Friday, July 29, 2011

Kunming to Chengdu

I reeled from the smell of leftover stale tobacco in room 404 at Kunming's Camellia Hotel. I quickly opened the window for air, and was surprised to see a group of 20-something Chinese workers being drilled in a morning exercise routine. They were giggling and awkward.

I showered and soaked all my sleeper bus clothes.

Delightful. I was so glad I hadn't gone for the sleeper train today. How bad could a seat be? At least it was tomorrow.

I was spaced out from the night on the bus, so I didn't get out of my room until after two, when hunger sent me out prowling for sustenance. I had the hotel map, which showed a mall, an ATM, and a Walmart nearby.

First, I found the ATM. Second time was the charm as the first accepted only local cards. Money came spitting out of the wall. I then tried the mall, but it was just endless jewelry and upscale clothing, and not a food court. I walked over to the Walmart but found nothing to eat there but KFC and Dico's, a Chinese version of KFC. Bleh.

I spent another 40 minutes hunting for actual food before giving up and eating some nasty, nasty KFC. I guess I just wasn't in the right part of town. (KFC is *everywhere* in China.)

Disappointed and wondering where I might find street carts or regular restaurants but too tired to look anymore, I headed into Walmart to buy snacks for the train.

I remember hearing that Walmart had localized their Chinese stores, and this was true—all kinds of regional products were on offer. Either that or it wasn't even Walmart. Given that five unlicensed Apple Stores had been exposed the week before I got to China, it was entirely possible I was shopping in a fake Walmart.

Back at the hotel, I was too tired to do much of anything creative or involving thinking, so I filed all my forms for Bhutan and sent them to the Bhutan tour operator I'd chosen for my trip there next month. I'd spent a lot of time with Google and finally booked with a promising, new-ish outfit called Bhutan Your Way. What I'd worked out from my research was that this was a case where it doesn't pay to book with an outfitter outside of Bhutan. The cheapest way to see Bhutan is with a Bhutanese-based operator, who will give you the government-minimum fee per day without adding costs on. Ironically, it was cheaper to go alone with a guide and driver than to sign up with a group tour with one of the Canadian, British, or Australian agencies. There is no independent travel in Bhutan.

I was able to call my bank on Skype to arrange the wire transfer payment. So China kindly hasn't blocked Skype. I wonder who makes decisions about what might be dangerous and what isn't.

The next day, I stayed in my room until lunchtime, when the housekeeper knocked.

"When are you leaving?"

I got the point. Anyway, I was hungry.

I packed up and got out, swiping the hotel-supplied disposable paper slippers for the train.

With my bag in the luggage room, I took the number 5 bus from in front of the hotel.

Now we were getting somewhere. I wasn't in what I thought of as China—there still wasn't any street food—but at least I was in the center of town, in a big pedestrianized zone surrounded by shops.

This was quiet, I thought. At least for China, which has so many people that I remembered everything being packed all the time.

Actually, all of Kunming was quiet for a Chinese city. But I was shocked to see so few bicycles. Ten years ago, the streets of China had been covered in bicycles, their bells all clanging away. Now, electric scooters did the job, silently, casually. People looked at their mobile phones while scooting, held their kids to their chests, covered their faces with cotton shields against the sun. Most of them drove helmetless.

And buses were easy, stopping at every clearly designated stop. Getting back to Camellia Hotel after eating was a cinch.

I restocked in the hotel—pulling my inflatable neck pillow out of my luggage for my imagined nice seat on tonight's train, checked online a last time, inventoried all my snacks.

"How do I get to the train on the bus?" The front desk hadn't been too useful when I'd been searching for food, but surely they'd know this.

"Let me ask my colleague." She went into a back room for a minute.

"My colleague says it's too crowded now for luggage and you should take a taxi."

"But earlier when I tried to get a taxi, there were no vacant ones." I had tried for about 10 minutes, before revising my approach and taking bus #5.

"There will be a taxi."

I knew there wouldn't be. But I had her write down the train station name in Chinese, just in case. Surely if I stood there long enough, a taxi would eventually show up.

Or not, I thought after standing there for ten minutes, waving at full taxis. A few empty ones actually passed me. Kunming isn't real big on the tourist trail. Not everyone wants to deal with a clueless foreigner shoving a piece of paper at them.

But one guy on an electric scooter kept hanging around and talking to me in Chinese. He looked at my destination and offered to take me there for 20 yuan. I laughed. That's more than a taxi costs. And I was pretty sure he wasn't legitimately allowed to take me anywhere.

"My bag!" I showed him my heavy pack and asked where he'd put it. He motioned between his knees, same place people always put it. But this wasn't Africa or Indonesia. Could that be acceptable here?

Still, no taxis stopped. He hovered, asked again.


He squished my bag in between his knees and I clambered onto the back. He took back streets, went the wrong way down one-way lanes, and went up on the sidewalk on occasion. And the ride was silent, swooshing rather than whirring. I think I want an electric scooter.

We stopped three blocks away from the train station.

"Okay, money."

Hmmm. That was a little odd. Not one to be cornered, I got off and took my backpack from him first. Now he had no leverage. I gave him the agreed-on 20, twice the cost of an actual metered taxi.

"More to go to train."

I laughed at him.

"No. I walk." Interesting technique, getting me within sight of the station and then demanding more to finish the job.

He motioned me back on. I shook my head, put on my pack, and started walking. He motioned me onto the scooter. It's entirely possible I misunderstood and he just wanted the money out of sight of the official taxis. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I was close enough.

I'd been planning to try to get an upgrade at the ticket office, but the queues were crazy. So I headed to my train on platform 3 instead. I showed my ticket to a guard, who motioned me up the escalator. There was a ticket control agent, who motioned me though the x-ray and metal detector. People here don't seem to like lining up and they all pushed to get to the metal detector, so I pushed too.

On the other side of the metal detector, I followed the signs to gate 3, which was empty because everyone else was already on the train with 20 minutes to spare.

I had memorized the guidebooks's passage on "how to read a Chinese train ticket," and to make sure I was on track, I showed my ticket to everyone in a uniform that I came across. I walked up the train to car #8.

And that's where I learned that my visions of delightful Amtrak seats were misguided, delusional fantasies. I'd been bamboozled by my own expectations after seeing how bright, shiny, and new China was compared to a decade back.

Seats were three across, facing each other in pods of six. They don't recline.

And I had a middle seat.

Oh hell. I can't sleep like that.

I ran over my options in my head. Get off train. Flee. Look for sleeper bus. Get off train. Leave another day. Get off train—be stuck in Kunming. FLEE DAMMIT FLEE NOW. That was no good.

Remembering the Irish architecture intern's tip about getting upgraded, I found a conductor.

I pointed back at the seats and shook my head. "Bus?" I motioned to get off the train.

"No bus."

"Sleeper?" I made a sleeping motion.


The one attendant took me to another.

"Follow him to car 8."

I did, my hopes high now. Car 8 was the dining car. I was pointed to a seat.

Hmmm. Was I to sit in the dining car all night? That wasn't so bad, I thought.

I sat for a while, then three teens approached me on the direction of the attendant.

"Hello, do you want to sleep?"

"Yes! Please." So I gathered youths were learning English, and when in doubt, one should grab a teenager to translate.

"One minute, he says. Your bed is almost ready. Where are you from?"

"New York."

They looked delighted. I felt grimy and sweaty. I didn't think my glamour was up to the task, but I was happy to please someone.

Then another teen came by, and queried me. Was I eating? What was I doing in the dining car? He too then checked on my room. "Your room is ready," he said. "You have to pay her."

A ticket agent sat down, asked me for another 120 yuan, and gave me a ticket for car 16.

I didn't mind so much this pushing through eight cars, lost and hitting people and taking off my pack to get through doors. This had been hellish in Moroccan cars and in Congo, but here I was delighted to be getting out of the middle non-reclining seat.

The sleepers were tired, old, hard sleepers in open groups of six. No matter. I was deposited on a bottom berth. My backpack fit underneath. Darkness came quickly. The toilets would surely be gross, people were loudly clearly their throats (it's still China, even if all the bicycles have vanished), but we'd be on our way soon enough and have only five more hours to Chengdu.

Where I'd again be completely lost and have to use my Kindle to show the Chinese characters for my hotel to a taxi driver.

No matter. I'll deal with that when the time comes.

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