At 6:o0 a.m this past Thursday, I stumbled down the stairs at Lisa’s Cafe and Hostel and found all the doors locked and barred. I had to catch the 6:30 express bus to Guilin, or I would miss my 8:50 sleeper train to Kunming, so when I found myself locked in, I panicked and ran all around the hostel, rattling doorknobs. Apparently, Chinese people do eventually go to bed, from about 4:00 to 7:00. I finally saw a light under a door back behind the kitchen, and roused the poor cook and her husband (who were catching a bit of sleep in their bunk, fully clothed). She was kind enough to let the jabbering foreigner out into the alley, and I caught the bus, although I had to leave my deposit behind at Lisa’s. It was only Y20, and I still have the key.
And then came the sleeper train. Oh, sleeper train, sleeper train, may you and I never have occasion for future dealings. If you are lucky enough never to have ridden on one, I can now tell you that hard sleepers in China consist of six sort of bench-beds arrnaged in two tiers of three, in little un-air-conditioned apartments. The bottom beds are the largest (I had one of these), but they also serve as seats/card tables/dining rooms for all passengers during the day. The top beds are the smallest – little bitty slits up by the roof. My sleeper ride began at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, and ended at 7:00 a.m. the next morning.
Luckily, there was a couple from NYC in my compartment, so I had people to talk to for the ride. Abby and Adam are doing a year-long round-the-world. They recently spent a month in Africa working on some sort of reservation for orphaned, endangered baby monkeys. When they’re done with this trip, they want to start a family. They were going straight to Dali upon arrival in Kunming, and I decided to go with them, because I wasn’t really keen to spend a night in a disco in Kunming. I’ve noticed in my travels that when I meet Europeans or Australians, they’re usually traveling for a couple months, have been on many similar trips before, and are usually about 20 years old. But the Americans I meet are all older (late 20s to early 40s) and doing a much longer, more drastic round-the-world trip. The Americans were all propelled into travel by disillusionment or burnout or whatever, and the trip is a watershed. They’ve quit their jobs at home, and plan to move to a new city upon their return. It takes something major to shove an American out of America.
It took the Chinese a while to infiltrate our carriage. I think they felt they couldn’t come sit with us three Westerners. Eventually, however, Adam got out his phrasebook and started talking to this really sweet, shy soldier bunking with us, and then everyone trickled over to look through the phrasebooks and guidebooks, and before we knew it, we were the most popular group on the train. Abby and I played cards with this woman and her husband. I’m not sure if they taught us the game, or if they thought we were teaching them the game; either way, the game made no sense at all, but we still played about 20 rounds. It was a lot of fun, except that the woman (who was very nice, and very affectionate toward me) kept moving more and more into my lap, until I was crammed up in this corner, and I was really hot and sweaty and feeling trapped. This couple were cops. There were a lot of cops in our train, and we realized after a bit that this was because two armed robbers were in the bunks next to ours. They were two boys who looked about 15, and were chained together at the ankles. Originally, we’d actually thought they had their bags chained to their ankles for fear of theft.
At 10, the lights went out, they made us close all the windows, and we all spread out on the filthy little matress pads. Another Chinese guy showed up, hauled himself into the bunk above me, and hacked a loogie on the floor. I scooted back against the wall. Our sixth bunkmate was a gorgeous, perfectly coiffed woman in a pale green silk suit, who’d hoisted herself into the cramped, broiling top bunk at the very beginning of the train ride, and came down only three times to visit the toilet, with nary a wrinkle or sweat stain on her suit. I didn’t like her.
At about 6:00, some guy came around smacking everyone awake, and an hour later we arrived very abruptly and poured off the train. Some sort of weird skunk-tar stench had arisen from my mattress during the night and transferred itself to the backs of my bare arms. I could smell it for the rest of the day, and it made me gag. All I wanted was to get a hot shower, but first we had to use the toilet in the train station (horror, horror), get a bus to Dali, realize we were actually in New Dali, get another bus to Old Dali, visit a couple guesthouses and check in.
We’re in dorms in a really nice guesthouse that’s also a Korean restaurant with a peaceful courtyard. The beds are bunks (that smell like cedar) with screens you can close for privacy, and there’s a dog here, and some little lovebirds in a cage, and washing machines and free Internet. I’ve been here for two nights now, and will probably stay two more.
Dali is adorable. It’s a little walled city full of shops and cafes and so forth. It’s a bit like Yangshuo, but bigger, and while it’s as touristy, it’s not as Western-touristy. Also, we’re in the mountains here – they’re plummeting up out of the rice fields from the West. The people around here are mostly Bai minority, and wear the traditional clothes, but there are also a lot of Tibetans. The Tibetans are larger people, with broader faces and high cheekbones. The women all have their hair wound in braids with brightly-colored bands woven in, and they seem to have a better sense of humor than the Southern Chinese. I’m able to joke with them a bit – if you do something stupid in front of them, they’re more likely to giggle than to just gape at you as if you suddenly dropped from the sky. It’s also not as crowded out here, and things are not as rushed. And one big reason for Dali’s popularity among backpackers can be found growing along the roads.
Yesterday, I biked about 50 miles. I wanted to go around Erhai lake, a large freshwater lake just to the East of Dali, but the people at the ferry wanted to charge me Y80 for a ticket, so I cycled around the Northern end, through multiple little villages. Once again, breathtaking scenery. More rice fields spreading up to mountains, but these mountains are much larger than those in Yangshuo, and because it was a cloudy day, they were striped impressively in swaths of light and shadow. In the fields and along the roads, there were donkeys and cows everywhere. Every village I rode through seemed to be having its market day. At one point I was so busy staring at a parade of young men, who were going along singing and waving paper lanterns and wearing white kerchiefs on their heads, that I rode into a ditch, which totally made their day. I passed the halfway point, and immediately felt I couldn’t go on, but by then it was too late. I had to press onto Wase, where there was a single boat that headed back across the lake to Xizhou at 5:00.
When I got there, there was a couple from Sydney, Trevor and Iris, who’d begun negotiating with the Bai woman selling boat tickets, but it was hard work. Iris is from Hong Kong, and speaks Mandarin fairly well (they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong), but the people here use a Tibetan-hybrid sort of dialect, and she and the woman couldn’t really understand each other. After endless arguing, we finally got the woman down to Y20 for each of us (the locals were paying Y4). That’s how it is in China; it’s really annoying, but when you’re standing on the wrong side of the lake from home, all nasty and knackered with your bike, and there is only one boat going back that day, you’re not in the strongest negotiating position. Still, we paid the woman a lot less than she wanted, and she really thought I ought to buy a tablecloth at least. She followed us onto the boat with the tablecloths, and I said no for at least 30 minutes. I offered to sell her one of my passport photos (autographed, of course), but no dice.
When we at long last arrived at Xizhou and the locals began to unload the 90 burlap sacks of chestnuts that had been piled in front of our bikes, it had turned quite cold and begun to rain. We still had over 12 miles to bike back to Dali, and by this time, my thigh muscles had just quit. Also, my delicate parts were bruised beyond repair and joy of joys, there was a nice, long cobblestone road leading up to the highway from Xizhou. I just tried to turn off my mind and keep up with Iris and Trevor, but the ride back was certainly one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
Today, I’m taking it easy. I really need to buy a fleece or something, but all the warm things here are for men, and also, I just hate, hate, hate shopping here. As soon as you enter a store, someone comes and stands at your elbow and refuses to leave, obnoxiously talking up everything you glance at. And then the bargaining…how I hate the bargaining. I think I’d almost rather continue higher into the foothills in my hippie skirt and tank tops.