I spent the last week or so in China trying to figure out how to leave the country. I had planned to go by train, as I had throughout the mainland, but that required returning to Guilin and changing trains in Guangzhou and still messing around with the border crossing in Shenzhen. Until I arrived in Yangshuo, I thought that was the most direct route. I was dreading all the trains and connections so much I started looking into flights, but Hong Kong is considered an international destination and therefore costs about four times as much as it should. So then I started thinking I'd fly to Shenzen and cross from there, but even that required the trip back to Guilin and taxis to/from each airport and more hassle and money than I was willing to cough up.
I learned from other travelers that there was a direct night bus from Yangshuo to Shenzhen; from there it was simply a matter of crossing over. I was both relieved to learn there was an easy direct route, but also dreading the condition of this night bus. If the trains in the south were so terrible, I could only imagine the cramped awfulness waiting for me on that bus.
David, whom I met in XingPing, had actually just taken the night bus for the first time himself, and declared it "not bad... actually kind of nice." He strongly recommended getting a bottom bunk, as it was "much safer" (always an encouraging thing to hear), and said that aside from fearing from his life twice an hour it was pretty bearable. Shit, twice an hour? It was more like twice every ten minutes on the last two trains I rode.
Twice an hour is nothing. I was still somewhat skeptical, but I was more or less resigned to my fate for one night on that bus. It was the cheapest option overall, and by far the simplest, most direct route. So night bus it was.
The bus was actually ok. It was far nicer than I anticipated, and therefore a pleasant enough ride. It's the size of a regular bus (which is HUGE by Chinese standards, seeing as their usual "buses" are really glorified minivans) and has two aisles, with bunks running lengthwise on either side. So three rows of bunks in all, and a cute smiling stewardess to greet you with a plastic bag and demand you remove your shoes before boarding. The beds are absolutely TINY, with both my elbows poking out on either side (mind you, I had my hands folded across my chest, so not exactly like I was flinging them around), and my knees bent so that I'd fit.
I don't mean my knees were bent a few degrees, like you would do for lower back comfort. I mean they were bent at ninety degrees, feet flat on the ground. And my toes were flush against one end and my torso nearly upright against the back headrest thing. My dad would have to fold himself four times over to even think
about sitting in one of these things. Everyone else is perfectly horizontal, all snuggled in and getting their (snore-accompanied) zzz's.
Aside from being totally cramped and having various limbs go numb from time to time, it wasn't terrible. It was CLEAN, which is loads more than I can say about those trains. And it stopped at 11pm at a gas station for everyone to use the restroom.
(There was a restroom on board but it was locked, for reasons I wasn't privy to.) It was plenty bumpy; we hit our fair share of potholes and then some. I put on the ipod and let Adam Duritz mellow me out, although I was still in my content mood and so pleased with the niceness of the bus, there wasn't much mellowing required. I even dozed a couple times (before being jolted awake by another pothole), which was a bonus. Even our driver refrained from laying on the horn. There were probably a dozen or so times he used it throughout the night, and while that number sounds high to you and me, it's as low as it gets in China. (And in case I haven't made this clear before, these aren't horns like we have in our cars back home.
These are air horns. Like from a big mac truck. And EVERY vehicle has an air horn. They're LOUD.)
Two fun facts I learned about Chinese highways: 1, They are unlit. Not a streetlight to be had, and we're talking all the way from Yangshuo to Shenzhen. NO streetlights. I now have my answer as to why every tree that lines a street has the lower meter of its trunk painted bright white: no lights. Gotta be sure you see those trees. And 2, they're BUMPY. You know how at home on highways the outer edges have grooves in them so it jolts you to awareness and you don't go careening off the side? Yeah well they do that here before you enter a tunnel. Lots of raised bumps to make sure you realize you're entering a tunnel, similar to as if you were pulling into a toll plaza.
The bumps start a good 500 meters out, and continue ALL THE WAY through the tunnel. Not sure if you recall, but Yangshuo and the surrounding areas are LITTERED with karst peaks. Read: LOTS of tunnels. It was a BUMPY ride.
David said we'd make it to the border before 8am, the stewardess told me 7, and at the ripe hour of 6 o'clock we pulled into the station and were told to scram. SIX! It's still dark at six! And here I thought I had an hour to go, so I hadn't eaten the bag of oranges I brought along for breakfast. (Sadly, being the dutiful traveler I ate as many oranges as I could and threw out the rest, lest customs confiscate them and then give me hell and ravage my luggage looking for who knows what.
Then of course customs didn't so much as look at me, let alone scan my bags, so I threw out those oranges for nothing. Grrrrrrr.) The border officially opens at 6:30, but by the time you unfold yourself from your tiny little cubby and collect your things and decide the best route is to follow strangers because no one speaks English and of course there is no signage and even though you know the border is minutes from the bus terminal you don't know which way or how to get there, it's open. I crossed through without any hassle, although the woman sitting on the Chinese side took her sweet time admiring the stamps in my passport from the different countries. I couldn't help but feel a mixture of "yeah, check out all those stamps!" and "for godssake this is your day job, get over it already.
My first day in Hong Kong was a relatively low-key one. I walked around Causeway Bay with Steve and Faith, two other travelers I met here at the hostel. They both had arrived the night prior (Steve from Vancouver and Faith from the Philippines) and were just starting their travels, and hence were at the sky-high level of excitement and giddiness and "we want to see EVERYTHING and do it all RIGHT NOW NOW NOW!!!" that hasn't graced my reality in oh, about two months. After three hours with those two I couldn't take it any longer and excused myself, citing travel fatigue (which was true, but still. Calm DOWN!).
It's nice to have English spoken nearly everywhere and bilingual signage all over the place. Hong Kong is INFINITELY easier to navigate, in that regard.
Striped crabs & shrimp!
It almost feels like home, after a month on the mainland. I keep exclaiming at the sheer number of foreigners everywhere, and keep getting quizical looks from Steve and Sandra (another traveler from Scotland) whenever I say that. I have to explain "foreigners = westerners" every time, and even then they're like what are you talking about? They don't see what I see. Both of them being only a couple days into their travels, they have no clue. To them, this is Asia. To me, this is the western world, some random European city without the lovely European-ness and good food.
And on that note, the food BLOWS. Not sure what the hype is about, and I am eager to be proven wrong. But for the moment, every meal I've had has been disappointing.
Even the Chinese isn't very good. THAT is saying something. (We're talking different Asian cuisines; I have yet to try anything "western." After striking out in the Asian realm, I'm not terribly encouraged to go western. That, and it appears "western" means "greasy hamburger" here. As if. Can I get a baguette and a cheese plate with some greens, please?) Guess my gastronomical indulgences will have to wait. Can't begin to explain how disappointing that is for me. I've been looking forward to good food for a month. SO bummed.