I caught the bus without issue, procured my ticket without issue, and found my way onto the train, without issue. Miraculous. The “hard sleepers” are rows of bunk beds, three tiered. A narrow aisle runs along one side of the car with fold out seats for the upper bunks. I was lucky enough to have a bottom bunk. I got a lot of writing done and ate a lot of snacks before passing out. I didn’t sleep very well in the night, a bit agitated by the unfamiliar experience, but come morning I slept fine until noon- this is the advantage of travelling in a bed. After a bit more writing we were in Guangzhou, near the border (There are no trains direct to Hong Kong, but a 27 hour train ride will get you close).
I stepped out of the station. It was hot. The wool t-shirt and long pants were no good for this tropical climate. This part of the country was very different: green, tropical, humid. The buildings in Guangzhou were older too, dirty and a bit worn, their pink and yellow paint stained with years of rain, lichen and detritus, and the shabbier look made me think of countries a little further South. I wandered around in search of some grub. I was ravenous, as I had only eaten the snacks I brought with me and some oranges I bought on the train. They serve meals, of course, but they all have meat in them… I have been delaying this admission, but Cody has convinced me to stop eating meat. No, I’m not a vegetarian, I’m just not eating meat right now.
I ate a mountain of rice and felt better. Now the search was on. I had to figure out how to get to the South Railway Station, about 25 kilometers South of here. I saw buses everywhere and assumed there must be one that takes me there, but unable even to locate a bus stop, I popped into a hotel and asked which one to wait for. She told me “2,” which I thought was strange, as buses usually have a two or three-digit number, but there was a bus station where she pointed, and I went over and waited. For an hour. I asked each driver which bus went to the South station, without any luck, as no one made the slightest effort to help me. I tried to get on some free wifi, but even this requires a phone number in order to access it, so I slunk back to the hotel to ask for further assistance. I waited 5 minutes for an English speaker to show up and was informed that I need to take the METRO. Of course! Many U.S. cities don’t have metros, so I frequently forget that they exist. Behind the bus station was a set of stairs underground, and within an hour I was at the South station! Immensely relieved, I found the right ticket easily and waited for my train. This station was like an airport, and I enjoyed the atmosphere, oddly. Before long my train was boarding.
As I waited in what I hoped was an impromptu queue for my train, my attention was drawn to a woman speaking behind me, who I assumed was enquiring as to which train we were lining up to board. I began to daydream, and I was finishing up some ice cream, as I recall, when this woman addressed me. I turned, and saw that she was a middle-aged woman who had been horribly burned, her entire face and her hands, which were all of her skin I could see, with tips of her fingers missing, sacrificed in some terrible conflagration. She was holding out a bag. When I looked at her I was immediately and wholeheartedly filled with empathy and put some money in her bag. Usually I am not easy to get money out of, but I found myself considering life in her shoes without effort. She probably does rather well for herself, and I hoped so, gladly contributing to her prosperity. I suppose my emotional response was so pure and complete because I had no time to react at all. I’m not sure why I am choosing to describe this moment, for that was all it was- it was over before it began.
I fell asleep on the train and woke up in Hong Kong. It was night. I had done no research about where to stay, and relied on maps in the station to direct me to a hotel. I was remarkably unprepared for this journey, having neglected to utilize the wifi at the hostel to look up lodging or any additional transportation. This freedom I spoke of previously, the understanding of it- or rather, the experiencing of it- did something to me, and since then I had been in another place, having been consumed by a whirlpool descending into the depths of myself and regurgitated, totally disoriented and dazed. I think I was reconciling my aloneness and the newness of it with what the first five months of my trip had been like. By the time I made it to Georgia, I was feeling lost, in despair, struggling with myself and wondering why I was out here. I was lonely. This time I do not feel alone at all. I have Stefan and Cody and Aleix and Joan and Jordi and Didi, Youri, Zach and Alize, Frederic, Freddy the Ox. I can feel them out there. I laugh to myself, wondering what they would think of the situation, with many a memory quick to recall. Remnant reverberations of laughter, and the glowing, joyous shades of shared struggle.
I also have my friends and family, and the ability to make new friends, forge new familial bonds. Everybody feels closer. Everything is more connected. Except for public transport, of course.
I wandered out of the station, aiming vaguely for a hotel that I hoped was cheap. I stumbled upon a tiny Indian restaurant and decided I needed some samosas. Oddly enough, it reminded me of home. They had wifi, so I looked up a hostel and remembered where I was. My luxurious 4 dollar hostel in Xi’an was but a memory- it would cost me 30 dollars to buy a bunk bed in Hong Kong for a single night. I had no interest in staying here initially, as the hostel in Xi’an seemed hesitant to look after my luggage, but at the sight of that price I knew I needed to be on the next train back to China.
I discovered when I went to pay that I did not have any Hong Kong currency, but she exchanged some yen for me. I returned to the station, where I extracted some useful money, wondering what was going on with me. I seemed to be trying the “reckless abandon” type of freedom out. I wandered up the streets of Hong Kong, searching for the place.
I found it in a dark, terrifying alley, complete with a drug dealer asking me if I needed anything “special.” He looked harmless, but I was not encouraged by what this map was telling me, namely, “Turn right at the drug dealer down poorly lit alleyway in a port town.”
Nevertheless, I wandered into the dark alley, passing the back doors of restaurants and housing blocks. Water dripped from AC units, clothes and trash piled up on a mish-mash of doors and steps. A light led up a flight of stairs into what looked like a likely place to buy some crack. I cautiously ascended, as it seemed the only place to go, growing uneasy. Discarded refuse lay piled on the landings. One floor, two floors. White sheets were hanging out to dry. Sterile fluorescent lights buzzed and I felt like I was in someone’s bad trip. Third floor. An open door led into a hallway. I peeked in and saw some sort of counter with a bunch of keys hanging behind it. Maybe this was it, I didn’t really have other options. I cautiously stalked down the hallway, and as I rounded the corner, saw a big friendly sign, decrying, “WHATEVER HOSTEL” (can’t remember the name) with pictures of travellers everywhere and typical hip, young hostel decor. Flabbergasted and relieved, I popped through the door into the reception. I found a European girl at the desk surrounded by chattering Philipinos. She greeted me. “That is the sketchiest entrance I have ever seen.” I said. She laughs and gets me checked in. Put up some signs for Pete’s sake!
She shows me to a tiny room crammed with bunk beds. There are six in here and they are tiny, probably designed for children. I compared this tiny bed in this tiny room in this tiny hostel to the luxurious suite I could buy for the same price in China. Hey, it had a good shower, a western toilet and wifi, so I was happy.
The next morning I returned to the station, bought a ticket to Guangzhou and ate lunch at the Indian restaurant. Hong Kong seemed to offer little in the way of anything but business venues and shopping. There are some nice parks, I’m sure, but as far as I am concerned there was nothing there for me. Strange that I have met so many people from Hong Kong, the place is tiny. A lot of Africans there, by the way.
En route to my train I was sort of grilled at customs about why I was returning to China. Heaven forbid I didn’t have a good reason! They may readily hand out ten year visas, but they are stingy about letting you in. The lady asked me why I was in China, why I needed more time.
“I am riding a bicycle around the world and China is big.”
That kind of stopped her in her tracks.
“Where is your luggage? Let me see your luggage.”
I held up a battered yellow pannier. This confused her. I explained that my bicycle and the rest of my stuff was in Xi’an, to which she frowned and stamped me back into the country. I would not want to have to deal with her regularly. People work illegally in China all the time, and have to bounce in and out of the country to renew their visas, so they must have some creative excuses for the customs agents. This is kind of funny, because China is massive; if you wanted to see all of the touristic attractions you would need at least a year, it’s equivalent to trying to explore the United States in two months (though I’m sure our visa policy is at least as silly)!
Without any issue, I made it back to Guangzhou, and then the trouble began. For one, I couldn’t remember where I popped out on the metro. I finally found it, but couldn’t find any ticket machines. I passed through security and became trapped in between the platform and security without a ticket. I found customer service and a kind English speaking volunteer led me around security and out to a ticket machine. I got lucky and was able to scrounge the fair in the bills and coins the machine would accept. Okay, made it on the metro.
Back at the North Railway station, I went to the ticket counter and stood in line. It was not really possible to acquire a ticket ahead of time, as I was not sure how long it would take me to get back to Northern Guangzhou in the first place. After a good half hour, it was my turn to buy, but when I asked about a ticket to Xi’an I was told I was at the wrong office. Apparently there was another office on the other side of the square, which was indicated by this fellow pointing. In hindsight, I realized many native Chinese citizens had also been waiting in the wrong ticket office and were sent away, although this was a mystery as I waited to be turned away myself. I had to ask the fellow again and finally followed his gesticulations on faith.
I went through security to get to the other side, passed through security to get inside the building, and emerged into a room with about twenty different lines for twenty different booths, all with what I am sure was very useful information above the windows about which line to stand in. I asked the security guard which window booked for Xi’an, and she mumbled a few numbers and pointed me to the wrong line in response. Usually in this situation I go to the shortest line and ask where I am supposed to be. I waited, and so did many others, only to have them close these particular ticket booths. Dejected, we all moved toward other lines.
A man who had been waiting approached me and asked where I was going. I told him, and he looked up the trains for me, which was very kind. He made to help me get a ticket and asked for my passport. I asked him how he was going to get one and tried to get him to show me, but he just gestured kindly and walked over to another line. He began wrestling to the front of the line. I realized I was going to have to pay for this service, and tried to stop him, but he ignored me and came back with a ticket and my passport, which to my surprise he handed straight back to me. That was a mistake on his part. I handed him exactly the price of the ticket and we began to argue. He wanted nine dollars on top of the price of the ticket. I told him he should be ashamed of taking advantage of me, to which he replied that this was standard business. I wasn’t going to cold-cock him, as he did just hand me back my passport with a ticket he had paid for after looking up the trains for me, although he clearly took advantage of me. He was angry when I refused to pay him nine, but after I put forty yen in his hand, he grumbled and walked off. I don’t know what China has done to me, but I was very firm in denying him any more and was ready to defend myself. He didn’t do much to earn it, what I paid him was fair., and this is really the first time I felt ripped off so far, aside from that time in Baku, which had been more or less resolved.
I finally had a ticket back to Xi’an though and I was relieved. I was anxious to get on a train as soon as possible because I wanted to arrive in Xi’an at a reasonable hour (Now, I also just wanted to get out of Guangzhou, it’s not much of a city). I did not have a bed reserved at the hostel because it had seemed like there was plenty of space, but then I remembered it was Christmas Eve and hoped that didn’t mean an increase in business for the hostel…
I went back through security and got into one of four lines to enter the building. People were being turned away and had to crawl out of line through a sea of people and I assumed one had to be in the right line according to destination. I made it to the front, fingers crossed, and had somehow picked the correct line! My ticket was stamped and I was admitted. Another queue for security. I dropped my bag on the conveyor belt and passed through the metal detector. They ran me over with the wand and as I grabbed my stuff I was stopped by security- which was entirely composed of young women, oddly enough- and told to empty my bag. I told them they could search it if they wanted to and crossed my arms- I’m not going to make it easy for them to inconvenience me. She actually grinned at this, and begrudgingly began to pull clothes out of my bag. She got to the bottom and pulled out a little black Swiss Army knife. Oh no.
I had made a point- I thought- of leaving this little gem back at the hostel so as to avoid having it confiscated, but it had somehow slipped back in! I couldn’t believe it. I had spent 50 dollars on it in Bishkek (I have one back home that I didn’t bring on the trip for some reason) after a debate over whether it was worth risking immediate confiscation at the Chinese border, despite my sincere need of one. Turns out they didn’t take my Swiss Army knife nor my razor sharp skinning knife, which I haven’t used and hope I don’t need to. Now, not only was I at risk of losing it, but I had apparently smuggled it onto the train here, onto the metro, across the border into Hong Kong, back into China, back on the metro, and into the station square, and at the very last security checkpoint, after having been x-rayed 8 times this very day, they have discovered my knife, which I didn’t even know I had on me.
I lost a folding knife my Dad gave me when I was younger because I accidentally brought it to the airport. It was a good knife- nothing special, but durable and imbued with strong sentimental value. When you don’t grow up with your Dad in the house and he gives you something “manly,” it immediately becomes an important tote, and I was extremely frustrated, but not enough to risk missing my flight in order to pay the nine dollars I didn’t have to mail it to myself. Incidentally, I also lost the other knife my Dad bought me- a nice skinning knife- in the woods on a backpacking trip a few years ago. There is some symbolic significance and also some irony in the fact that I lose every blade my father buys me despite coveting them, but this is best left for another article. (Yeah, lost that Buck knife on the trip through the Redwoods Dad. I think I know where it is, although I’m sure someone has found it by now. I beat myself up over that one.)
Now I was looking at an extremely useful, spendy knife in the hand of a security guard and weighed my options. I immediately informed them of its significance: why I owned it (bike trip) and my extreme need of it. They obviously told me I could not bring it on the train, but I explained that I had brought it down here and across the border twice. I even joked that I hadn’t stabbed anyone on the way down and I wouldn’t on the way back, which is probably not a good joke to translate into Chinese. When they seemed as if they were going to make off with it I asked if I could mail it to myself, despite not having an address. An older guard escorted me and my lovely little black Swiss Army knife to a concierge of some sort and I explained the situation. They said I could check my luggage, but it would cost money and I would have to leave the station to do so. Desperate not to take any steps away from getting back to Xi’an I pleaded them to put it in the care of an employee of the train until I got to Xi’an, to no avail. They informed me that I could check it for an unknown price in a small building outside and beyond the “Long Distance Ticket Office.” I informed them that I would never be able to accomplish this myself and they looked at me incredulously. I am a cyclist dammit! I don’t have to know how to do this crap. How am I expected to be able to navigate a train station that confouns the native speakers? It’s chaos. I knew that if I found this place I would have trouble communicating with them. Even if I succeeded, I bet it would be costly. Even then, arriving in Xi’an late and anxious to get to the hostel before midnight, I would have to locate and pick up said knife. They informed me that they could only escort me as far as the exit and from there I was on my own. Sullenly, I followed the guard. She handed me the blasted blade and watched me exit. I had almost asked them to snap the blades off I was so intent on keeping it, but I naturally wanted a clean sweep; I needed the blades too- these harmless little butter-spreading blades that are more notorious for their danger to the handler than to the object of their keen edge.
So there I was, back outside the station, and I began to walk across the square. I looked at the security I would have to go through. I looked across to the ticket office where my partially thwarted ticket ringer was probably lurking. I looked into the confusion and darkness beyond the ticket office. No. No way, screw this. I walked over near a barrier, knelt down to tie my shoe, then stood up and got back in line to enter the station.
After 9/11, airport security was heightened. The hijackers had apparently hidden knives in their shoes, and now we all have to remove our shoes to get through airport security. Guangzhou Railway Station was not affected by 9/11, and therefore were not as suspicious. The knife was a bit bulky, so it hurt my foot to stand on it, but I did not let it affect my gait, like a good terrorist. I was nervous though. They knew me as the white guy with the knife, so they would be waiting for me to come back through. I had been a long time at the concierge desk though, long enough for a fellow to go check a bag and return. I looked a bit dejected, as if I had lost my knife or was upset that things hadn’t gone my way. I defeatedly placed my bag on the conveyor and smiled weakly at the girls and passed through the metal detector. They passed their wand over my pockets and behind my back and let me pass. I went to the bathroom, pulled the knife out, stuffed it into the depths of my bag and went out to catch my train. I…am…a…G.
As I waited, I studied my ticket and realized something horrible: for a 27 hour train ride, that bastard of a ticket scammer had bought me a train SEAT. I was going to sit upright on a train for 27 hours. Grimly I considered this. I bought two coffees and two red bulls and decided that I would simply stay awake all night. What other option did I have? At least he had saved me some money, service fee or no. This was going to be tough though.
The train arrived and I approached my car stoically, facing my fate with as much grace as I could muster. I entered the car. Maybe I would have a row to myself. Perhaps the cars would empty out as we got closer to Xi’an. Maybe the seats are nice. I found my seat. An aisle separated two sets of seats, three on one side, two on the other, set up in booths with small tables. I had the aisle seat, one of two on our side of the car. A young man was already in the window seat. He was about my size, and he was sticking out into the tiny, hard little place I would call home for the next solar rotation of the planet, and then some. Could be worse: he wasn’t fat. I sat down, careful not to tangle legs with the lady across from me, and the train departed. Two employees appeared in some sort of little booth, and a crowd gathered, including my new benchmate. Phones were out and discussions took place. I looked on keenly. Could it be? Grinning from ear to ear, my mate grabbed his bucket and made to depart. I looked at him and through gesture asked him if he had upgraded to a sleeper. He nodded happily in the affirmative. I passively waited until the crowd cleared, then, afraid to hope, meekly approached the booth and asked if there were any sleepers available. The fellow checked. I waited, totally free from the dullest ache of desire. “Yes, there is. But it is the top bunk, is that okay?” Fireworks of elation broke out in my heart as I told him a top bunk would be just fine. I paid an extra 24 dollars for that bed happily and retreated to the sleeper cars. I was headed back to Xi’an and all I had to do to get there was recline.
I did a lot of reading and a fair bit of sleeping, with some eating in between. About midnight I walked out of the Xi’an station into an army of taxi cab drivers waiting for me. I dodged through them and went to the bus stop. The bus I wanted wasn’t there, so I started walking. I kept passing bus stops, but didn’t see the 603 listed. I was halfway to the hostel by the time I found the right stop, but it didn’t matter. Either they had beds available or they didn’t. It made no difference when I arrived, late was late. I realized I should have gone back a street to where the 603 drops people at the station, but I had been too eager. Now I waited, having found a bus stop, enjoying myself, but keeping a sharp lookout for the distinct double-decker I was after, my Moby Dick. I waited, trying not to give way to anxiety, telling myself, “You were too eager back there, now you need to be patient.” I was dead set on paying one yen to get back instead of thirty, I had spent enough money in the last few days, but I was eager to get to the hostel.
Well, after watching a large clock tick away fifteen minutes I checked my map and recognized where I was. Sheesh, if I had kept walking I would have been there by now! I deserted the bus stop and trekked home. There is a large roundabout- which also happens to be a temple- near the hostel. To cross the street, you must pass underground, but apparently at this hour they close the underground passageway and I had to dart across six lanes of traffic to get across, which was ridiculous- what were they thinking? How are you supposed to get across?- but I made it. I walked up the hostel steps. I hit the buzzer and entered, to find most of the staff awake and chatting, as I knew they would be. We exchanged greetings. It was after midnight, so the greeting was, “Merry Christmas.” I asked if they had any beds, and they did. A weight lifted off my shoulders. I checked in, bid the crew goodnight and walked to the back courtyard where Lodo (my bike) was and I kissed it sincerely. I was happier than ever to be cycling, and eager to get back on the road. I had been taking my trip for granted and I relished the freedom and simplicity of taking myself wherever I felt like going without dealing with the coordination of more conventional modes of travel. I was back on track and the open road was calling.