Preparations for 2016 actually began in October 2015, when I found I’d been accepted for an expedition to a place less people had been to than had been up Everest. Hiking in 4 hot countries with uphill climbs and a jungle river had proved decisive. It was a real triumph for someone of my age but I felt “you’re in the army now!” And got the training going with much more exercise and tapes to grasp the basics of 3 languages. Where was I going? To keep the suspense up more will be revealed….much later.
2016 started with a dire January: flu wiped out much of the exercise and a previous good trading record was marred by a record loss; which set an unshakeable trend of bad luck though the losses weren’t as heavy. The only good thing about January was a good time at my place with the SF book club. It was my choice and my planetary mapwork was appreciated.
Winter in fact was a time of bad luck everywhere and an ending I didn’t need: I would have to go on to blood pressure tablets though at least it was the minimum dose.
Spring brought improvement and change.
After the programming fiasco of the last Easter SF convention I expected very little from its successor in Manchester apart from getting drunk with a few friends. The wet weather seemed to bear this out when I arrived in Manchester after nightfall making the place look like ‘Blade Runner.’ The weather improved though and so did my luck. The only thing this convention was disorganised at was letting programme participants know they were participating in programmes. The result was the best convention surprise I’d had;- finding when I arrived that I was on a panel. On Sunday morning though when the Saturday night drunks were sleeping it off or coping with breakfast. Shouldn’t be a major event then, but the advantage would be it being a laid back affair. Wrong! It was in the main hall which was packed with people – plus spotlights – who’d come to hear the exalted and I was one of them! It was a thoroughly good event but there was more. A creative writer buttonholed me afterwards to discuss a planet he was going to write about and wanted me as consultant. One hears all sorts of ideas at conventions which usually disappear afterwards especially if money is involved. This one didn’t though and I found myself receiving my first payment for consultancy work!
Meanwhile my writing was suddenly making progress. A creative writing lecturer had become interested in my Chernobyl article, a friend of his compared me to Ballard – an SF author it was an unexpected honour to be compared to – and the word was I should be paid for that kind of article. I was invited to read some of it out in person for the great and the good at a university do. Very heartening!
Otherwise Diana – the woman whose acquaintance led to Terraforming Mars for the Chicago planetarium at the turn of the millenium (The Great Martian War) and who was the reason I’d come to live in Rowner – had quit America and returned to Britain for good. Her mother had died, the same woman who’d given me invaluable support in finding my present home and who’d had the idea of saving the neighbourhood from a new housing estate by buying shares. I’d wound up being the only person able to buy them in 2014 and had become a local hero.
I was also looking after a cat. A couple well regarded in SF circles had broken up, the woman was moving into our area. Molly the cat was hers and and arrived amidst a fragrant pong of cat poo. Caught short in transit. I was given a fortune in cat food plus cat litter and Molly became my companion for summer while the woman was going through the throes of buying and selling property.
I’d started indoor climbing and found the blood pressure tablets did not hinder things; including a successful tackling of ‘the pain train’ which was an overhang traverse. I thought the name was that of a punk rocker band.
Then there was the every 2nd year sponsored walk for my special needs school. This time up the ‘Shipwrights Way’ from Portsmouth Dockyard round Southsea seafront then north up through Havant, Petersfield, Liss, Liphook, past Bordon, then finally to Alice Holt Forest and Bentley railway station on its northern edge. There were supposed to be sculptures on the route and I wondered if they were still there?
It was really all part of the training for the great adventure to come so whereas I usually devote several articles to a walk I’m squeezing this one into ‘preparations.’ It was 50 miles long anyway as opposed to 65 and fairly uneventful.
I had a few ice creams hiking along the long Southsea seafront for the weather was sunny and warm with the promise of heat to come. I seem to bring this weather out every time I go on a sponsored walk.
Southsea also had its museums. The Royal Marines one was handy for reminding me of toughness of spirit and body and what I’d already achieved with that.
The ferry to Hayling Island – where Shipwrights Way went – was closed so I had to remain on the Portsmouth side of the muddy marshy wastes between. By the time I’d got round that I was tired and grateful to reach Havant for it was late. I’d started after 2 in the afternoon after getting the kids home from school.
It was the latest I’d get home for I was up at the crack of dawn for the rest of the journey; catching the first bus down to the harbour then across on the Gosport ferry for the train which would take me to Havant, Petersfield and Liphook just short of Haslemere. North of Havant station was a vast council estate. On the other side of that and clear of it by just a mile was Rowlands Castle: a lovely village around a long green with a Shipwrights way sculpture. Proof that they existed. Very nice breakfast there too; salmon on toast.
Then it was a long hike up a long dry valley to Queen Elizabeth Country Park on top of the South Downs. Got lost here twice because Shipwrights Way twisted about here and the Park consisted of forest. Not around when the Romans were farming this area I found.
Eventually there was a good South Downs view with what seemed to be a hanging valley: a landform usually associated with glaciated terrain. See the Lake District and Scotland. The way descended through an overgrown chalk quarry anyway to a lovely duckpond and village; Buriton. Then later Petersfield.
Next day I had off for the new boots I was trying out were wearing through a toe. Later I found the arrangement I had to return them if this sort of thing happened would be reneged upon by the head of the footwear department. Meanwhile the company concerned had got into trouble through mistreating workers. He didn’t like being reminded of that so I took care to hammer him on that target especially! Such is my loathing of commercial crap; regardless of whether it happens to me or anyone else at all.
Next day was a good test of mapwork: finding my way north east from Petersfield along the railway line through varied terrain;- wooded, almost suburban, minor roads and paths but without much in the way of hills.
Lunch was at a pub where I impressed the landlady enough with my endeavor and adventures for her to give me a fiver. First time anyone has donated en route. The only other company was a girl working there and revising for GCSE’s and a local character later who’d had some bad luck rolling cars. I advised stock car racing which was well received.
The landlady told me to photograph their monkey puzzle tree on the other side of the pub when leaving. Helicopters used it for navigation when heading for army country nearby she told me. I could see why for it looked as tall as a redwood with an umbrella of dark foliage on top.
Restricted areas lay to the north. What I call army country. The one I trekked along the edge of sat on the steepest ridge since the South Downs, forested with heathland below. The sort of wild looking place that sported danger notices where I wondered if a helpful Alsatian or Labrador had ever trotted back to its owner with a mortar bomb in its jaws?
This was part of the same broken up escarpment which formed Leith Hill too. It was older rock than chalk so in theory one could say it was Dinosaur country too.
After that it was downhill to a well kept pond and estate. I only realised when I reached the gates at the other end it was supposed to be private. Goodo.
I had to wait for an hour for the train back from Liphook.
The day after that I had off for the weather was deteriorating.
The day after that was little better but it was the last day I had.
Not long after leaving Liphook I began to feel I needed the loo. Because it was so early nothing was open so I had to walk miles and miles down the backlanes under pressure – of a sort – until eventually – when desperate – I discovered a leisure centre at Bordon. Even then it was hidden in the centre of a school and the only gents toilet was occupied! Lucky there was a disabled loo next door that wasn’t.
After that it became a nature walk through woods which were a strip following a stream amidst housing estates it seemed. One of the Shipwrights Way sculptures was there. A toad which seemed to be on silent vigil guarding the limited natural sanctity of the place.
Much of the route from Petersfield had seemed to be a jumble of fields, woods, streams, the odd pond and nature trails amidst houses great and small, on gently rolling terrain.
The ground rose again though to Alice Holt Forest. A little known but substantial forest south west of Farnham. This was where the timbers for the old warships at Portsmouth had come from. Hence the significance of that and Shipwrights Way. The trail I was to follow stretched for 3½ miles through it. Journey’s end was on the other side.
There was a childrens party in there amidst habitations made from branches in a clearing. Then I heard more noise. A whole tribe of council house people were wandering up a trail crossing mine in a small valley. I pressed on ahead of them up to flat high ground where there was comparative civilization: a car park, visitors centre and cafe where I had a good chat with an old couple. My luck was in for while this was going on under cover there was a downpour outside, which stopped when I got going again.
Last of all? Downhill through the woods to a little railway halt called Bentley station right on the northern edge of the forest. The train arrived and I was on my way home. Except that one stop up the line there was a points failure at Aldershot with only a bus to get us there. Except the one I spotted was going to Haslemere, only one stop up the line from Liphook, a short cut across a big corner plus the chance of catching a mainline train rather than one that stopped at every station! Another sponsored hike successfully done.
After that? There was the disaster of Brexit on June 23rd. Guess which way I voted. But I also hadn’t got any foreign currency by then for the next great journey.
Wednesday 20th July. School’s just broken up for the summer holidays and in a few hours I’ll be leaving. There’s that feeling I often have: of canoeing down a river through a gorge with the current increasing and a great thundering noise up ahead. Soon I’ll be shooting the rapids. Taking off from Heathrow for adventures in strange foreign worlds.
© D Angus 07 16.
China: Trials of a tourist.
Dawn. It split sky from ground with a rent of fire across the horizon. The plane I was in was over China and there was a river down there. Judging by the map marking the plane’s progress on the seat in front of me and the river’s course it could just be the one running through the scenic region I’d come to China for. Geographically it had looked a cinch: southern China before north Vietnam looked like an easy objective after the far flung foray last year to the Komodo Dragon islands before going on to the Philippines and Thailand. It wasn’t though, politically and culturally. The visa was horrendously expensive and there were likely to be few English speaking people in mainland China.
The journey so far? The blonde walking away when I’d sat down a few bar stools from her at the airport hotel had been equalled by an American blonde seeking directions in Heathrow Airport and a conversation. That was soon after I’d barked “You’ve dropped something!” to stop a hurrying man, before observing with naïve curiousity “Oh. It’s a passport”. If he hadn’t grinned a joke and fled in embarassment I could have told him I hoped for similar support if making – highly likely – the same kind of mistake.
Then there was Stockholm. A stopover with little time to change planes. So of course not only was the plane late but there was something blocking where one disembarked, according to the pilot. “Never mind we’ve enough time to wait”. (No that’s just what we don’t have! Time!) And of course my seat was to the rear, extending the time I had to wait for eveyone to get organised and get off the plane. After hurrying through the airport against hope I found to my relief that my plane was taking off much later than I thought.
Cloud banks flexing shadows with sunrise parted to reveal an industrial region creeping by below, judging by the smoke and haze from factories and population.
Rivers became coastlines and a road snaked over the sea in a never ending bridge it seemed.
The plane descended past clouds dazzling with the sun, over mountainous islands and skyscraper studded shores. It was flying over Hong Kong.
I’d been to Hong Kong 6 years ago on a 1 night stopover but this time I had a free day there after today. The airport was the same as I remembered: massive and space age. That’s what I like about air travel. It’s the closest one can get to interplanetary travel, complete with spaceports and strange new worlds.
Time to try out my very basic Chinese at an enquiry desk in the right part of the airport. “Neih hou, haih bindouh”/”No need to speak that we all speak English here”. So much for that but it was later confirmed that at least I’d picked the right Chinese, Canton, instead of Mandarin which was spoken in the north. I was on the wrong level of course for the train.
The trip into the city was uneventful, likewise the minibus I was to pick up afterwards, though I got a good look at the city: modern and traditional mixed up in a frenetic jungle of architecture plus a jungle of street signs in Chinese characters.
Trouble was the bus went nowhere near the hotel I was making for which meant a fair hike. The trouble with that was I had a lot of luggage on this trip: a tripod in a big backpack plus a medium pack and heavy camera bag. One reason why I’d been exercising a lot. The bus drove up a narrow ramp to a plush hotel entrance which meant I had to find my way back down to street level. Once on that the junction of the road I wanted was supposed to be close, but the map I had was defective and it was as far as the distance I had to walk up the other road. A long way in the summer heat. In south China. So by the time I got to the hotel I was really done in and in sore need of a shower. Thank God my room was available at that time.
The room – like last time – was tiny but it had the essentials. I got a good shower and slept to make up for being put through the wringer by that hike and the night journey on the plane. In late afternoon/evening I checked out the neighbourhood for a laundry, currency exchange and the metro. The city where I was – Kowloon – looked like a downmarket version of New York invaded by China. I tried a bit of television before bed and was surprised to find ‘The X Files’.
One reason for checking out the metro was so it could be used on the free day to get down to Hong Kong Island and up a mountain there so I could get some pictures of a panorama. When I got there I emerged into a forest of gleaming 21st century architecture. It took some time to navigate through this city, a shopping centre and up an escalator.
There was supposed to be a cable car at the other end of a park and zoo. The park was beautifully laid out with subtropical vegetation, fountains, waterways and pools with fish and terrapins basking on rocks, but the zoo was minimalist in animal population and variety and when I saw the cable car terminus: forget it! A queue there had grown large enough to congeal into a mass of tourists virtually stationary. Hell to endure in Hong Kong heat.
A compensation was 4 Filipina girls I’d encountered near the zoo. Cleaning girls having a picnic, taking a break from working in the city. They welcomed me with chocolate cake, drinks and raucous flirting. Why wasn’t I married and so on. Talk about the opposite extreme from what I was used to at home. I wouldn’t be seeing them again but it was fun at the time.
There was self inflicted crisis though caused by different currencies in Hong Kong and mainland China. When I returned to the hotel I realised I’d left myself too short for getting up to the mainline station in China tomorrow! I could hardly believe I was making this kind of mistake this soon! Only an emotional meltdown causing the reception girl to have pity on me and exchange some money got me out of it.
Up early the following day. The route to the railway station was going to be a challenge: several changes of metro train and one of the tougher borders in this world to get through before getting there, then language problems and large queues to cope with. I’d been advised to spare an extra few hours for this and I spared a few more than that. First a short hike and descent into Sham Shui Po station.
Only one stop. Change at Prince Edward.
Not far from Prince Edward change again at Kowloon Tong, luggage and all.
Kowloon Tong is back on the surface but the line goes under a mountain on a much longer journey up to the border emerging through an upmarket suburb, along the shore of a sea inlet, through more suburbs of tower blocks and satellite towns, through a plain with mountains beyond, to Lok Ma Chau station. Not that I could see much standing all the way.
At this station a river has come up on the right with a wall of buildings beyond. This is the Chinese border. A big covered bridge across the river gives a panoramic view of all this and the first big challenge of the land journey I’m approaching.
Everything’s enclosed and controlled on the other side at customs. I’m turned back but only to fill in a small form which is half that and half card. Managing that I’m back at the customs booth. After a regulatory perusal I’m motioned through and even manage to raise a smile from the customs girl by saying thank you in Chinese. If you can do that on that kind of border you know you’re being welcomed! If it wasn’t for the luggage I’d feel like James Bond. Cool and in complete control of a tricky international adventure. I’d made it into mainland China.
Another subterranean train journey. When the line emerged from a hillside we were at Shenzen station. Objective achieved with military precision for the train journey too.
The surroundings were impressively futuristic. The gleaming metro station was set high in Shenzen station so one had a view out from under the roof with a cinema sized screen to one side displaying holiday landscapes. Out there was a plaza of grandiose scale not seen in Britain, with the city beyond. There were belts of trees and a sunken area which could have been a shopping centre overlooked by a monumental spherical sculpture.
Time for a break & snack before tackling the station which was just about the biggest I’d seen. The place I wound up at had a menu in Chinese of course so I chose something looking fairly crisp judging by the pictures. It turned out to be almost a soup with noodles and meaty things in it, that one was supposed to eat only with chopsticks. The first thing I managed to fish out was a birds foot! That turned out to be chicken and I persevered but this meal seemed to specialise in the boniest bits of chicken. I gave up half way through to get on with the station.
It was vast. Over 500 feet across I’ve found on Google Earth and I was only in the front part of it. The rest was cut off by waist high steel barriers. And I had to traverse 500ft to make sense of it, with luggage like that carried by a marine, because the large immobile queues for tickets I was warned about were at either end. By the way because it was completely open at the front there was no air conditioning; so no let up from the heat when lugging luggage to the maximum sweaty distance. It got worse. As expected the station directions consisted of Chinese characters but although I’d seen a little English where I’d alighted there was nothing of use down in the main station. There seemed to be no enquiry desk in the accessible part either and I could see no language solution in the form of a western face amidst the masses of oriental ones. So I tried my luck with my embryonic Chinese, interesting one young guy who knew about as much English and took me straight to the front of a queue. He was descended upon by a hawk faced official sporting an ostentatious blue uniform reminding me of the one worn by Anders Brevik, the Norwegian terrorist mass murderer. No we couldn’t stay here but were to go to – and he led us – to a machine. Just what I wanted to avoid! My instructions were to present paperwork to get the ticket and this official misdirection also demotivated the young guy who couldn’t help me anymore. Nothing for it but to try my poor Chinese skills anywhere.
No joy. Was the journey going to founder at this hurdle? Things looked bad!
Then there was another young man at my elbow who could speak English! He was from Hong Kong which explained that, had sensed I was in trouble and had some time to help thank fortune! He took me to what should be the right queue. It was the slowest queue I’d been in. Took ages. My friend ran out of time when we were near the front. Had he rescued the mission or was I in for more incomprehension and disaster?
I reached the front and the long awaited response – while I held my breath – seemed to indicate the paperwork was in order. I had the ticket! Still had to get through the sort of security system one finds in airports though.
At last I was through all obstacles into an even bigger space: with an enquiry desk when I no longer needed it, waiting areas, platform directions, shops and eateries. There were more on upper levels on both sides. What has stayed in my mind about these levels was a McDonald’s on one and a KFC on the other at diagonally opposite corners. The distance between looked like ¼ mile and probably was. At least I could relax for there was still plenty of time and – not wanting to risk another birds nest soup – chose the KFC. Battered invertebrates were included in the menu tasting like prawns but that was more palatable anyway. There was no air conditioning here either and the heat rose, making the upper levels more uncomfortable.
After being driven by this down to the masses of waiting Chinese I was finally in a queue again, but I knew what I was doing this time, being able to follow the platform numbers.
Eventually we were allowed through more tubular steel barriers, down to the platform where I found myself at the end of the train with what looked like an aerodynamic looking engine. My seat was in it! Along with seats taken by a family from the mainland of Europe, the first Europeans I’d seen. The burden of heat had left me for the air seemed more breathable too, being air conditioned.
The same industrial plain flew past that I’d seen from the plane. This train was really moving, scenery flashing by as we left the plain. It reminded me of the French TGV’s. Mountains came up and when the train went through them half of that seemed tunnel as the railway just sliced straight through this terrain. An engineering marvel. The in between views became spectacular. And weird. Hills extended into squat towers and steep sided domes, the foliage smothering them occasionally revealing a sheer pale rock face: limestone. This was karst limestone scenery. Like another world out there.
The train reached Guilin; the southern Chinese city that was my destination and I had to find transport to the hotel. At the end of a subway a man offered a taxi for twice as much as I’d been told it would be – it always is here we go again – and I had to haggle. 2 reasons why I tend to avoid taxis. I got him down from 100 to 60 but he retaliated by offering a motorbike! I didn’t need this tricky tiring hassle! What about the luggage?
“Do you really think we could fit all that on a motorbike?” I remonstrated.
“It’s an.. interesting motorbike,” was the lame response I could hardly believe.
Oh do me a favour this was farcical! I made off through the heat for some buses.
The buses looked not unlike the ones at home, maybe because they were red. I’d seen ones at Hong Kong airport that were like the ones I’d travelled in when a child and adolescent in London and in Berkshire. Maybe they were left over from the empire. Anyway I managed to get enough info for the right bus and destination. People on the bus were really helpful though they spoke hardly any English. More people got on all the time and I hadn’t paid the driver, couldn’t see outside much either since I was standing, though I had the impression of a never ending urban road full of traffic.
Finally we were there and it was a relief to get off although my first step away took me into the path of an oncoming scooter, there was a lane for them down the middle of the pavement! The next thing was the bus driving off just as I drew level to pay the driver. Oh well…what about my surroundings? I was on a main street of grandiose buildings, as though cinemas had been crossed with department stores; some of them were. Later I would learn that the scooters here were sneaky since many could run soundlessly for some reason: as though they’d been given a hard push and had just kept going.
Anyway the map indicated the hotel was across the road on the other side of a park and there it was: the absence of buildings. Must be a sunken park for I couldn’t see much as I got closer. It was actually a river which meant I was on the other side of the hotel, so follow the river round and I should find a side street there.
But as I lugged myself through the dense heat I felt all was not well. The river was the wrong shape according to the map and there was no side street. Edging my way between a car on the pavement and ducks quacking reproachfully at me from cages seemed a signal to me from the local culture of developing fiasco. Eventually I got away from the river and found a hotel, sweat pouring off me by then, but it was alright, they’d know where my hotel was. Most people have ipads and the hotel staff got me to translate what I wanted on them. The response was a hand drawn map. Turn left at the first crossroads which I’d seen entering the hotel, soon be there! Except it wasn’t: it was a bend instead! Which kept on bending, on and on until I was back on the main drag in the hot weather. Complete with luggage and soaked in sweat, I was now having to cope with my glasses continually sliding off my nose. I thought I might be going mad when I threw them down shouting “Pull yourself together!” like an outraged officer to a malingering trooper in an army dying in the desert. That was what I felt I might as well be and had to exert that kind of discipline to keep going now. I was having a headache which could be a sign of dehydration though I kept supplying myself with bottled water: more vital than food on this journey. On the other side of the street I got a clue that the hotel was definitely off to the right when I was assured it was down the first turning. After a long hike down there I still couldn’t find it. Back in the horrendous heat to the main street. I was going to have to fight this battle to the last dregs of my will to go on.
The peace of the smallish but sumptious foyer of the Sapphire Hotel was interrupted by a dishevelled foreigner staggering up to reception shedding luggage when he got near it. Then he couldn’t speak the right language but judging by his name he was actually expected. Yes it was like that when I finally found it in the last stages of exhaustion and reserves of sweat; literally melting on to the glossy reception counter with pools of it! Ipad translations saved the day again and my tickets for the train out of China were there – there was concern that they wouldn’t be – although they looked a bit sparse. There was though a last exasperating hurdle to do with money. I was so near yet so far from survival and recovery until I realised what they wanted was a deposit.
The room was one of dark furnished oriental elegance, in contrast to the survivor who entered dumping his clutter everywhere, managing to undress and shower without a heart attack. After that it was the life saving luxury of bed. To hell with any food.
Air conditioned hotel rooms became life support habitats on this trip. Habitation domes on a planet with a semi breathable atmosphere, higher gravity – it was an effort to move through the heat – and temperatures higher than those comfortable for life as we know it.
So, being booked in for 2 nights I only made the odd foray for food on the spare day, spending most of the time in the hotel taking stock: outside my hotel window in total contrast to the room was a pit of squalor where a few tropical plants grew against the odds posed by barred tenements on 3 sides. Television seemed to be wholly in Chinese, predictably. The map I’d relied on yesterday was crap;- the hotel was in the wrong place and I’d been looking at the wrong river, 2 actually crossed the town. I also found that I’d gone right past the hotel when I was lost! Outside the hotel was the surprise of a sign in English directing one to ‘Public Toilets’ in splendid isolation amidst all the Chinese. Within the hotel an office off the foyer had just what I was hoping to do tomorrow: a boat down a river to Yangshuo, the next town I was going to! I got all the luggage I didn’t need into security for I’d be back here in a week, ascertained that I’d be picked up tomorrow morning without checking the time which seemed too much effort with the language problem. As long as I put the alarm on for 7am I should be okay.
I became awake. It was just before 7. Just then the phone rang and whoever it was on the other end could only speak Chinese but I knew: they were here already! Thank God I’d packed everything last night! Or so I thought; in the rush to assure the speaker in the right tone I’d be down soon, dressing and then doing so I forgot a partially read ‘Time’ magazine and a shower scrubber. The first casualties in this campaign.
The minibus I found myself in didn’t go to the river at first. After a trawl though the industrial suburbs of Guilin it crawled in 2nd gear it seemed, down a virtually empty motorway though as though in respect for the strip of formal mown grass and garden down the middle. I don’t know why it was going slowly, obscure communist rule perhaps.
At last the river. Security again though. When the rigmarole was over and the time was right I found the boat. It was identical to many others going down the river all the time: enclosed passenger seating – just about all Chinese – down its length but there was access to the hot metal hull of the upper deck. I was up there for most of the journey.
The Li River winds through some of the most beautiful and bizarre scenery in China. Mile after mile of jungled limestone towers 1,000ft high and higher, riverside woods of giant bamboo the size of respectable trees. What with this feathery vegetation, towers and pinnacles it was like scenery on a science fiction world. This was why I’d come to China.
Under the Chinese characters a notice on the boat put the sentiment in broken English: ‘Let hearts beas beautifulos the lan dscape add to the brilliance of Li River with service.”
The river wound on through what I’ve described, 200 to 400 feet wide, leaving behind the throngs of pleasure seekers and their boats on the banks. Geese and water buffalo too. More and more precipitous vegetated natural limestone sculptures spread out from the horizon and hemmed us in. Despite boats like the one I was on racing each other one got the feeling one could get lost in scenery like this; or least I did. It’s what I wanted.
This ‘karst’ landscape was formed from very old Devonian limestone; which was laid down from around 400 to 360 million years ago on the other side of the Carboniferous period or ‘Coal Age’. Sea levels then were higher than they are today and early fishes populated the oceans, one species being the Coelacanth, although rare still existing today! Meanwhile plants were colonising the land and the worlds first trees were helping to scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and produce more oxygen.
When India collided with Asia this limestone was uplifted and eroded over millions of years, much of that by a monsoon climate. The older the limestone the harder the rock it is and the more spectacular the landforms may be, such as this landscape.
The river wound on, skirting sandbanks, past a small town, past a cave, through a lot of wilderness. Towering cliffs displayed the limestone: streaked with dark deposits. The kind of China I was hoping to find.
People including me were on the roof much of the time taking photos of all this, despite being fried. We actually had the worst conditions for photography short of unrelenting rain. I was hoping for clearer weather but the heat haze spread out and flattened the light. And yet… these hills featured a lot in Chinese art as misty watercolours, landscapes of misty mystery in fact, so why not aim for that with the photography? I’ve had some fun on Photoshop with the masses I took since returning home.
Speaking of photography: a surprising number of younger Chinese who had a surprising command of basic English asked if they could have their photo taken with me. Was this the novelty of seeing a Westerner? It seemed that along with the limestone landscape I was becoming another tourist attraction! Moreover these Chinese tended to be girls or young women, it could be hard to tell age with orientals. Finally one young lady told me I was “very handsome”. (And you’re underage!) I wasn’t used to this at all but was chuffed despite my inhibitions.
We passed a beautiful waterfall, towering pinnacles. Mountain masses of them well over 1,000ft by now it appeared. I was shown a Chinese bank note sporting this landscape but I haven’t been able to work out where it is on the river.
The landscape began to broaden out with attempts at cultivation. Should be approaching Yangshuo but on and on we travelled past more limestone towers, feathery stretches of giant bamboo and the odd house, farm or local canoe.
There it was back of a bend in the river. Broad lengths of steps along the riverside, another waterfall, walls and more tiers of steps leading up to an arch with a pagoda roof on top: the entrance to Yangshuo like an entrance to a hidden kingdom.
Now I had the task of finding the hotel having little idea of where it was apart from – according to the map – just north of the arch near the river. But the map was most likely more innacurate than it looked and it would be another sweat ridden endurance march. Up under the arch anyway and along a thriving market selling exotic clothes. Frankly I was enjoying this despite the discomfort. Why not If you’ve a spirit of adventure and you’re on your own savouring a town belonging to an ancient culture in a strange country without knowing where you’re going?/Hang on! I was in front of a grandiose styled entrance looming over me complete with gold dragons, the classic Chinese kind of entrance that seems to symbolise an inn awaiting heroes and the name looked familiar, couldn’t be?…
But it was! Delighted at having found it so quickly I entered in triumph. Yes I was expected and the man on the left who knew a little English would answer questions. To the rear was an enclosed space like that in the Bradbury Building in Blade Runner; except there were tables at the bottom and just one long flight of stairs instead of a lift. The room was along a gallery and round the side just over a thriving alley full of small businesses and teeming people: beyond was one of the karst mountains. Later I found it was ‘Green Lotus Peak’ for it’s shape was like that flower when it was budding. There didn’t seem to be much soundproofing in the room but the important amenities were there like a shower and air conditioning. Last but not least I dropped off the laundry: vital to deal with this logistic at any opportunity when travelling, but especially in this kind of climate.
Yangshuo was more or less down at the other end of the karst region from Guilin. I started to wander round a vegetated part of it in the late afternoon – like a cross between a hothouse and a town – next to the hotel. Spread out amongst several karst hills/mini mountains/towers its centre was by the river and my hotel was on the edge of it. I liked this place more than Guilin which was more of a communist showcase city. Yangshuo was Chinese in the ethnic sense.
Not that there wasn’t nightlife. As daylight faded into night the lights of bars and eateries of all sorts glowed, many of the tables & chairs being outside. For some reason there were many German hostelries around. I later learned a German company had bought a whole street though not why they did that deep inside China? Anyway it was a good town for backpackers like me with inns, small hotels and downmarket accomodation of all sorts. Shops of all sorts seemed to stay open through the evening too. Another enterprise was a massage place where tanks of tiny fish awaited feet being put in amongst them so they could nibble away dead skin. Just the job after a walk through this kind of climate: cold water and a tingling sensation as these fish ate you!
After sampling this this I returned to my room, surfed TV then turned the light out. Just before a salesman with a mike cut loose from a place opposite and below in the alley. Why did he need that volume in a narrow alley cramped with people? HG Wells writes of the curse of the excessively loud ‘Babble Machine’ of the future in ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ and before sleeping I was reminded of that: “YAHAHAH, YAHA, YAP! YAHA!” until nearly midnight! Thats what it sounded like in Chinese and I gave way to fantasising about the place being hit by terrorists; ashamed of this later, especially as it turned out to be the marketing of an ‘Arts Academy’ and I’m normally in favour of artistic enterprises, but many of the paintings there were of the lurid school style, found back home in places like Woolworths when it existed.
I had a choice: move to a room where the view was wonderful but where there was more expense, or stay out through most of the marketing row; eating a long evening meal, drinking, conversing where one could and taking refuge in the massage parlour. I chose the latter. It was hard to tell what was better but at least I didn’t miss out on food, drink and conversation. Such as with a friendly waiter who was a Filipino with high blood pressure despite being in his early 30’s and feeling isolated since his wife was away working on a cruise ship.
Back in my room I found a TV channel where English was spoken, based in Beijing. China was having a heatwave, especially the Yangtze Valley well to the north of where I was. And I had been hoping it would be the coolest part of this adventure since everywhere I was going to lay to the south, nearer the equator. I began to wonder if I was on the wrong side of the border too? I was aware of China’s bellicose stance over invading the Spratley Islands, an archipelago of reefs near the Philippine island of Palawan, which I’d partially explored. The UN and America didn’t like it. There were frequent reviews of Chinese armed forces and how ready they were to defend ‘sovereignity’. Sabre rattling at its worst. I felt relieved that Obama was president of the USA and not Trump.
There were scenic attractions out of town. How about ‘Shangri La’? Perhaps a wander in a park setting amidst the fantastic limestone towers with gardens and a temple or 2. The transport took the group I was with up a road through a dust storm caused by construction vehicles and excavations, but hadn’t those travellers battled through a snowstorm to the fabled valley in the film? But when I saw the tourism edifice complete with steel barriers and turnstiles my heart sank. Beyond was an artificial lake overlooked by a housing development: the last thing I’d associate with Shangri La. No, instead it was a boat ride past that, a made up grotto and made up savages we were supposed to cheer. They’d Disneyfied the whole thing. The closest thing to Shangri La were blossoms I’d never seen before. The tall limestone hills remained remote.
In the late afternoon when the shadows lengthened I found more of a Shangri La back at Yangshuo. The light was right for photography and I got many good ones of people bathing in the river and relaxing on its edge on those magnificent long tiers of steps, with the spectacular scenery beyond.
Naively I looked forward to a ride in a bamboo raft up a side river; but on the other side of another turnstile monstrosity there was no secluded river journey through the wonders of exotic oriental nature but a stream dammed into a small lake crowded with rafts like water insects and bisected by an artificial rapid for a quick thrill. The boatman took a dislike to me when I dared to take a photo before getting on his craft, took me back to the turnstile to ban me on the basis of being too old and was talked out of it by the tour guide. On the way back I let him have it: “What’s the matter with you? Get on with it!” Then I gave him both barrels with another mouthful for delaying a hapless youth I’d been paired off with. It didn’t matter that he knew no English, my tone spoke volumes and the cunning hostility gave way to fawning submission. The ‘voyage’ itself? The light was bad but I got a few good photos that could be passed off as some tribal festival. The youth had brought along a portable water cannon but luckily we didn’t get close to his friends. There was a constant racket on the bank where trucks drove up and away again: no peace here.
I persisted with these explorations to attractions outside Yangshuo with a one day grand tour hoping to find something decent. It began memorably when I was told to wait by a tree up the road and the tree turned out to be a whole row of them. Westerners were thin on the ground here especially early in the morning so I thought I would still be easy enough to spot. A coach turned up at the other end of the row and picked up a lot of Chinese. It was only after nothing had turned up for me for a long time that I went back to the tour office and found that I should have got on it! I caught up with it and a diminutive tour guide girl on the back of a motorbike, one of the riskier things I did on this trip. Yangshuo could be a freaky place where one might see a vehicle with a bare engine in front not covered by a bonnet and part of the road being a gulley that could swallow stuff on 2 wheels.
The Big Banyan Tree wasn’t bad. They’re spectacular trees. Set in a meadow it was hard to believe the roots growing down to the ground from the massive branches weren’t stilts, being of a different colour. A science fiction writer – Brian Aldiss – once told me he was inspired by one of these trees to write a story about a far future Earth where the sun is growing bigger and the hot climate has resulted in one of these trees forming a planetwide jungle, inhabited by mobile vegetable monsters and green skinned shrunken humans. Across a river was a limestone arch with locals and boats: the sort of thing one might hope to see in the interior of a foreign continent.
The next experience though was an object lesson as to how the commercial world can be given a new and nasty twist from communism. There’s a place called Moon Hill composed of a natural arch through a hill. I thought one might be able to stroll to the bottom of it after the coach had threaded its way through a narrow village to a car park with a distant view of the hill; but everyone was ushered into a cross between a museum and mausoleum, it was windowless. Within were glassed over exhibits of stones that were supposed to be precious and desirable. The ushuring continued into … a bare classroom really. The back row seats were against the wall so I headed there. A middle aged Chinese man who’d befriended me headed the same way, laying his head on his hands in snooze style as though reading my thoughts. We were a pair of naughty overgrown schoolboys dozing without paying attention at the back of the class, while a nervous young lady tried to interest everyone amidst whispered messages from another employee. It was impossible to doze when the cause of the concern – another older woman – took over. Excessively dressed and made up like a doll she resembled an evil android or a clone of an evil emperors’ wife. She was definitely The Business. Her voice was strident and a decibel louder than it should be: a sure sign of a career in sales. One was told what the purpose of ones holiday was regardless of what language one spoke. You were on holiday or had travelled from afar not to explore a wonder of nature but to satisfy her career with ‘a shopping experience’. The sort of experience I avoided as much as possible and I was scornful of this kind of sentiment on the most fundamental level. No this was not the purpose of my life or journey, nor should it be compulsory for anyone else, but it was so bad it was entertaining as a masterpiece: the arrogant blinkered assertions of the commercial world in excess, that values everyone in terms of whether they are making money for whatever hallowed vested interest is perpetrating this view. In this case backed up by the overorganisation of the communist way of doing things. One aspect of the way of life here was becoming clear to me now in everything from commerce to barrier strewn stations and tourist attractions to foreign policy.
Outside was a mock up of some idyllic mount with flowers and columns and Moon Hill in the background; but I wasn’t to be left in peace even up there taking a few photos. A young man with a face contorted by attitude hurried up, agressively pestering me in Chinese and displaying his photos of where we were at. Oh I get it: this was his pitch, his patch and why was I muscling in on his territory? I must have been worn down by the evil android clone for I didn’t tell him to piss off but just concentrated on getting away from him. This was reversed though by another young guy who was part of the tour group witn his wife and charming little daughter. He casually got rid of the pest and – speaking enough English for me to just about understand him – assured me it would be okay, backing up that by taking photos of me with the hill in the background. He also ascertained that the older Chinese man and I were almost the same age. For a moment we formed a circle of friends and I shook the older fellows’ hand. Well why not? He’d been good to me although I was virtually clueless about his language and culture. Later the pest approached me again but this time I was prepared and marshalled my limited Chinese into a resounding “M HAI!” (NO in English.) That put paid to his chances of selling me anything which was an obvious bad bet when he could see I had a camera anyway.
There were plenty of caves around Yangshuo and ‘Assembling Dragon Cave’ was the last stop. ‘In order to grow flowers and trees please consciously love’ proclaimed an English translation of a notice in the landscaped verdure near the entrance. Now that was more the sort of thing I was after, comical maybe but also maybe a window into a different way of thinking in a different culture. Walkways across a pond with a red columned pagoda structure at the centre continued the feeling that this was more of a magical place. Then there were the unearthly jungled limestone mountains around the cave from which the name was derived. Within was plenty of variety, one got on a boat to cross a stretch of dark water, then there were some broad steps to ascend like those in an Indiana Jones film set, only to have ones compulsory photo taken at the top between 2 girls: not so good perhaps. There were also large tortoises eating cucumbers in a wooden pen with coloured decorations around their shells with banknotes beside them: no idea what the significance was here. Most of all though there were the stalactite and stalagmite formations artificially lit with all kinds of colours. Garishly interfering with nature or spectacular according to ones mood. A notice in green neon ‘Electric Shock Risk’ considerately reminded tourists of the dangers of this way of doing things. Another place where I was in 2 minds was a ‘palace’ of coloured glowing chunks of stalagmite arrayed in a hall of glass cases when leaving the cave. Spectacular or environmentally ruinous? Then there was a level of merchandising. And another level of merchandising. And another level of merchandising. I bought some water at the last exit.
The trip back to Yangshuo was marked – or marred – by the diminutive tour girl losing her temper with one of the customers. In an extraordinary tirade she berated him at length. I think he might have been guilty of flogging or giving away some token we were given but I could be wrong. A clue as to how differently people were treated here perhaps.
We were dropped of in a part of town I didn’t know but I was told the part I did was not far away. I walked part of the way through a wooded park to escape the sun. It extended into the distance and maybe I should have explored it for just around the corner after leaving it was the part of Yangshuo I knew.
This feeling continued the following day for I checked out the park near the arch by the river that extended up the side of Green Lotus Peak. After going through another bloody turnstile of course. After that though the kind of tourism I’d endured was left behind as I explored this place of peace. Walking, climbing up paths through woods on the side of a mountain – even though the sweat was pouring off me – was idyllic compared to much of the last few days. Plants and peace everywhere, a lady below with a parasol, a pagoda, an ancient carving on a much more ancient rock face, through the leaves of the trees fantastic views of the river and limestone mountains, the marvel that I was on the opposite side of the planet from where I lived actually doing this. I’m a philosopher and explorer at heart, the kind of person who is not annoyed at finding a perverse Confucius type wisdom in ‘he who strives nobly up difficult path may find locked gate’ which happened too. So this was the kind of place that appealed to me: all annoyance and stress existing in the world below.
© D Angus 10 16
China/Vietnam: More Trials of a Tourist.
And so the time came to leave Yangshuo. The bus I was in passed the park I’d wandered through part of; there was a pagoda up there under the karst cliffs. I should have explored all that instead of going to all the tourist traps but the heat made hiking a challenge and what can a tourist do if not anywhere for long enough? Time and money and so much to see exerted a straitjacket discipline in which one had to make choices appearing unwise in retrospect.
The bus went up the dust storm highway. Which just continued since the whole road seemed under construction despite a toll road running parallel. I got the feeling China was where Germany was in the 1930’s building autobahns and demanding territory aggressively. What amounted to a vehicle assault course lasted all the way up to Guilin.
It was a relief to get back to the Sapphire Hotel and my room, until I got there. They’d looked after my left luggage but when I tried to open up the room the key wouldn’t work, then I realised I’d been moved to a different room just as a man opened the door. Apologies and a luggage burdened trek to the new room. Which turned out to be much smaller and basic with no separate room for the bathroom. Plus a hall mirror positioned for a splendid view of oneself on the loo unless leaning sideways! Was this because of my earlier chaotic unseemly arrival? I was assured that because it was the weekend demand had increased but I couldn’t shake that feeling of a fiendish oriental plot.
On the last day I tried a nearby idyllic limestone hill by the river named after an elephants trunk but there was the usual barrier and turnstile rubbish so I tried the river I thought I was at when I first arrived in the town. Much nicer being more a series of landscaped lakes with wooded bouldered shores one could walk around freely. There were 2 full sized pagodas for the sun and the moon in a lake. I was surprised to find a pop group half way along the shore with a negro singer. Incongruous details like that and a row of knee high stone pigs across the entrance cropped up here, now and then.
Now for another rail journey to get out of China but the feeling of suffering a discreet penalty was back again the morning I left. There were always taxi’s in front of the hotel and I was resorting to one to get down to the station without getting drenched in sweat again. Although the daily smearing on of sunblock cream & insect repellant created a thin layer of slime over one anyway.
By the time I left there were no taxi’s. I tried explaining by any means what I wanted to staff and the travel bureau lady but couldn’t surmount a wall of incomprehension. Was it feigned? My father might have called it ‘dumb insolence’ – as he did with me sometimes – and would have lost his temper with them. In a way I did, giving up on them and making for the main road where there would be a bus.
The main road looked different somehow, but a bus came. Now for the bridge over one of the rivers. We crossed it. Now according to the street map I bought there should be a curve to the left, then the railway to the right. Nothing there. Then I realised: I’d gone down the wrong street from the hotel when exasperated, taken a bus in the opposite direction and now I was was lost again! Now I’d have to endure more and more persperation well before I reached the station and 2 train journeys: one of them overnight.
I got on another bus. There was a stop on the route map that looked as though it could be the station but the bus driver seemed to deny that. Got off. No buses seemed to be going there. Eventually I got on one anyway to encounter the driver of the first bus I’d taken, who still wasn’t going to the station. Got off and found myself at a crossroads where there was a travel agent. That was my chance as someone there should speak English but the only one there was a novice girl assuring me with a sick smile that she didn’t! Outside again into the furnace weather dehydrating in my sweat with all the heat and luggage. I tried to find a taxi, succeeding on the 2nd try. The taxi driver was a woman who raised my hopes a little; although she didn’t speak any English either she seemed to know where the station was.
We got there. I decided to let her keep the change which amounted to about 24% of the fare. What the hell: she’d done the job and had saved my bacon in doing so. A solid thumbs up from me broke the language barrier, she got that message with a smile. Just wait ’till I get the luggage out. Now for the station and hopefully the end of the trouble.
It was only the end of round 1 though. Round 2 began in the relentless sun outside the station because the ticket office and more barriers were there. In the small ticket office were 3 Chinese including a girl on the end whom I thought might be an airhead so I chose the guy at the other end. Perusal of my stuff extended into incomprehension and he sought the girl for help. The ticket for the first half of my journey was missing!
Luckily for me I was wrong about the girl, so never trust first impressions. She knew just enough English and was helpful enough to save the situation: despite being a Chinese official and despite me disagreeing “No I’m keeping my luggage with me I don’t want it stolen” – when she told me to leave it at the small office;- and me tactlessly complaining “And I can do without these barriers.” First she tried to put me on a sleeper that would take me all the way through but I would have to pay twice, but that was booked anyway. Then we found the train booked that I was supposed to be on so now – although I’d have had to pay for that one – there was no train available for my journey! On the face of it. Somehow she could overcome that by offering me a matchbox sized piece of paper with her writing as official proof that I was being covered for the cost of the missing ticket provided I present that in Nanning, where I was to change. “Oh yeah, I can just see myself showing them that and them not accepting that” was my ungrateful response. She could still see I had a point. We wound up in an office where I was invited to sit down next to a fan: a lifesaver! I had time to recover for while conferring with colleagues she laboriously wrote instructions in Chinese and English on to a larger A5 sized piece of paper. After which I was told to present this to the ticket officer on the train, who’d verify it for those I had to contact in Nanning, where I was to change and catch the sleeper to Vietnam. I was now in a fit enough state to appreciate how good this woman was and thanked her, but could I pull it off?
Round 3 began when the train was flying along and a uniform got close enough to my seat. Taking one look at my paper he passed it to a woman in uniform behind him like a soccer player making a sudden pass to avoid trouble. She took one look and I could tell she wasn’t pleased. Obviously she felt lumbered by this and she exacted revenge, summoning me out of my seat to follow her: I quickly gathered up the medium backpack and camera bag, the big one should be OK on the rack as long as the train didn’t reach a station, I had a fear of someone disembarking there with it. She led the way without looking round to see if I was keeping up, through the next carriage, then the next, then another! Was she going to take me through the whole train? She did just about! After I’d lost count of carriages we arrived at a lunch counter where her colleagues were. Then they proceeded into conference over the vital paper while complaining and joking about me in Chinese. I was patient and compliant: the best way right now I felt to get their co-operation.
But the train was slowing, we were approaching a station and to hell with this! My big backpack might be at risk. My agitation got through to a young official who relayed it to the effect that they’d had their fun with me, did what they thought was right to the paper which was handed back and I was allowed to return to my seat.
The big backpack was there so I was able to relax for the 2nd part of the journey to Nanning. The train fairly hurtled along at up to 209 kilometres an hour according to an electronic message over a door. One had to credit this marvel of Chinese technology although it made photography through the window difficult, the foreground always being blurred.
We were still in limestone country judging by the karst hills and the odd whiteish rock faces, although by now they tended to be more like triangles than towers. The interplay of these, farmland, the odd village, town or river I never got tired of, but eventually the karst ranges became more distant or subsided into hills, often cloaked in plantations of trees which had the shape of conifers although they were broadleaved. A city with wasteland in the foreground swung into view. Nanning and round 4.
It didn’t begin well as there seemed to be no choice but to join a departing crowd slowly moving down the biggest subway I’d seen which led right out of the station. Then I realised there were more barriers ahead; but these might work in my favour for once, if there was an official there who understood anything. There was, along with portable telephone contact to other officials; resulting in me being led up a side ramp I hadn’t seen to the rest of the station. At a counter in the main hall I was told to wait.
The paperwork arrived signifying that I’d satisfied their concerns without needing to pay anything. I’d won round 4 and this trial!
Now all I had to do was ascend an escalator to an upstairs waiting hall until marshalled for the sleeper train to Hanoi in Vietnam. While there I nearly ruined everything while trying to find something to eat: a well wisher alerted me to leaving my green folder behind with all the travel papers inside! Thanking her profusely I thought of my sentiment when saving that guy’s passport back at Heathrow.
The latest crisis might be over but I still had the endurance course of a night journey in a cramped sleeper caked in old sweat and interrupted by potentially difficult borders in the middle of the night. There were 4 berths with almost certainly other people. I got there first hoping for a lower bunk but I had an upper one. I tried filling in the departure card form that I’d carried all the way through China before anyone else showed up. That alone would get me out of China now. A Chinese family arrived whose father curtly told me in Chinese – one could go a lot on tone – to make room for them. He was just as curtly told to wait until I’d finished the card. He must have understood my tone too.
Once on a top bunk I realised that I had access to a space over the corridor outside the compartment: it was effectively a shelf difficult to reach which would do nicely for my luggage and security concerns. Pressing myself down on the bunk I could just make out what was outside the window of the train that was on its way now, but couldn’t be bothered with photos. The father and I didn’t say much to each other at all but the kids were friendly. I even ventured down the corridor now and then for a better view and the loo, though I’d made sure in Nanning that I didn’t need to use that much.
The border. A change from trying to sleep on the bunk. I’d hoped the customs officers would come on board and we wouldn’t have to get up but no; a border is a place for maximum inconvenience to be imposed. I stepped down from the train and one of the last representatives of China was there: a trooper in camouflage uniform and helmet, starkly lit along with the train and track, as one could only be at this time of night. That and walking alongside the train to the customs post brought on the feel of a war film or spy thriller. The scene was set, the action was about to happen. I had the sense of adventure again and it wasn’t so bad. When we were processed without the kind of crises I’d endured I began to feel like James Bond again, cooly controlled in a potentially hazardous situation.
Goodbye China but we still had to get into Vietnam. A few hours later I had a repeat of that experience, gather one’s clobber, get off the train with everyone else and make ones sleepy but garishly lit way to a customs post in a small station. An isolated world defined by stark artificial lighting, the black void of the night hiding everything else. This time though there were several Vietnamese personnel in olive green uniforms keeping an eye on us, the most sinister looking one near me.
Eventually I became aware that it was light outside and could abandon the uncomfortable struggle to submerge into a shallow doze. The train was entering the outskirts of Hanoi. The first building I saw through the window and overcast dawn light was a curious affair: only one room wide with 2 more on top of it. There seemed to be a faint French style about it – the whole region was a former French colony – but it was like seeing a block of flats edge on with the windows in the wrong place. There were a few more of them here and there, the greenery of disused land and foliage beside the tracks and a muggy looking street or 2 stretching away. The train ground to a halt. I’d made it out of China to what was the capital of the former North Vietnam.
Well, more or less. I still had much of the city to cross to reach the booked hotel because the present railway gauge didn’t go any further, Vietnam having a different gauge. That most likely meant a taxi. When I got out of the train and tried to take a photo the camera view was blurred with condensation from the difference between the train air conditioning and outside temperature: already getting excessive even at dawn. By the time I’d got a photo everyone had gone but there was the usual persistant driver on the make next to me: I gave in and we got to his car.
It was a similar language situation to China, the barest understanding of what one wanted though luckily I could show him the hotel on the map. We drove down a succession of dingy but broad streets and across a big river. Good. He’d headed in the right direction and I’d be close enough to walk now but for the weather. We got to the corner of a big park occupied by a lake but after that his sense of geography failed him; luckily mine remained good as I won the struggle to guide him round the streets beyond to the one near the alley to the hotel. It could have been worse, the fare was not excessive.
When a hotel with the name ‘Hanoi Luxury Hotel’ is down a picturesque but festering alley one fears the worst but it was better than expected. It looked nice enough and I was expected though there was the inevitable confusion and delay down to their limited knowledge of English and less knowledge of Vietnamese on my part. It was early so they needed to get the room ready. I worked out a safe place with them for my luggage and walked off to have a look at Hanoi.
Most of the buildings were not high rises but lower, old or makeshift. The place laboured under the kind of heat one could feel if close to an open oven. A typhoon had been reported on a Chinese weather forecast heading for the Hanoi region but it hadn’t arrived or done the job of clearing the air. Hanoi lay in a miasma of heat haze and pollution presumably: a kind of diffuse mist of grime ridden vapour and traffic fumes through which the sun could still just shine. Talk about a semi breathable atmosphere on another planet.
I tried to check out the station I’d be at tomorrow. Its approach couldn’t be more different to Chinese railways. A single track I wasn’t even sure was useable entered the station area from the north amidst everyone and everything: people wandering at will plus various wares being sold alongside the track with none of the security officials and barriers found everywhere in China. Beyond the gates on the other side of the road weeds grew around the track as it headed into the station yard. I struck down the far side and found an entrance. I continued thinking I could get all the way round but a belated glance at the map told me it wasn’t worth it. By then the road had narrowed into a lane like the one to my hotel. It was being used as a rat run by anything on two wheels.
There were all kinds of vehicles in this city but most of it was two wheeled. Masses of scooters, motorbikes and mopeds awaited at traffic lights to descend on one like the hordes of Genghis Khan with cavalier disregard for road safety. Some of them wore bandit style masks to guard against pollution. The pavements reminded me of the Philippines: an obstacle course of people, impromptu cooking enterprises, wares also such as motorbikes, depending on whoever owned the property one was passing.
Still Hanoi had a kind of decrepit charm, with a fair amount of vegetation around: trees and narrow fronted buildings occasionally festooned with tropical foliage. I walked back to the park I’d been driven past. Most parks here were occupied by lakes judging by that and Google Earth. Westerners were more apparent here in Vietnam than in China: I had a conversation with an Australian woman in the park. After the park I tried striking out towards the big river but was blocked by a motorbike infested main road backed up by an elevated motroway.
Back at the hotel I relaxed in my room from the heat and the miasma. Luxurious enough for me with a high ceiling, probably the French influence. Wooden shutters opened up to a good view of the rooftops and sunset.
Now for the final train ride to Dong Hoi down the coast, which was going to be the start of my next theatre of operations. A taxi took me by a roundabout route to the side of the station I hadn’t explored. It was more grandiose but still smaller than city stations at home, let alone China. I had that feeling again of ‘from one extreme to the other’: no steel barriers and it was easier to get the ticket sorted. Then I came across a can of ‘Birds Nest White Fungus Drink’. With a title like that I just had to try it. Just about drinkable and almost certainly better for one than a coke.
When the train came it was old with wooden seats and gently rocked and swayed when leaving the station, indicating a badly maintained track! So different from China again. That was the start of a slower journey through Vietnam though the train could gather speed when feeling confident enough. On the plus side were some Europeans travelling with me including a Dutch couple I conversed with a few seats back.
Mile after mile of suburb slid by, composed for the most part of those narrow houses I mentioned, like entering the end of a small block of flats or as one writer put it;- like entering the side of a house with the proportions of a matchbox. This would prove to be the residential style throughout Vietnam; the height of them determined by how much money one had I guess.
The miasma looked like extending itself likewise to Dong Hoi. Solidifying into a November like gloom. That and shooting through a dirty window made photography difficult again. Another problem was power cables and the supporting poles. There were black strands and masses of them in the towns of SE Asia resembling half completed gigantic sinister cobwebs enveloping the streets. When travelling by train they’d be swooping and slicing across the scenery most of the time, so one had to be quick and lucky to get that good shot and not to have a bloody pole bisecting the photo too.
It was going to take a day to get down to Dong Hoi though that was still well within what used to be North Vietnam. Eventually we were leaving the Hanoi region behind as houses, stores and street enterprises, filling stations and factories coalesced into towns and shrunk into villages, revealing flat rice paddies, the odd river and later those limestone hills come mountains again. Here and there these islands of rocky precipitous jungle would be gouged out into the bare rock of a quarry. I’d seen that in China too.
There were more farms, jungled areas and hills the further south one got. One real surprise were what looked like large brightly hued churches. Particularly one sandy coloured temple beyond some fields with workers like peasants in medieval times. It was within a curve of the track so here was one place easy to photograph. It was a church I later found. Catholicism has a surprising following in Vietnam.
The train arrived in Dong Hoi after nightfall. As it did so 2 German women aked if they could share a taxi and fare with me. Only too happy to oblige! We were all going to seafront residences and found a cab with a meter just outside the station. The young driver drove us down a long main street to where they were dropped off first. I had to get to the northern edge of town. Come to think of it the fare looked twice as much as a Hanoi fare.
We got there and settled up; but then the driver seemed agitated. I just got my luggage up the steps and into the hotel hoping he’d just go away after my long journey but he came in too, to dedicate a softly spoken campaign of incessant whispering agitation to the reception woman. According to her he’d made the mistake of giving me too much change. I so did not need or deserve this! There’s something about this kind of squalid little situation with some taxi drivers that I just hate: where you’re obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt – some of them do play on that – over who’s being ripped off, feeling guilty if resisting, feeling a fool if giving way. I was on the point of giving him money to get rid of him when the phone rang and it was for me!
Incredibly Mike – my travel agent friend who organised this part of my journey – was ringing during the middle of this to check on how I was doing. I admired his timing and told him why. Oh he’s just trying it on was Mike’s response. His opinion had the weight of experience, having travelled in this region and marrying a Philippine wife.
That stiffened my resolve. Mike would have just stonewalled him but after that conversation I was enraged enough with this pest to let him have it by threatening him with the police unless he left! I had the feeling of being in a colonial war commanding ranks of riflemen to “FIRE!” Over and over again. Until the attacking enemy was dispersed. At first nobody moved but faced with superior willpower – if not firepower – the persistant creep was shot up repeatedly with loud derision, during which he lost his persistence, faltered gradually and finally sidled off into the night and defeat. Mike later told me that calling the police was risky since the driver’s brother in law might be in charge but it worked!
So having proved that I could behave like an SS bastard to reception and the echoing expanses of the hotel I had a smooth registration and got up to my room. I’d sooner have handled things otherwise but not when this kind of deceitful sob story is forced upon one. Besides, if this perpetrator had been innocent against the odds the harsh response might teach him to be more careful.
The room was very comfortable apart from a bath with no shower. That mattered little. Sometimes it’s nice to just lie in a bath after times of stress.
The view from my hotel window in the early morning. Across the road a wood of small pines stretched along the sand, hiding the sea. Strange to see pines in the tropics but such a setting seemed to guarantee that laid back sand in shoes lifestyle found by the seashore.
I made peace with the reception woman and got the laundry logistics going. Breakfast was nice and unhurried: a small gecko on the wall kept me company.
Time to relax with a swim on a free day before it all happened tomorrow. A deserted beach meant no worries about possesions. Warm water with a nice swell and no jellyfish or sharks led to a nice swim. There wasn’t even a need for a towel afterwards: despite being soaking wet one was dry in 5 minutes in the dense heat.
I hiked into the town of Dong Hoi unencumbered with luggage. Always carry sufficient bottled water though and wear a hat. A string of small enterprises lay along the wooded strip: anything from a tarpaulin over stuff to eat & drink to small but substantial buildings to eat at or stay in. One had a huge ornately carved dark wood chair fit for an emperor.
In town I had a drink with a woman running a recommended seafront hostel, searched for stuff I needed along the main street and fended off another attempted rip off from a taxi driver on the way back. An unreadable meter and a leer indicating I was an idiot, not him, led to a premature pull over and a shortened hike back.
Then it was dozing & surfing TV in my room until evening, when I had a beer at one of the places in the wood. We didn’t speak each others lingo but everything was cool.
The day I’d been looking forward to for almost a year was finally here. The expedition would pick me up in the early afternoon and I spent the last few hours downstairs with my gear. Like the marine commander in ‘Aliens’ I wanted this meeting to go “by the book, by the numbers.”
There was confusion over whether I’d paid the hotel bill or not. The reception woman’s knowledge of English was patchy so I explained using Vietnamese where I could in a friendly fashion, helpfully, painstakingly, with the help of a calender and the voucher for this hotel. They’d always been proof enough and the whole thing seemed settled.
After awhile she approached me again to say that someone on the phone wanted to talk to me. It was a woman dealing with whether I’d paid the bill or not. Any irritation was tempered by an opportunity to deal with the problem clearly because she spoke fluent English. We sorted it. The reception woman went back to work making phone calls.
Then the same thing happened again. Now this was seriously bad! The expedition could show up any time now and to crown it all I had to find a 9 digit number demanded by a call centre operative of the inimical sort. I found one on the voucher and laboriously read it out, wrong number, what the/no wait there’s another one right under the first and read it out dutifully, after which I was ordered to find another 4 digit number! I couldn’t find that and cancelled a further booking I had with the hotel in retaliation. “Don’t talk to me like that.” “I’m talking like that because the expedition’s HERE!” Their vehicle had just arrived and an occupant was entering the hotel, but I was told to wait while help was found elsewhere in the centre!
(A quick break in the action here to suggest that all focused, committed call centre captains of industry management types train their staff not to throw customers heated concerns back in their faces by the ‘don’t talk to me like that’ line. The flack staff are getting results from your organisation’s rituals being dumped upon customers, usually on top of problems they already have with the product or service anyway. So try using that positive thinking you’re always on about to train staff to look at it from the customer’s point of view for a change!)
By now my anger was volcanic. First impressions can be important to others even if they aren’t with me and the expedition contact had arrived to find me bitterly fighting allegations of an unpaid bill! It was bad enough having to deal with call crap centres – the compulsory crap imposed by them offended the rebel in me – but this was the ultimate outrageous sacrilege! To have a great adventure involving months of preparation put on hold and maybe jeopardised – if I missed the expedition briefing I’d be barred – by the sort of whirlpool of tedious, debilitating, mundane garbage I thought I’d left behind on the other side of this planet!
“I’m sorry.” “So you should be!”
The simpering apology from the reception woman deserved an unforgiving response because those phone calls she’d being making were really her persistence in repeatedly presenting this unjust problem to me – regardless of what I did – until she’d finally arranged the worst start possible! Like an utterly faithfull dog retrieving and returning a slimy stick one just wants to get rid of. Later I wondered if it was revenge for me hammering that corrupt taxi driver when I arrived but Mike – my travel agent friend – was certain it was just incompetence.
Instead of finding help the call centre cow had hung up on me and the argument was circular but it became apparent that we weren’t actually being prevented from leaving. We did so with me apologising profusely to the guy picking me up and the one expedition member in the vehicle doubting it would do any good. They and the expedition had nothing to do with this hotel.
My luck changed with these guys. The fellow in the vehicle spoke good English and changed the subject with a conversation about the mystical aspects of archaeology. While I had doubts about some of that it was more sensible by far to play along with him after what had just happened. The slim Vietnamese who’d picked me up introduced himself as ‘Vu.’ He looked young but many do here. He was sympathetic to the point where he later told me that (instead of judging people as often happens in the west) he empathised with customers in trouble. I couldn’t have hoped for a better man and both of them brought me round to a better frame of mind.
The surroundings and even the weather helped too the further away we got from Dong Hoi. We swung off a main road into a lane leading to a road taking us into the freedom of countryside, hills and mountains. Meanwhile the air seemed to be clearing from heat haze to clouds in a whiteish sky about to become blue. The road stretched ahead and the entrance to the national park was proclaimed ahead, in huge letters up a mountain, reminding me of Mount Rushmore.
Up a valley, through a straggling village and we were at the expedition base come hotel, being received in a very friendly manner. A different world entirely from the troublesome establishment I’d just come from. Before long I had telephone contact with Mike and gave him the news in a nonchalant fashion:- “Well I had a flaming row when I got there and a flaming row when I left. Shame because it was a nice enough hotel otherwise.” I was past caring about his consternation over dealing with it.
Reviewing the sweaty battles of endurance in China and Vietnam plus taxi drivers and a call centre I concluded – since I was on blood pressure tablets – that if I’d had a latent heart attack or stroke problem I’d be dead! That simple. So I was well set for the adventure of a lifetime.
Reviewing the sweaty battles of endurance in China and Vietnam I concluded – since I was on blood pressure tablets – that if I’d had a latent heart attack or stroke problem I’d be dead! That simple. So I was well set for the adventure of a lifetime starting in a few days.
© D Angus 05 17