I squandered my visit to Shanghai on messing around with the Metro, shopping (without buying) and eating. Just when I was getting comfortable getting around the vast city, population nearly 20 million, it was time to move on.
As I wrote earlier, getting train tickets to Hanoi proved to be a challenge in part due to language difficulties. When I did finally locate a clerk with whom I could communicate, there were other problems, not least the fact that I never did find anyone who knew what or where Hanoi was. I ended up settling for a ticket to Nanning, in Guangxi Province, which is near the Vietnamese border, where I figured the sense of geography would be better. The best ticket available was “hard sleeper,” which I booked for the 28 hour trip.
I took the Shanghai Metro to the South Railway Station (¥5 –$.75 – versus ¥50 via taxi) and the way to the Metro entrance passed the always crowded bus terminal. It was Saturday, market day, and I noticed quite a few rural people arriving via bus with live ducks and chickens in makeshift boxes, the ducks looking comical with their heads sticking out of the box.
The South Railway Station is orderly and I had no trouble locating the staging area for my train, the K537. “K” series passenger trains are the least modern (and least desirable) trains in the impressive Chinese railway system. My carriage was at least 50 years old. “Hard sleeper” accommodations are accurately described on the excellent onseat61.com site (thanks Tommy):
If you’re on a tight budget, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t travel in a hard sleeper, as many western backpackers do. Hard sleeper consists of open-plan carriages with a broad aisle on one side of the car, bays of 6 bunks (upper, middle & lower) on the other side. In spite of the name, hard sleeper bunks are reasonably well padded, and bedding is supplied. Newer trains even have power sockets for laptops & mobiles.
The facilities are not Western standard. I felt like George Costanza in India.
Again, I was the only Caucasian in the station and on train K537. You draw looks in the station and and on train, which is understandable and kind of fun. It’s the hard gawkers that piss you off, the ones who elbow their companions and point, and lack any sense of basic decency.
This fellow adopted me as soon as I boarded, and showed me the ropes. He was two berths above me. His English was as bad as my Chinese but we were able to communicate. I drew a crude boat sailing from an American flag to a Chinese one. He wrote the Chinese characters on his shirt into my notebook which a hotel concierge later translated as “Dongcheng Electromotion Tool, Qidong City, Jiangshu Province of China.” Where I thought he had written his name he wrote “China.” For me (arrow in my direction) he wrote “USA.” He also wrote “”You come back.” His hands were rough and his nails broken; I think he was a machinist. He was traveling home from Shanghai with part of his family – two sons with their wives and a grandson. He would shoo people away that he thought were bothering me (they weren’t). He recommended the food on the cart that came down the aisle periodically (noodles, duck’s egg, pork), and kept me in unshelled peanuts. He knew enough about train voyages to have brought his own knitted slippers, with what looked like 8-bit pixilated images of bunnies on them. I wished I had thought to bring a pair – putting boots on an off is a pain after awhile, and you don’t want to be barefoot on a Chinese K train. I’m taking the free ones from the hotel for my next trip.
He was funny with his explanations for various sights. When we went past a huge flock of geese on a farm, he mimed vigorous biting and chewing. A Chinese graveyard located on a hillside, as many of the old ones apparently are, was explained with the universal sleeping gesture and sharp pointing toward the ground.
Good-natured salespeople ply their trade in the aisles of the trains for brief periods each day. This woman sold health and beauty aids; here she is holding toothbrushes and “smoker’s toothpaste.” Her left hand is on the bunk just above mine. Behind her are two of my machinist friend’s relatives perched on the tiny foldout seats opposite the berths.
One young man wearing a uniform like the woman’s was selling pre-moistened towels in plastic tubes. The pictures on the tube showed a woman using one to clean herself, her baby, her dog and her car. I think it was a ShamWow –type product. I bought a pink one for the low low price the machinist recommended – ¥15, or $2.25 – and got off at the next station to use it to clean the outside window over my berth, which was filthy. This made me a minor celebrity among the passengers. (In retrospect it probably embarrassed the crew, although they were laughing at the time). The machinist was worried enough by the behavior to come out onto the platform to make sure I got back on safely. I think my pictures through the window came out better as a result of the cleaning.
Hot food and cold drinks are available from carts run by women on train station platforms. At the Guilin station I ordered a carton of rice, vegetables, peppers, chicken and something else that I couldn’t identify from a two-woman operation. The helper held up 8 fingers (¥8 or $1.21) and when I nodded barked, with customary Chinese directness, “You pay first.” This was eminently practical – it would have been impossible to juggle the large hot dish and my wallet, and she had probably been burned by customers who took the food and then leapt aboard the departing train without paying. Anyway the food was really good.
The scenery is beautiful the closer we got to Nanning, although the cities and certain rural areas can look grim from the train. But cities never look their best from a train. In the rural areas though there are lots of long tree-lined roads which I would like to see in the spring or summer. However the Chinese don’t seem to be much concerned by littering and there is a lot of rubbish in their streams.
Everywhere the train went was evidence that the Chinese are constructing a huge highway system in a big hurry.
The fellow across the divide from me in the lower bunk looked quite a bit like a young Charles Bronson. I could imagine him riding a pony over the steppes with his pals in the Mongol Horde. He was friendly and we shared the items we’d brought on board (his offer of cigarettes was tempting – I’m out of Nicorette gum, and can’t find it in China). He got off it in Quanzhou and his berth was then taken by a sophisticated and friendly older couple from Hong Kong. Again with the language barrier – I’m not sure if they are married and each have children from prior marriages and started travelling last Friday, or if they just met Friday and impulsively hit the road together. It could go either way based on our discussions. We shared pictures of our families from our identical Acer laptop computers. I know they had money because they were outfitted well in high-end travel gear and were met at the Nanning Station by a guy holding a placard.
I envied them their foresight as I had no reservation in Nanning. The hotels around the train station looked sketchy so I started walking toward what I imagined was a red Sheraton sign. I lost my glasses on the ship and could have used them to see distances as it wasn’t a Sheraton sign after all, and in fact was in Chinese characters. I walked around a bit more and met a young couple. She is Eurasian and pretty, he handsome and looked quite a bit like Bruce Lee, which he exploited to advantage by adopting that actor’s distinctive haircut. She knew English pretty well although when I complimented her she rejected the flattery, saying “I do not think my English is very good.” Either way her English was better than my Chinese. She recommended the Nanning Hotel, which is where I am now, and she and her boyfriend even insisted on walking me part way to it. It is perfect, and caters to a Chinese clientele. It has beautiful large sculptures in the lobby.