Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Train!

I actually had a seat for the first couple of hours. I was crammed onto a lightly padded bench with women who kept hocking grotesque loogies into a tissue, and kids who slept like contortionists.

Then the first stop came, and the rightful owners of the seats kicked us all out. They were mostly students, as I had the terrible fortune of traveling during the end of China's Spring Festival. Everyone was going back to Beijing from their hometowns. The population of the car actually doubled at that first stop, as if it wasn't crowded enough. Then at the second stop at midnight, even more people crammed on. It was inhuman.

I recently read an amazing book on India called Bombay: Maximum City. The author mentioned that in India, there are limits to how much livestock may be shipped in one car on a train. There are no such limits for how many humans can cram into a car, and I suspect it's a similar situation in China.

The floor was covered with sunflower seed and peanut shells, and people were squatting in the aisle, nestled up against others doing the same. The "No Smoking" signs were blatantly ignored, and people were constantly shuffling up and down the aisles somehow, picking out patches of floor among the writhing masses.

Even the snack carts came through, with the vendors yelling at everyone to make way which somehow they did. At one point during the sleepless first night, I was offered the corner of a seat as a kind student squished in to his friends to make room for me. It was enough to rest one ass bone on, but not enough to sleep.

Stop after stop during the night, people shuffled on and off. I read Emperor: Gates of Rome almost entirely through. It's a bad book. A pulp, substanceless imagining of Caesar's youth, but it was all I had, and I was grateful for it.

I somehow made it through the first 12 hours, alternating between perching on a seat corner, standing with my hand on the overhead luggage rack to keep from getting knocked over, reading, and listening to music and carefully conserving my battery power while vainly trying to catch some sleep.

Around 11AM I pushed my way through the next car towards the dining car, where I was gambling on sitting down and eating something. It took me about 15 minutes to get through one car, and there were four more to go. I decided to wait for the next stop and walk down the platform, but then a snack cart came through, and I followed in it's wake to the dining car. I was the only foreigner in five cars of Chinese, with probably 150 people in each car.

I'm not trying to brag that I was a foreigner getting a "real" Chinese experience. I want to admit I was the only idiot stupid enough to take a standing ticket during Spring Festival. It was truly miserable.

I did get a seat, after squeezing through the hallway. I ordered a pork and pepper dish, and drank beer for a couple hours until I was too tipsy to stay awake. I thought I should get up because I was taking up space at a table that could be occupied by paying customers, and I did. Then I realized that everyone else at the tables were sleeping, and I sat back down and tried to nap.

I spent about 24 hours in or around the dining car. I knew my luggage would be safe, buried under a mountain of other people's belongings back in car 17. No one was going to run off with it. No one could possibly run.

The closed the dining car for the employees meals, and I stood around the toilets in between cars with everyone else until it opened for dinner. Then I ate with a fat businessman who called himself John Forest, and a woman with her young niece and the grandma. John Forest told me I could sleep in the dining car for 30 yuan. Sounded good, but then he recommended I find another seat - there were none - because his friend was coming to sleep here. I waited for awhile, it was around 9PM at this point, and I was tired. I had finished the book, and a Chinese girl was happily listening to the exotic Western bands I had on my MP3 player, and killing my battery as she ran the video.

The cute little girl I'd been sitting across from finally warmed up to me, a foreign white-devil, and I made faces at her. Then her grandma started clearing out the bags from under the table for some reason. Then the little girl was squatting underneath, pissing right on the dining car floor. John Forest just laughed when I gave him a surprised look. People were still smoking everywhere, even the employees. Earlier I had seen meal attendants loading trays with pre-made meals, just stacking the uncovered cartons on top of each other. God knows where the bottoms of those cartons had been, but they were now resting on food someone would eat. So much for sanitation.

I left big fat John Forest, not entirely sadly. He was really fat and didn't even push all the way over in the seat. I was on the edge, almost like the night before when a student gave me a corner of his seat. I crept into the next car, a sleeper car which was kept clear of the riff-raff of the poor people crowding the area between the cars and sleeping on the floor of the dining car, which don't forget, the adorable little girl had just pissed on.

For some reason, probably because I'm white, they let me into the hallway of the sleeper car, and I sat on a fold down seat until the wee hours of the morning when a car attendant finally told me to get lost. It was cold, and not conducive to sleep, but I had space, along with the crippled guy who was laying down on the floor next to the heater. I think they just felt bad for him so they let him lie.

I had breakfast in the dining car and got out around 8:30AM and made my way back along the platform to car 17, where my bags were. I stood for another three or four hours, watching the grim landscapes roll by, industrial slums fighting for space with highly farmed paddies and terraces. A friendly Chinese student was talking to me, and he was interesting at first - I learned an average salary out in the provinces was 1000 yuan per month, about $150, but as an electrical engineer in Beijing, he was hoping to make 3000 yuan per month - but towards the end of the ride, I had no patience for anyone. I listened to music as my battery finally started dying, and finally arrived into Beijing West Station, glad to step off the train, and walk for really the first time in two days.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Catching The Train

The train ride to Beijing was far worse than I thought.

To start the trip, I missed my train. Five minutes before the train leaves, Chinese railway employees close down the gate to the platform. I arrived four minutes before the train left, thanks to a wonderful traffic jam.

The woman standing by the gate, refusing to let me through, helpfully observed, "The gate is now closed." The train left, and so did my chance of having a seat for the next two days of travel.

I spent about five hours playing Zombie Splatter in a smoky Internet cafe among Chinese gaming geeks and girls watching dramas online. Staring at the screen clicking thousands of zombies to death with shotguns and Desert Eagles was a sort of release for the smoldering rage I felt for missing my train and losing my seat.

I got on the evening train prepared to stand for the next 40 hours. I rushed through the gate along with all the other suckers hoping to get a good spot to camp out. I knew it was going to be bad when I saw people clutching tiny folding seats in the line. There were hordes already prepared to clog the aisles.

I was lucky just to shove my bags up on the overhead luggage shelf. People soon filled in and bags were crammed under seats, on tables and laps and between legs. There were families crammed into the wash cabinets between the cars, and people were squatting in between other people's legs.

It was bad, but it got worse.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

More Good News!

In more good transportation news, China seems to be on some sort of nationwide spring holiday. That means that transportation is at a premium. There's a lot of people in China, by the way.

I asked the receptionist at my hostel about train tickets to Beijing. She made a phone call and reported that for the next week, there is only standing room available. Beijing is another two day trip. I was looking forward to a nice comfy bunk to relax in. Now I was being told that I'd be lucky to stand for two days unless I wanted to kick around this town for over a week.

Due to the good grace of my masochistic tendencies, I was about to get a standing room ticket. I fortunately decided to think about it and I wandered to the train station to inquire there, just for shits and giggles.

They had a seat for tomorrow, which I promptly bought. It's a hard seat, the lowest class. It will be for two days with people crowding the aisles, and probably with chickens clucking around under the seats and babies crying and people spitting on the floor, but I guess it beats standing for two days or twiddling my thumbs in Kunming for a week.

I eagerly anticipate more good fortune.

I Was Right!

I hate to admit it, but I was right. Dead right.

The bus from Vientiane to Kunming was miserable. It was about 40 hours over two nights. They call it a "sleeper" bus. I doubt if anyone got a wink of sleep at night.

Bunks are thin and short. Maybe tiny Asians can fit in them, but I can't. At night, it got cold, and condensation built up on the window, which I had to lie against, and a draft came in, despite the windows being as closed as possible.

Besides being cramped, my blanket, though thick and heavy enough, was both too short and too thin for the bunk that was cramming me anyway. The D-shaped railing on the side was necessary to keep me from rolling out of my second tier bunk on the switchbacks all through the Lao hills, but it also was supremely uncomfortable to keep rolling into.

Plus the roads were bumpy, windy, and often just short stretches of dirt.

The good news is that napping was not only possible but almost mandatory during the day. I was so exhausted from tossing and turning in vain to find a comfy position that I did have a couple decent naps.

We stopped to piss in the woods now and then, and food was taken care of at roadside restaurants that served Chinese slop under a cement roof. I've eaten worse though. After crossing into China, we stopped in the sunny and clean border town of Mohan and I ate breakfast with two teachers from Ireland, and a Malaysian guy on business or on holiday. He never cleared up his ambiguity. One Irish guy went into the restroom and came back declaring it "top 5 worst bathrooms, easy." And this is after two years in China and a 6 week holiday through SE Asia.

The claim stood until dinner time at a low dim feeding hall, when he called the former top 5 worst bathroom "Disneyland" compared to the cement shit-trough that passed as a toilet.

It was a quality operation, this transport. We took the small windy roads in China to avoid paying toll fees on the smooth highways, and we sat at a gas station outside of Kunming for 3 hours to avoid getting in at an ungodly early morning hour. When we finally got moving, we got in at 5:30AM.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Behold this year's first birthday present, received in the wee hours of the morning, before it was even my birthday in America.

Bed bugs, for the third time this trip. In my room, I finally reconcile myself to the fact it's not mosquitoes and I can't go back to sleep. That's not a nice thing to have to accept at one AM in the morning, or again at two or three AM after I try to go back to sleep.

It's what I get for staying in a single room for $7.50, where the ventilation slats in the bathroom open onto my neighbors bathroom, and my view is of the corrugated steel wall of the next building two feet away, and a water pipe runs down past your window; I never know if it's raining outside or I'm just hearing the shit and dirty water wash down from the floor above.

I pack my bags and go to the lobby, waking up the manager sleeping on the floor under a mosquito net.

"I need a new room. Mine has bed bugs and I can't sleep." I show him my bites; well, not all of them. I have them on my feet, going up my legs a bit, some on my arm, and a short line on my right ass cheek. He's not very responsive, standing in boxers, staring at the counter, and scratching himself.

"No rooms." I'm not sure I believe him, but he doesn't seem to be about to change his mind. I can't go to another guesthouse because everyone else will be asleep too. Plus there is a curfew. You never hear about the government in Laos, but they're a real bunch of Nazis, and I don't want to fuck with them.

"Okay, can I have some clean sheets then?"

"Don't have any." I think he's talking about rooms again, and I repeat my question. He understood the first time. He's really not going to give me clean sheets, which of course they have somewhere.

I give up and go back and shake out my sheets as best I can and lay down on top and luckily don't get bitten again. Or maybe I don't get bitten enough to wake up. Either way, this time is better than the other times I was a victim of these little bastards. The first time, I was bitten by bed bugs was in Vietnam, on a boat with nowhere else to go. The next was in Vang Vieng, Laos where I went down to the lobby and woke up the night manager. I got a new room that time. Both times I was with Adam, and both times he wasn't bitten at all.

Happy birthday, and think of the bites on my ass for a happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 11, 2011

No Contest!

I'm on my way overland to Beijing. I spent yesterday on a bus, and yesterday night on a train. I get on another train tonight. I'm in Bangkok now, and tomorrow morning I'll be in Vientiane. I get my second Chinese visa and then it's a bus for probably two days until I get to Kunming, China. In Kunming I get on a train for two days to Beijing.

The worst part about Laos is the absence of trains. I can't believe anyone would willingly take a bus in Asia when a train is available. Even sleeping next to a smashed cockroach exoskeleton in the overheated top-shelf coffin on the tracks between Hanoi and Hue was better than your average bus ride.

Bus drivers in SE Asia honk incessantly at absolutely anything animate in the road ahead of them. Awful local pop music blares out of speakers that you have no control over, and if you're extra unlucky, they also play the horrific videos that go with the songs and you can't pull your eyes away. Don't ever count on getting sleep on a bus.

When you corner, inevitably at too high a speed, you slide in your narrow plastic seat and slip over the armrest. For some reason, buses are extra rattly on what seem like decent roads. I don't know about other people, but when I sit too long my shins start hurting just below the kneecap. It doesn't make any sense to me, but it happens nonetheless.

Long distance trains, on the other hand, do not honk at all or corner too fast. They don't stop every ten minutes to pick up more people - in fact, traffic stops for them - and you will never slide out of your bunk or seat.

I'm not going to say I sleep great on trains. I usually can't get to bed too early, and wind up only getting really great sleep just before I have to wake up in the morning, but I can still sleep a bit, and at the very least laying on a mattress in my own berth with my legs stretched out is heaven enough.

It's no contest for me. I took one sleeper bus into China, and woke up in a multi-mile traffic jam with a Mongolian playing cards on my lap because my bunk location made for a good table. I'm gonna have to take a sleeping bus through Laos to get to the border, thank god drugs are so easy to come by there. I've talked to people that have just gotten off such buses in Laos and have nothing good to say about them. Some girls even said they got shoved into a multi-person bunk with a stranger.

I'll deal with it of course, but I'm going to be looking forward to getting on the train for two days once I get to Kunming, enjoying my personal space, the smooth ride and gentle rocking, the restaurant car with cold beer, and something at the end of the line worth traveling to.


I've uploaded a bunch of photos from my time in Thailand, from Nong Khai to Bangkok, to Surat Thani to Phuket, the Similan Islands, then retracing my steps back to Bangkok where I am now. I'll be going back to Nong Khai and Laos this evening.

Click here to check the photos, or just use the link in the right-hand sidebar.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hitching to India: The Hunt, Days 5, 6, ...whatever.

I've given up on trying to find a boat to India. After spending three days talking to people at marinas, the only thing I've heard is that everyone left during the first couple weeks of January.

I guess my timing is just off. Valuable lesson learned though: when trying to hitchhike onto a yacht, spend more time on sailing forums to make sure people will actually be going to where you want to go when you want to go. Don't rely entirely on this very general chart.

I spent my days hanging around Phuket, driving on cheap motorbikes from beach to city and city to beach. I spent two days and one night on and around the Similan Islands, snorkeling, and camping below bat-infested trees. The fucking animals plopped their shit on the tent and squawked and screeched at all hours of the night. Not that I can really complain about spending any time in such a beautiful place.

So what to do now? It would be very easy to give up my land-only goal and fly to Colombo, visit Sri Lanka and then move on to India, but instead, against all common sense, I'm probably going back to China to spend time with a girl I met here in Phuket.

From Beijing, I'll travel west through China, like I had intended before I got sidetracked into southeast Asia for the last couple months. And as much as I want to go to India, I might just skip it so I don't have to deal with the expense and paperwork of going through Tibet both on my way there and my way back, and so I can visit India some other time and give it the proper time and attention I'm sure it deserves.

But naturally, I really don't know what I'm going to do, and probably won't know until I'm doing it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hitching to India: The Hunt, Days 3, and 4

I woke up on the Lunar New Year to firecrackers going off somewhere in the morning, and went back to sleep since I had been out to the wee hours of the morning.

I did no active work trying to find boats. I thought I'd take a couple days off and see if anyone emails or calls me. They didn't. I think the boat situation is pretty hopeless.

I planned on going to the beach and relaxing. As I as putting on sunscreen on the fringe of the beach I got a phone call from a Chinese girl who I met the night before through some mutual CouchSurfing friends. Miraculously, my phone's microphone began working and I could actually talk to her.

We drove, along with Viktar and two other friends, to the southern cape to watch the sunset on the last day of the year. We went swimming on an empty beach in the dark, and we ate Indian food, and laid around on another empty beach, and saw a Russian tourist nearly get knifed by a crowd of angry locals for some unknown transgression.

The next day was equally productive. I met the Chinese girl - Sophie - again, and we saw the Green Hornet in 3D along with an Egyptian CouchSurfing friend. He was all bent up about the uprisings in Egypt, and he was trying to get out of going to the movie so he could go to a doctors appointment, but I just bought him a ticket so he didn't have a choice. Eight bucks per ticket; getting close to US prices. Well he liked it, I knew a movie like that would get his mind off things of reality like strife and uncertainty, and downer shit like that. I don't even know what's going on in Egypt, I should check the news sometime.

I took Viktar out for dinner. We had Egyptian food, coincidentally, and it was truly mediocre. I tried though. I got to bed around 5AM after laying around on the shadowy beach, eating pizza that was suspiciously similar to generic Pizza Hut pizzas, and embarrassing myself on a club's dance floor that was mercifully full of enough darkness and drunk people picking up hookers to notice how poorly I "dance".

It's tough work trying to hitchhike on a boat.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hitching to India: The Hunt, Day 2

Today I scootered over to Chalong Bay for breakfast. I had some foolish idea I'd catch a bunch of boat owners in the cafes or on the pier, but the place was just packed with tourists milling about in life jackets and cramming themselves onto day charter boats.

Chalong Bay might be a good place to find a boat going towards Sri Lanka or India, but it's just a bay with a shitload of boats floating around. There are no docks to loiter on and try to talk to people, though there is a super long pier and an immigration office.

I had breakfast and waited for Viktar to come meet me, reading "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" for a bit of research for a country it looks like I'll never get to by boat. Viktar is the CouchSurfer I'm staying with, a Belarussian who's been working for a fly-by-night time share company that has started scamming its employees, not just the customers.

We went to Boat Lagoon, and I talked to a couple people there. They told me the same thing, I'm late by 2-4 weeks. Awesome news. I also began to theorize that the middle of the day is not the best time to hang around docks hoping to talk to people. That's probably when they're inside away from the blistering sun, or out doing fun shit.

Viktar went back home to sleep off a hangover before he spends tomorrow calling up the clients his company is planning to screw - pending payments - so he can screw the company since he was fired without getting paid. He thinks the company might send someone after him, so he's bailing from his apartment to stay somewhere else, but he's giving me permission to stay there, and possibly absorb the brunt of hired thugs who don't care who I am. I picture the opening scene in the Big Lebowski.

I went to the Royal Phuket Marina and found a middle-aged Aussie guy, shirtless with a sloppy barrel of a torso, lightly furred, deeply tanned minus the armpits, hosing down a rug. He's heading out to the Andamans, then Sri Lanka and India, but he doesn't want to take on crew.

"Need anyone to cook or clean or do the grunt work?"

"Nah, I've got a wife for that."

The silver lining is that there is at least one boat still heading west. He mentioned some friends going that way too, but also that they don't likely want to take on crew either.

I followed signs to a pier, but it was all local junk fishing boats, and all the roads and alleys leading to the various docks smelled like absolute shit and the water was full of trash. Not the place to catch a ride across a sea, that's for sure.

I drove to Kata beach and laid in the sun among whale-like Russian couples - I actually think I saw the fattest woman ever to wear a bikini - and topless beauties. Submersing myself in the warm Andaman Sea was like heaven closing around my body. The water is clear and warm and shallow and clean, and the sand is white and pure and visible beneath the water for hundreds of meters.

I realized I hadn't been on a beach for ages. I'm spending tomorrow on Patong Beach, apparently Phuket's version of Hampton Beach, because it's the closest to where I'm staying and I returned my scooter today.

Oh also, what I said in the last post about Phuket not being as bad as I thought: well I take that back after spending the evening on Bangla Road last night. It was like a riot in the bad neighborhood of hell. Entertaining for sure, but the sort of place that makes you glad humans invented nuclear weapons.