the ticket windows and shrugged my shoulders. The person, through sign-language, indicated the proper window number and then resumed shouting back at the people. Sometimes I think they enjoy all that shouting.

Okay, now I knew where to go, but I still had to actually buy the ticket. Did I also mention this was a holiday, May 1, May Day? And there’s the, uhh, line. You’ve heard about lines in China, right? No, of course you haven't heard about lines in China because they don’t have any lines in China to hear about. They have mobs.

At each booth they do have metal railings to keep things just a little bit orderly but the line collapses once you get near the window. How on earth a bunch of people can maintain a reasonable line only to resort to chaos and anarchy as soon as they get close to the window is beyond my comprehension. Well, I got near the front and it was all pushing and shoving to get to that window. People yelled at the ticket seller, she yelled back. I was definitely not conditioned for this, but one gentleman seeing my lack of experience in dealing with the chaos of a Chinese ‘line’ pushed a hole open for me and nudged me right into place.

I’m at the window. Next hurdle: buy the ticket. “Chengdu!” I shout. “Xieshwie dweishie qijing dufwu zhong zhuxie,” she replies. Well, not exactly, but it might as well have been for all I could understand. But I had my phrasebook, so I slid the book back and forth under the window marking off the phrases and relevant Chinese characters and soon enough I had a hard sleeper ticket for the next day’s morning train.

To me, entirely incapable of speaking but a few words of Chinese, the ticket seller was as patient and reasonable as she could be under the circumstances. I never really got a smile out of her but she never yelled, hurried me, or otherwise indicated I was a burden on her workday. I was impressed by this and it I felt I was getting considerably better treatment than the Chinese received. No sooner did I receive my ticket that the seller immediately resumed yelling at the Chinese customers who yelled back.

I pushed my way out of the station and checked into some name-long-since-forgotten hotel across the street. I got a Y60 ($7.50) room with bathroom down the hall. For most of this trip I was getting single and double dorm rooms. By law they can’t stick you in a room with a Chinese person so at many hotels you’re almost assured of getting a dorm room to yourself. Not once did I ever have to share, but sometimes they will try to get you to pay for all the beds or at least negotiate a rate somewhere in between.

It was dinnertime and I wasn’t feeling at all ambitious so I only went as far as the hotel dining room. Fortunately it had an English language menu. I was the only foreigner in the place so I expectedly attracted some attention, but by now I was so used to being stared at that I paid it no mind. One group of diners at a nearby table nodded and waved to me. A normal reaction. I smile and nod back.

Just the cue the man had been waiting for- a man of about forty gets up, walks over to my table, and sits down opposite me. He smiles and following proper Chinese etiquette offers me a cigarette. Well, one, I don’t smoke, and two, I was eating, literally. That wouldn’t stop a Chinese man of course, I’ve seen many a man alternate between bites of food and drags from cigarettes. But I decline, so the man lights up a cigarette of his own and tries to make conversation. I don’t speak Chinese. And I was eating. So I smiled and nodded my head a lot trying not to offend him by gagging every time smoke blew in my face. Soon he realized that the conversation wasn’t going to progress very far and he excused himself from my table.

Thereupon two women, both about forty, and from the same group of diners, came and sat at my table in his place. They too, tried chatting at me in Chinese. One woman started making hand motions to me that I couldn’t comprehend in the least. The closest interpretation I could make is she wanted me to go with her somewhere. Where, I couldn’t guess. With her? With her family? Really I have absolutely no idea what she wanted. I could only nod my head and smile a lot. You do a lot of nodding your head and smiling in China.

The next morning I could take my time, my train wasn’t leaving until 10:00 a.m. I went to shower but had no towel, so I chased down the room attendant who informed me by shrugging her shoulders and smiling that there wasn’t going to be a towel. I showered anyway. I searched for coffee but couldn’t find any; it had now been thirty-six hours since my last cup. It looked like it was going to be at least twenty-six more as I certainly didn’t expect to get any on the train.

Most Chinese trains have three classes of travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, and hard seat. Hard sleeper isn’t that bad, though to really enjoy it one should travel with somebody, or preferably at least three people, as that will allow the group to occupy at least half the berth and claim a few of the squatters’ rights. Each berth has six bunks in three levels. The bottom bunk is no good as everybody comes along and sits on it. They’ll usually stay just long enough to eat a few peanuts and drop the shells all over the bed. The upper bunk, aside from being in the stratosphere, is also where the smoke collects. Though some hard sleepers are smoke-free (and spit-free). This one wasn't. Everybody smoked, everybody spit. Yes, right on the floor. They’ll throw garbage all over the floor, too, and what they don’t throw on the floor they throw out the window.

Fortunately I had the best option, a middle bunk. And, as I had this reserved bunk in hard sleeper, I didn’t have to deal with the insanity of hard seat hell; I could calmly board shortly before ten, stocking up first on snacks and water. I located my car and berth and a quick look around told me that I was going to be the sole foreigner again. No sooner do I claim my bunk that some guy grunts at me and makes motions like I should switch my bunk with his lower bunk in the next berth. I shake my head and look at him as if to say, ‘you think I’m stupid?’ Apparently he did.

The scenery for much of the ride was pretty good, taking me past rolling hills and sometimes past fairly high mountains. And many tunnels. The first time through a tunnel, a particularly long tunnel, plunged the car into complete darkness, as nobody had bothered turning on the interior lights yet. This prompted one man to jump up and start screaming at the top of his lungs about it for thirty seconds.

It was a good thing I thought to buy some snacks as food options on this train were meager. Occasionally, a man would come by pushing a cart full of snacks, but beyond that I had to wait for a meal to be served. Twice, once in the evening and once again the following morning, a woman came by with a set meal of edible but less than exciting food. There was no choice either; eat what she had or go hungry.

I spent most of the day reading and looking out the window. Especially reading, I got through one and a half books on this train ride. I never really figured out who was in my berth, people came and went so often. For the most part they ignored me, which was fine, though one man about my age took an interest in the book I was reading and tried to initiate a conversation. He could read English but couldn’t really speak it, but he seemed friendly and far more polite than several of the other men who spent most of their time spitting, smoking, and grunting. He actually seemed like someone that if mutual language skills could get us past “where you come from?” might have been an interesting person to pass some time talking with.

I did take one walk up and down the length of the train where I encountered one group of about five Brits several cars away, but otherwise this train was 100% Chinese. I slept surprisingly well that night rising at about 6:30 a.m. The morning, however, dragged on endlessly. I was now on my third day without coffee, my longest withdrawal in about twenty years, and I had the headache to go with it. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. the train came to a screeching halt. No big deal, I think, the train often stopped for a few minutes here or there. But instead we sat for over ninety minutes. When we finally moved again, we only had but a mile or two to reach the Chengdu station. I could have walked.

My third pass through Kunming was nothing were noting. Flew in at night from Guilin, spent the night at a hotel, and had an early afternoon flight back to Bangkok the next day. Saw nothing, did nothing.


Arrival from Baoshan, well relaxed from the short flight in lieu of one more in a seemingly endless series of long distance bus rides. I give the Camellia Hotel another chance and got a room for 100Y, 40Y less than in 1999. It being late I wasn't going further than the cafe downstairs where I order some nondescript dish and settle into the one computer to take advantage of the thirty free minutes internet customers receive. Thirty minutes finished the woman comes to give me the boot. Well, there's nobody waiting. But your thirty minutes are up, have to leave. Can't I stay...? I'll pay for the time. Nope, time's up, have to go. So, with nobody else waiting and no desire to take my money I was booted off the terminal leaving a half-written e-mail never to be sent nor finished. Apologies to somebody...

The following morning, May 3, resulted in a frustrating and crazy search for cash. The May 1 holiday was still being celebrated and almost all the banks were closed. At least any that could dispense money from a visa. I spend half the morning looking for an open bank or an international ATM and find nothing. I have maybe 200Y to my name and the following afternoon we were supposed to hop a train to Guilin.

My girlfriend was flying up from Bangkok today, so I made a desperate phone call to her, hoping she hadn't shut her phone off yet. No such luck. So the money search would continue. Finally, after hours of searching and miles of walking I found a Bank of China branch that was open and able to dispense money from a visa. So I stocked up with a couple of thousand yuan and wandered off to find an internet place that wouldn't kick me out after thirty minutes. Found one. Big telecom place down the road from the Camellia and near Mama Fu's where I had some sort of lunch and then off to the airport.

Ning had never flown by herself before so she was understandably a little nervous about flying to another country alone so I left no margin for error and showed up well before her plane would land. Standing around the arrivals hall I see an international ATM hooked up to the same network as my card. I massage my tired legs and sore feet and try not to think about it anymore.

Ning eventually appears and we return to the Camellia and waste away what's left of the afternoon. The following day would be spent wandering around downtown Kunming and spending money on things we didn't need. Reminding us of our 2000 trip everyone thinks Ning is Chinese (ethnically she is half) and they all stare at the white guy with the Chinese woman, never mind she's Thai. Eventually it's time to get our train to Guilin and once aboard we find that the confusion over Ning's nationality could actually be a problem.

The train ride, like train rides are supposed to be, was uneventful, until the following morning, anyway, when a PSB officer decided to investigate Ning. Seeing what he thought was a Chinese woman with a westerner he stops at our berth and begins demanding something or other from her. We know not what as we have no idea what he's talking about. Finally he blurts out "passport" and we both produce ours. He gives mine little notice but starts pouring over Ning's all the while shouting at her and demanding answers to questions which we could not answer. He storms off with her passport, we follow him to the end of the train where he stands holding the passport and shouting at us. At this point I've stepped in and am pointing at the passport using in probably fairly incomprehensible and incorrect Chinese, "Thai-guo! Thai-guo! Bushi Zhong-guo! Bushi Zhong-guo! Thai-guo you stupid twat!" I also quickly consulted a phrase book and was trying to make the point that we don't speak Chinese because we aren't Chinese. Apparently something finally clicks in this guy's brain as he hands back the passport and waves us off. I look at his uniform and notice the metal plate that would have his six-digit ID number was most conspicuously absent. Hmm.

Later we meet a woman from a couple of berths down who speaks very good English. "So what's up with that PSB officer," I ask her. "Oh, it was just routine," is her response. Didn't seem very routine to me, but maybe to the Chinese being hassled by the police for no reason is routine.

I then wondered about the officers' commitment to law enforcement seeing as a couple of men not far from us were smoking in the compartment, which is forbidden in air-con cars, even in hard sleeper. Alas, after about ten cigs each, one of the officers does finally have words with them and they never smoke in the compartment again.

Story continues in Yangshuo.


Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.