I didn’t realise that I’ll have less than 24 hours in Zhaoxing. Upon checking with the guesthouse boss-lady about onward transportation, I discovered to my horror how far into the boondocks I was. In order to get into the next big city, Guiyang, to catch the train to Chengdu, I had to catch the 11 am bus from Liping, meaning that I had to leave Zhaoxing by 9 am. It was a mad rush because I only discovered that at 8 am. Left a note for Willy to say bye and sorry for the abrupt departure, bought some bread rolls at the local bakery and off I went.
This time it was yet another mianbao che (minivan) where all the seats where taken by the time it stopped outside the guesthouse. I sat on the little wheel-hump by the passenger door and had a pretty decent view. Looking forward, I could see the mountain roads and looking behind, all the passengers and their cargo. They were mainly village people out on their business, some with big sacks (grain or fertiliser?), others with live produce, like the duck in the picture. In inimitably practical fashion, it was hauled about in the usual way: stuck into a sack with a hole big enough for just its head to poke through. This duck didn’t appreciate my attempts to pet it. The villagers looked askance at me molesting their dinner.
Soon after the mianbao che filled up, there was some kind of puncture. My heart sank as we pulled over alongside some huts. Most of us piled out to check out the happenings and soon a tractor rolled up to help with the repairs. How it helped is still a mystery to me. The driver and ticket seller (except that he didn’t give out tickets, only collected money) were standing side by side having a cigarette break. I told them that I was trying to get on the bus to Guiyang and asked if we’d get there in time. This would have been a comic moment had I not been in a rush. Ticketman nodded sure you’ll get there in time while Driverman said no way you’ll get there in time at this rate. I almost had a heart attack in front of them.
No matter, I was already on the mianbao che headed to some godforsaken town, so at worst I’ll find a place to stay for the night and see if I could get to a TV to watch the opening ceremony for the Olympics. (Yes, it was happening that night!) Soon we were lurching round the village roads again and I sat back enjoying the views. No point fretting since it’s not going to help anyway.
I was a bit uneasy after a while because Driverman seemed to be making lots of phone calls. It didn’t help that there were a lot of hairpin corners along fairly steep slopes. He spoke in the rapid dialect of the area which I found hard to understand, so it was a big surprised when he spoke to me gruffly in putonghua, telling me that he phoned the driver of the Guiyang coach and that he’s getting them to wait. I was overjoyed!
We continued hurtling down the mountainside, with him still making and receiving many phone calls along the lines of “where are you” and “please wait for us, we’re almost there.” It’s funny how easy it is to make out the local dialect when I knew what the conversation was about. At one point, he didn’t stop to pick up passengers, just slowing down enough to shout out to the hapless farmers to wait for the next mianbao che, we had to rush on. He grumbled a bit after that, saying that he had to give up those fares so that I could catch the coach. My heart sank. I wasn’t sure how much the ¥18 ride would cost me in the end. Still, it would be a small price to pay to get on the Guiyang coach.
At the approach to Liping town, most people got off. Driverman urged them all to please cooperate and get off quickly, there were people rushing to catch the coach. It was amazing how they got off so quickly. Many phone calls and a mad dash later, Driverman got us to outside the coach station and pulled up right next to the Guiyang coach which was waiting restlessly to leave. I gave Ticketman ¥20 more for them to “drink tea” and thanked them profusely for rushing me down. Ticketman, in an aw-shucks manner, refused the money and hustled me off the mianbao che. He said I had a coach to catch.
Bless them, bless them.
Sure, it turned out that there were two more men who had to catch the bus too, but it doesn’t lessen Driverman and Ticketman’s help in the least.
The trip to Guiyang was a long 10-hour ride in a luxurious air-conditioned coach costing all of ¥130. It was expensive by village standards, but such a steal considering that the Ticketman told off those behind for smoking. There was much more of the stunning views I was starting to take for granted. On the way, we stopped for a pee break at a rather nasty little building that housed a pigsty complete with snuffly snorting pigs right next to toilets that appeared to empty into the river below. It was a matter of holding my breath and getting on with it, then heading outside for plenty of fresh air. I also bought some (cheap! CHEAP!) fruit from a stand, giving me sustenance all the way to Guiyang.
I reached Guiyang at about 9 pm, just in time to see the bright screens at the train station project the end of the Olympic opening ceremony. So much for all that. To my dismay, there weren’t any trains to Chengdu till the next day. The best was an overnighter to Chongqing where I could hope to transfer onwards to Chengdu. Desperate, I got an wuzuo (no seat) ticket because there weren’t any reserved seats left. I had to battle with the locals and their livestock for a seat.
With a sinking feeling, I called my friend in Chengdu. He told me to relax and just spend a day in Chongqing instead, then head to Chengdu. He also told me that I could get an upgrade, just keep asking people how to get it done. Spirits bolstered, I went to a greasy stir-fry place and had dinner. It was a bit of a shock that even in this provincial capital, rice was plonked down in front of me in a big battered metal bowl, for me to take as much as I liked instead of dainty little servings like in civilised Guangdong. The rest was simply dumped back into the rice cooker for the next customer.
I was tired from the long commute and the excitement of the day but I had to do one last battle for a reserved seat. Chinese trains have four categories of seating: hard seat (unreserved free-for-all), soft seat (reserved), hard sleeper (reserved three-tiered beds with open access) and soft sleeper (reserved, in a cabin). They were priced accordingly and the guide book said that while hard sleeper tickets were reasonably priced, soft sleeper tickets could cost as much as the equivalent airfare. Judging from the crowds, it looked nigh impossible to get a seat in the hard seat section. I had to get an upgrade or risk standing in some dank corner of the train for the entire overnight journey.
Once I got past the ticket inspector, I got to the car where the upgrade manager had his office. Already, there was a big crowd pushing round. Immediately after the train started moving, people started closing in on the office. Two people got in first and rumours started flying that there weren’t any soft seats or hard sleepers left. It was down to soft sleepers. Determined not to be pushed to the back, I stood my ground in front, despite all the elbows and bags, and squeezed into the office. The manager barked out at me for my upgrade request. Totally bewildered, I started on my Oscar-winning stupid tourist act. In my most befuddled voice, I let my southern accent through and told him that it was my first time taking a train in China (all true, mind you) and I didn’t know what to do. Immediately, his demeanour changed. He showed me what seats were left, told me how much I had to pay to upgrade and explained how things worked. He even showed me the way to my newly-acquired soft sleeper. Thanking him profusely, I marvelled at how welcoming they were to foreigners and marched triumphantly out of the scrum.
It was a world of difference at the soft sleeper section. There was an attendant who politely checked my passport details (she’d never seen a foreign passport before and didn’t know how to write my name as it was in English) and showed me to my cabin. Thankfully I was the only one in the cabin for four and I had a fantastic night’s sleep in it, all for ¥169.