April in The Philippines: Long Trek to Clark (Kids, don’t try this at home)

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

You know what they say about always trusting what you hear on the ground and that your guesthouse is the most reliable info source? Well, it’s not always right that I can tell you. Thanks to my guesthouse, I probably took the longest route ever to get to Clark airport for my flight out of The Philippines. I guess it turned out pretty cheap, but I sure would’ve paid the extra needed for a direct bus there.

This is what happened: I checked out at the ungodly hour of 5.30am and hopped into a cab to take me to Pasay Bus Terminal. There, I caught the onward bus to Dau. It was a pretty uneventful trip as it was an airconditioned and not very crowded coach. It was only when I got off the coach that I discovered to my horror that (a)  I still had to navigate past the gate of Clark Freeport Zone to get into the airport and (b) the trike ride from Dau would only take me to the gate. The 5 minute trike ride of less than 1km cost me 50 PHP (S$1.50). Feeling stiffed, I stood uncertainly at the gate of the Freeport Zone trying to figure out how to get inside without spending the last of my reserves on a taxi (200 PHP) and getting stranded for not having the local currency to pay my airport tax.

A couple of jeepney drivers offered to take me and my dive gear (it was a huge bag) into the complex for 180 PHP. I refused and decided to try my luck with a bit of crying. The stress of the journey and the early morning start helped. Soon enough, another jeepney driver came up to me, telling me he could take me into the Zone somewhere close to the airport for 20 PHP, but I’d have to walk to the gate myself. Wiping away my tears and thanking my lucky stars, I climbed into the front seat of the jeepney (a rare privilege), waited for it to fill up with people and we were off!

The Zone was rather large, and to my surprise (doh!), more people wanted to get to other parts of the Zone than the airport. I was set down about 5 minutes later in a fairly deserted area about 500m away from the airport. There wasn’t anyone around except the odd security guard patrolling the odd gate. They all smiled at me and pointed me in the right direction. Given the dive bag that was almost size, it was pretty obvious which direction I was heading. One of the guards even introduced himself and we had a little chat. Another one motioned to me that I had to jumped across a drain at the narrow part if not I’ll be stuck and not get to the terminal! It’s amazing how friendly they all were to an odd stranger.

After a pretty long and sweaty trek in the hot sun, I finally reached the airport gates! After showing my passport to the guards, I fairly stumbled to the cool of the waiting area outside. A chat with the locals made me realise that I was quoted the right prices, and even the lowest possible prices. They were amazed that I trekked in to the airport.

After taking a cab, a bus, a trike and a jeepney, then going on foot, I hopped on the plane and sank into the comfy seats, secure in the knowledge that Noid was picking me up in her car on the other side.

[post script: I later found out that there were scheduled buses leaving from SM Mega Mall to Clark Airport. Le sigh.]


April in The Philippines: Jeepneys

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

Jeepneys are the quintessential way of getting around in The Philippines. Traditionally, they’re etrofitted ex-American army trucks painted all hues of colours except subtle. Most looked totally pimped out and a lot of times the gangsta look was contrasted with lots of devoutly Catholic imagery on the inside. The sides were normally painted with the route it plied and you’d normally climb in, call out your destination and pay your fare to the conductor. The jeepney is one of those vehicles that is never full. More and more and more and more people pile in and if there isn’t space on the inside, the conductor would hang on to the back of the jeepney. If there still isn’t space, it’s last in stay out as the last few guys would have to hang on for dear life together with the conductor.


I never quite got the hang of these jeepneys as I’d never really know where I was going and it was far easier just taking a taxi, especially with my big dive bag.


The ones in the picture below are strictly speaking buses, not jeepneys but they’re really cool anyway. These are long distances buses at the northern Cebu bus terminal. All sorts get on the bus. Omar and I had an amusing time trying to take a video of a pair of cardboard boxes with holes in them. One cheeped a lot and the other crowed at intervals. The problem was that the video was long and tiresome and Murphy’s law struck: no crowing at all until a good boring minute was over. It was my first rooster on public transport!


August in China: Mianbao Che, Coach, Train

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

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.

August in China: Stuck in the Mud

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape

We left Guangxi and headed north to Guizhou, still sticking to Dong territory. We took an early mianbao che (minivan, literally: bread bus) back to Sanjiang and swapped our loaf-shaped transport for a bus that had seen better days. To our surprise, we were not the only tourists headed to Zhaoxing, another Dong village. There was a European couple that looked like faded hippies hidden at the back.

Thinking that this would be an uneventful journey like our last bus ride, we were annoyed when our bus stopped along an ugly mud road winding alongside a murky river. There was construction going on at the embankment above us, most likely a brand new highway. We sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Soon, people got off the bus as there were no signs of people moving.

A motley bunch of people stood and squatted by the buses. There was a group of fairly trendy girls from Guangdong with a contemptuous attitude. They weren’t pleased at all to be in their high heels on a mud bank. Buying a pack of melon seeds from a tribal vendor who appeared from nowhere, they spat melon shells disdainfully at the bus tires. Others haggled and heckled the vendors, complaining that ¥10 for instant bowl noodles and hot water toted from kilometres away was daylight robbery. It was lunch time and they were annoyed that they wouldn’t reach their destination in time for the noon meal.


I got bored observing all the bored people and headed to the front of the column to check out the cause of the jam. There must have been a mudslide because the road was impassible. A small covered truck was stuck in the mud as it tried to negotiate the tricky bend. There were lorries, trucks and buses of all shapes and sizes waiting behind it and no one dared to take the space at the inner lane for fear of meeting the same fate.

People milled around and pointed and it didn’t seem like much could be done. Lots of people muttered suggestions and then out of the blue, a mixed group from different vehicles organised themselves and started putting pieces of flat stone into the mud. I was taken aback by how someone had evidently gotten things going simply by example and the rest just wordlessly followed. Even the ticket seller lady from our bus helped out. I was very impressed by this show of solidarity and proactiveness. To me, it was yet another sign that China had great things ahead and was not to be trifled with. Later, Willy told me that something like that would never have happened in Spain and that we’d probably be stuck there for months instead of hours.


In the end, the stones were not very helpful as the truck tried in vain to get unstuck. Before long, an excavator from the highway construction came over and dug us all out of the jam.


Now what surprised me even more than the stone-laying was this: once the track was clear, the first few trucks moved to the side so others could pass. The drivers agreed that those in the buses needed to be on schedule more than the trucks and that the trucks could make matters worse by getting stuck again. Better to let the slightly more nimble buses ahead first. I was pretty much floored by this big-picture thinking. It’s the one event that impressed me the most about Chinese people.

Before we could hustle to get back on the bus, we were told to stay put and wait for the bus to roll up and pick us up instead. Don’t worry, they can recognise you.