I was in another sleeper carriage from Hanoi with two lower and two upper beds in each compartment. There were a few other foreigners but I was in a compartment with three Chinese. One was immediately interested in asking where I was from and what I was doing. The woman was mostly more reserved for the whole trip, while the other fellow took a while to warm up but was dominating the Chinese conversation by the next morning. It was hard to tell if they were just agreeing with him because that was easier, or whether he really had a lot of insightful things to say. Nearing Nanning the next morning they all exchanged mobile phone numbers, checked which characters their names were and tried calling to confirm the numbers but were out of range. The modern exchange of business cards or were they now all best buddies?
The slow click clack of the train failed to put me to sleep for once. Perhaps it was the most violent stopping or maybe I was waiting for the border crossing which turned out to be the longest so far. The train stopped at the last station on the Vietnamese side, we all got out with all our stuff to go through customs and immigration, sitting in a nice old station waiting for our passports back. A few people got called up to explain something or other and then we all got back on the train. But it didn’t leave for ages. I think the people in the sitting carriages must have been done in a second batch because they weren’t in the station building with us. So we sat up talking for a while until we crossed the border.
Another stop and this time immigration got on the train and collected all the passports while the train moved on to the station. Off we piled again, first for two very serious men in camo, bullet proof vests, helmets and boots to shove their hands in all our bags. Odd. Then the customs scanning machine. When we were all done we were herded back on the train to wait for our passports and presumably for the people in the sitting carriages to go through the same treatment. All up it was over four hours. A French Canadian couple was stressing a little that we were running late and wouldn’t make their next train to Beijing. I wasn’t sure but didn’t think we were running late (we weren’t) and I thought I had plenty of time to make my connection (I didn’t). Somehow I refrained from worrying about it by telling myself there wasn’t anything I could do to change things.
In the morning I let one of my compartment buddies organise me with some noodles for breakfast from an attendant. I could smell the beef flavoring in his but he still said it was ok after I used the Google translate app to say I was vegetarian. Apparently it doesn’t count as meat if it’s been dried and reconstituted. I pushed the hunks of meat aside and ate the rest which was just as well because I didn’t eat again until late in the afternoon.
Nanning station is new and big. I used my phone to ask people where to go to pick up my prebooked ticket for the train to Guilin and dutifully lined up at ticket counter 15 as the staff had indicated. Imagine a large hall with 15 long queues, large LED display boards filling the wall above the counters and the nervous energy of a few hundred people waiting to get somewhere with the temperature rising. The queue moved forward until I got halfway to the front then it stopped. Yes, that was the same person at the front. Hang on, there’s no one serving him. Yep, still no one. Time ticking away. The queue at 14 wandered out the door.
I approached an official looking person who pointed me towards the English speaking counter at number 1. Another slow to not moving queue. Now there was only 20 minutes till my train left. A helpful Chinese girl sort of indicated I should try pushing in. For an English speaking counter not many in the queue could speak English but the French Canadian couple was near the front. Their train was actually after mine so they helped me push in front of them, I got my ticket and navigated with help to and through the waiting room, along the overpass and down to the platform. Seated with six minutes to spare thanks to a little planning, a bit of savvy, more luck, and a whole lot of good will from random strangers.
This was a shiney new high speed train complete with flight attendants and corresponding high prices. The bottle of water I was desperate for cost 4 times as much as on the street. I could only hope that it was the teenager next to me that was smelly and not me after my sweaty rush for the train. I had a window seat so I got to see a bit more for as long as I could keep my eyes open. More hills jutty out of the flood plains, more people tending crops, with beach umbrellas planted in the occassional field to provide a bit of shelter. I couldn’t tell if it was corn or sugar cane when it wasn’t rice. The two differences I noticed were that the fields were no longer all rectangular but were much more freeform, and the houses were different, rough bare brick and crumbly at the edges.
The display at the end of the carriage boasted the speed we were going. Mostly it was about 185 km/h but it did get up to 207 early on, to prove it could. It was a pretty smooth ride but the aircon couldn’t cope while we were stopped at stations so it got pretty uncomfortable at points. When we arrived at Guilin the display pitilessly announced that it was 41 degrees outside.
It didn’t feel too bad to begin with, but there was a welcome cool to the underground exit lined with grey stone. I wasn’t feeling up to collecting my ticket to Beijing so decided to leave it till the next day and go staight to the hostel. Something was different. It was so quiet and ordered after Hanoi. Little honking, electric scooters, and pedestrian crossings with lights that were mostly respected. I can say that after walking 10 minutes with 20 kg that it then felt like 40 degrees. Maybe no one was accosting me to buy stuff because they were too hot to bother. This time the GPS was out, showing me on the wrong street, but the hostel was easy to find in a little treed cul de sac beside the river.
A quiet afternoon in the hostel, eating a late lunch early dinner, chatting with other travelers and doing laundry to deal with my still wet clothes from the Hanoi downpour and Ninh Binh mud mountain climbing. The two German travelers I chatted with gave me the Chinese translation that had been working for them to get vegetarian food. I was too tired to write up the Hanoi post, but the lights on the river beckoned more than bed. I took my camera and tripod to try a few shots. Folk played traditional instruments in the half dark under the bridge. The bamboo rafts waiting for tomorrow’s tourists were sloshed by the sightseeing ferry lit with more LED strip lighting. Lighting flashed, the musicians looked up, and I called it a night before the rain came down.