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One Long Haul

Guilin Travel Blog

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Two days ago I boarded a train in Chengdu for Guilin.  Up until about two hours before departure, I thought I was in for another standard overnighter.  And I had a ticket for a soft sleeper in my hands, so I thought it'd be easy peasy.  Yeah right.  Turns out the train is twenty-five hours, but seeing as we pulled out of the station a full hour behind schedule, I was on that miserable thing for twenty-six and change.  Oof.

The ride wasn't as bad as the one to Chengdu, but it was up there.  It was the same horrifyingly old, rickety, loud, dirty, uncomfortable train, the only difference being that my soft sleeper ticket granted me access to a mere four beds behind a closed door, as opposed to an entire car full of hundreds of beds out in the open.  If this had been what my first soft sleeper experience resembled, I probably would have booked flights across China and never bothered with a train again.  (In fact, it's reeeeeeally tempting to fly into Hong Kong directly, skipping the night train/bus and bureaucratic bullshit that is surely waiting to hassle me at the border.)  It was just as smokey as the last train, which I abhor and am blaming for my sore throat that just will not relent, except I had a door to help filter some of the smoke and stench.  (Although certainly not all; smoke gets into EVERYTHING, and it's impossible to rid it after a point.)  My one big stroke of luck was that I only had to share the compartment with one other woman, so it was much quieter and more spacious, each of us keeping to our side of the berth.  She couldn't speak any English and clearly I don't know any Mandarin, so it was a quiet ride, save for the screaming on either side of us we could hear through the paper-thin walls.

I plowed through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I don't recommend; it was merely the best book I could find off the bookshelf in the hostel in Beijing.  It's a metaphysical approach to life and love and politics and entanglements, and while it is unlike most things I read (and therefore somewhat interesting), it can be slow and annoying and GET TO THE POINT ALREADY! and I feel like the author is trying to make it into some life-changing heavy piece of philosophy, when really, it's not.  That, and it's not exactly what I'd term a "happy" read, and as you might imagine I need something happy to help me forget I'm trapped in an old, dirty, smokey, bumpy, claustrophobic train for the next twenty-odd hours.  Scratch that one off the old "books to read" list.

The train FINALLY pulled into Guilin, without any ceremony or even something as basic as an "exit" sign.  (China never ceases to frustrate me.)  Initially I thought I would get off the train and hop onto a riverboat and be in Yangshuo in time for lunch, but that was before I realized how long the train ride was and learned that boats to Yangshuo only leave at the crack of dawn and take a full five or six hours and oh yeah, be sure to book it through a trustworthy vendor because the scams are up the wazoo.  That, and Guilin is NOWHERE NEAR as small and quaint and idyllic as the guidebooks will have you believe; it's another massive bustling city with screaming, shoving, spitting Chinese EVERYWHERE.  There are also about ten times more touts than usual too.  Nice tourist town perk. 

So at the last minute (in Chengdu) I arranged a room for the night at a hostel who was supposed to come retrieve me at the station, but of course didn't bother showing up.  I couldn't get my hands on a map or helpful directions, even after stopping in both the tourist information office and the post office.  It was pouring rain, freezing cold, and pitch black, and I'm going "You know what? Screw this. I'm out." and jumped onto one of the half dozen buses screaming for passengers to go to Yangshuo.  I mean, pouring rain, freezing cold, I don't care how you spin it; that would make for one MISERABLE six hour bamboo raft (read: no "boat" to keep you warm and dry) ride down the river, no matter how scenic it is.  So I missed the "must do" Li River Cruise, but as I understand it it's the dry season (pretty wet for the dry season, if you ask me), so the river is dried up and it's difficult to navigate and takes hours to get down here and I'd be so cold and wet and pissed off I probably would have taken a bus all the way back to Guilin just to board a plane out of this place.  The bus was supposed to be an hour but of course took two; when in China everything is always longer and harder and infinitely more frustrating than it should be.  It also came fully equipped with a horrible Chinese movie absolutely BLARING at ear-splitting volumes.  Pleasant.  I was then dumped on the side of the street in Yangshuo -- at this point it's 8pm and I've been on the road for how many hours? -- so I schlepped to a hotel and had them call me a cab and was happy to almost be at my destination.  Enter a good thirty or forty minutes (to go a mere six kilometers) over the most torturous potholed road you can imagine.  Forget bumpy -- I kept waiting for the axle to snap at any minute.  Either that or for the driver to spin around and tell me (in Mandarin, of course), to fuck off and get out of his cab, he was done with this flooded potholed dirt road from hell.  We then finally -- FINALLY -- pulled up and I forked over the (way too much) cash and scampered into reception.  It was nearly 9pm and I clocked in thirty hours of travel.  Not my idea of fun, boys and girls.

I did the unthinkable and ordered western food for dinner: a veggie burger with fries and a salad.  I was eying the fried rice and would have gone for it if the burger hadn't also included the fries and salad; I was picturing this massive pile of food and was beyond ready to stuff my face.  Unfortunately, the guesthouse being run by a Dutch couple (read: dainty European appetite) and the kitchen being run by Chinese locals (read: veggie burger? what did you just call me?), the fried rice would have been the way to go.  The veggie burger was bizarre, a soft heap of who knows what that kept falling out of its bun in small clumps, and the plate was nowhere near massive.  But I was starving, and it was gone in under two minutes.  I then took a lukewarm shower (TORTUROUS when it's hovering just above freezing outside and your room isn't heated) and slept in a bed for the first time since home.  A real, actual BED.  With a mattress several inches deep.  I've been sleeping in bunks with little mats thrown over their planks.  I did a double-take when I saw the mattresses from the side.  NICE.  And, having been trapped on a train and therefore subsisting entirely on fruit and steamed buns (that I picked up the day prior), and then having food here from an MSG-free kitchen, I had my first night's sleep without crazy drugged-up dreams.  (Want to screw with your sleep and your dreams? Eat MSG.)

So pleased to finally be in Aishanmen.  This is what I've been looking forward to the most for my China travels.  Here's hoping it lives up to the hype (and my expectations).  Am hunkering down and staying put for the next week, if not longer.  Waiting for the bad weather to blow through (should be cold and wet the whole week, hopefully clearing next weekend) and mellowing out and simply NOT TRAVELING for a bit.  Will walk around and get a feel for the nearby area today, plan to rent a bike and scout out the larger area and ride into town once it dries up a bit, hopefully as soon as tomorrow.  In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be the one constantly stretching and arching my back, trying to get that awful train out of my system.
sylviandavid says:
An interesting read.... thanks so much for taking the knocks for us Meg.... we'll learn by reading your blogs.... LOL.... really love your writing style! Sylvia
Posted on: Jan 22, 2010
kokfoo83 says:
i went to guangzhou from hong kong and tianjin from beijing by train...it was fine...i read the book about the condition of the train first before i decide to ride with it...so far,flight across china is still the best way to travel with.
Posted on: Nov 18, 2009
world-traveller123 says:
Very well put
Posted on: Nov 16, 2009
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Guilin
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