A Quick Day In Nanning

Before I left the train station in Nanning last night I bought a ticket south, to Vietnam I hoped. I had until 6:45 pm to blow in Nanning. I spent an hour on this blog, then realized it was a windy gripe about the difficulty of exchanging Taiwanese money in China, and deleted it. Who cares if Bank of China makes it difficult to exchange counterrevolutionary Taiwanese currency?

The only interesting thing about the Bank of China trip was this horrible workplace innovation that sits beside each teller’s window. Bank of China "Rank Your Teller" MachineAs you can see it has a picture of the teller, a 1 to 5 “star” rating, an invitation to “PLEASE LEAVE YOUR VALUABLE OPINIONS,” and three buttons from which the customer can select only “Satisfactory,” “Average,” or “Dissatisfied.” The teller knows immediately how the customer rated her service, because she has to electronically reset it, from behind bulletproof glass, to prevent the casting of multiple “valuable opinions” by the same customer I suppose. She and her co-workers laughed when I said  how awful I thought it was but this woman had 3 stars – above average. A young guy I dealt with earlier in the day had only one star, although he didn’t seem too worried about it either.

Remember that grim experiment in which the subjects, not realizing they were such, kept administering what they thought were electrical shocks to a hidden actor long after his contrived screams of agony descended into moans and ultimately silence? At Bank of China the “subject” delivers the push button punishment while looking the actor in the face. How long before this human resources innovation finds its way to America?

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Leaving Shanghai, on the Train to Nanning

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. P1000721He 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.”P1000722 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.  P1000754But 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.

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By the Numbers

Before I leave the subject of the ship I wanted to set out the numbers.

Seattle to Pusan 4616 nm
Pusan to Yantian 1143 nm
Yantian to Kaohsiung 340 nm
Kaohsiung to Shanghai 592 + 43 “river in” nm
Total 6734 nm

As the First Mate on the Baltimore told me, 1 nautical mile is the rough equivalent of 1.15 statute miles. So in all I travelled about 7744 miles aboard the Hanjin Baltimore in about 24 days, or around 322 miles per day on average (although that leaves an inaccurate picture because it includes in-port and drifting days).

The “river in” miles getting to Shanghai were on the Yangtze River.P1000664 Wikipedia has a good explanation of the importance of the Yangtze in Chinese history and at present. The ship traffic on the approach to Shanghai is heavier than I saw anywhere else. Getting to the city involves gradually directing the ships into two lines, then merging those lines together with a third one from the south channel. The ships finally approach Shanghai in one line going the same speed. Pilots are brought aboard by what look almost like jet skis and left to scale the ladder onto the ship while their driver heads back to the large ship that houses the pilots. Sometimes pilots are deposited onboard by helicopter drop, winching them down from the helicopter to the port bridge wing onto a large black mat with a “P” circled in white. I would have liked to have seen that.P1000692

The pilot came to the bridge and spent most of the time hollering in Chinese over his cell phone on what appeared to be personal business. I noticed that the Captain kept a close eye on the pilot’s directions to the crew and, on at least one occasion, intervened and  politely but firmly overrode him.

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A Rube in Shanghai

I left the ship in Shanghai on Wednesday evening. I expected a bag search at a minimum but it went very smoothly.  Three uniformed Immigration officers came aboard and met with the Captain in his office. I was summoned, one of the officials briefly compared me with my passport picture, and the three got up and left. They were polite and friendly. I think the Captain’s familiarity with the processes of getting on and off the ship in all of the countries we visited helped a lot.

Several of the crew and I exchanged contact information before I left. As I’ve said before there wasn’t an unpleasant personality in the bunch. They are hardworking family men who are a long way from home performing a job with major responsibilities for the safety of the crew and cargo. They are all intelligent and some had interesting things to say about books, movies and world politics. They were courteous, patient and generous about sharing their knowledge with this tourist, and I am glad I got to spend time with them.

But once off the boat in Shanghai I again had the feeling of being on roller skates. Shanghai, ChinaThree Chinese guys met the ship, two of whom spoke English a bit. I think one of them was the Port Agent. One of them disappeared with my passport, saying he was going ahead to immigration. I didn’t know where Immigration was of course, and it turned out to be outside the Port gate. When I fretted about being separated from the passport the other English speaker told me not to worry, “you’re with me” which wasn’t reassuring since I didn’t even know his name, but I had to pretend it was since his friend was gone with my passport. But of course everything worked out fine.

I wound up in a van with a fellow with zero English being driven  to downtown Shanghai at night during the Chinese New Year holiday celebrations. Having been in a few cars and taxis here now, I’d say he was about a 7 on the scale of 1-10 for Shanghai drivers, with 10 being best. In Seattle he’s a two. He would be murdered in a road rage incident within 30 minutes of getting behind the wheel in Seattle, 10 minutes in LA, and no jury would ever convict his killer. The Bund, Shanghai, China

Alas I’ve been squandering my time in Shanghai, which is pretty, cosmopolitan and high energy, trying to understand its transportation system. Figuring out how to arrange train tickets to Vietnam was difficult. Two of the railway clerks had never heard of Hanoi, and had certainly never sold a ticket to the place. I am close to a train station but there are two in Shanghai and mine is the wrong one, and it took me almost a full day to figure that sad fact out. But taxis are cheap, I’m slowly figuring out the subway system, I’ve now got my train ticket to Nanning, near the Vietnam border, and I’ve enjoyed some great food.

I got a haircut today at a shop full of young men with Asian Flock of Seagulls-type haircuts, and wound up in an argument about the charges. My fault, should have nailed down the cost before letting them get after me with scissors but the guy, who kept saying he was the shop’s “number one cutter,” literally came out on the street near the Bund and pulled me inside.  We settled for less than half what he demanded (I took a page from that stupid show “Pawn Stars” and started taking money off the table to close the deal) but the cost was still way too high. I deserved it – I am a rube in Shanghai who needed fleecing by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood hair salon.

There are lots of men here that are going for the pre-Nirvana LA hair band look. Their hair looks time-consuming – it makes me tired to look at them. If they were really as bad as they pretend to be they’d shave their heads and get a tattoo of a snake on their face. In fact there are not many tattoos in evidence. Lots of women wearing pants tucked into stiletto heeled boots or Uggs. Everybody wearing black or maybe gray parkas as the weather is very cold. Black is definitely the color.

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The Anti-Piracy Helpline

February 8 – We’re due to arrive in Shanghai, my last port of call, tomorrow around 11, but have gotten word that the Port of Shanghai is closed due to fog. In other shipping news, the Baltimore received this teletype today:





24 HOURS ANTI-PIRACY HELPLINE: +603 2031 0014.


Anti-Piracy Helpline, are you under pirate attack?
I think so yeah. Not sure if it’s pirates though…
Sir, this is the Anti-Piracy Helpline. Our grant won’t allow us to offer telephone counseling services for other forms of attack.
Well how do I know if it’s pirates or not?
Are you on a boat?
Uh huh.
Are they on a boat?
Um, yeah.
Fresh or salt water?
Salt. What the hell difference does….
[Interrupting] You’re doing fine, sir. Stay with me, I just have my little worksheet to go over with you.
It’s just that…
Have you detected the odor of rum and/or grog on the breath of the alleged pirates?
Look, I only just have them on the radar, they’re coming right up on my stern, every time I turn, they turn…
Are they brandishing anything? Maybe a curvy sword? Are there parrots, sir? Sir, are there parrots? Hello?
*Dial tone*

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Kaohsiung, Taiwan

February 7 -The passage from Yantian to Taiwan was on flat seas but the wind blew from a direction that allowed some of the ship’s exhaust to seep into my cabin. As a result I slept badly and missed the morning entrance through the breakwater and into Kaohsiung. P1000609

The port employs strange looking conveyances to move containers to and from the many gantry cranes. They are filthy and roar around the container stacks making loud warning beeps. The driver sits at the top in a glass booth and they steer the beasts over the containers, straddling them, and can raise them up three containers in height for stacking.

I again got shore leave and was the only person who chose to leave the ship. This time NSB’s Port Agent helpfully provided directions back to the ship written in Chinese as well as the Chinese language names for certain attractions in Kaohsiung, like the “Dream Mall.” A small van ferried me from the ship to the Port entrance where the gate guard called a taP1000594xi. She asked for a taxi driver who spoke English and the fellow who picked me up did well enough.
This dog’s whole job is to run alongside the van transporting Port workers and passengers to and from the gate. Like the dog in Yantian, he is a racist.

The City is large and flat, with canals running through it at points. The most common personal transporter is the scooter and they are everywhere, some ferrying whole families. I saw a young woman put her two small helmetless kids fore and aft on her Yamaha and blast off.

The mall offered a free wi-fi connection in the food court and I hammered away on my computer for an hour or so, my first Internet access in 20 days or more, hence the flood of recent posts. I noticed that the driver was waiting for me a couple of tables over so I told him I’d pay for his time. There was no meter in the cab but an official government poster on the dash read that there was an additional charge of $50 Taiwanese for an all-day fare, or about $1.72 US. I did mall stuff, yada yada.

I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face
Pajamas, a hairbrush, new shoes and a case
I said to my reflection ‘Lets get out of this place’

I know very little about Taiwan other than the antipathy between it and China proper, despite their common history and current shared interest in capitalism.P1000600 Without Internet access I wasn’t able to read up in advance so we just drove around sort of aimlessly for a bit before heading back to the ship. I did stop in one old section of town on a vague mission to buy myself a watch (I’d left the one friends gave me at home, doh). The area had that “open storm drain” odor, as had the older parts of Yantian. There were no prices on the watches, and the proprietor was busy attending to another customer so I took my case of pre-bargaining jitters and bolted up the street for gawking. I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says, street food looks risky; there could be duck’s pizzle in there. One older fellow was displaying a shallow pan of material that looked insectoid. Maybe if I had been hungrier. The driver is a music fan and put on a  Chinese singer doing Simon & Garfunkel hits in English on the way to the ship.

Shore leave is no way to see a city as large as Kaohsiung, which explains why none of the crew went to  town. We left after sundown and I again got to watch the process from the bridge. It was a warm night with a bright moon and I stood out on the bridge wings taking in the lights and fireworks over the city as the New Year celebrations continue through February 10.

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