On the Right Track (part 2)

Continuing on from – Off the Rails in HK.

As it turned out, it was surprisingly easy. Not many train choices from Shenzhen apparently, as all trains seemed to be heading to Guangzhou and the first ticket window I approached was staffed by a smiling girl who, once she had seen my passport (a new government regulation for all foreigners buying train tickets in China), spat out a computer generated ticket with my passport number printed on the bottom. The train was leaving in less than 10 minutes and I just followed the crowd through the barrier and onto a sleek, bullet shaped train waiting at platform 6.

I had barely sat down when there was an almost inaudible purr of what sounded like an electric motor and then without any discernible jerk, the train slipped its moorings – I know, I know, mixed metaphor here – and slid smoothly out of the station. Almost immediately – and much to my chagrin – we were overtaken by the KCR – Kowloon to Canton (old name for Guangzhou) train from Hong Hom but a minute later we hit our stride and the digital display showing the speed flickered up from 35 kph to 60 and then 83 and – passing the old KCR train on a parallel rail – on to 107 and then 133 and upwards and onwards to 157 kph and so steady and silent that it was hard to credit that we were moving at that speed.

Up to Guangzhou East in about one hour and 10 minutes and a wait of a mere two hours before the K2109 train to Naming arrived. Guangzhou East Station was huge and it required some exploring from getting off one train and finding where to go next. As it turned out, train numbers were displayed and it was relatively easy to follow the displayed train number to the cavernous waiting room for a variety of trains, mine included.

After the standard bowl of instant noodles, (prawn flavour) the barriers were raised and what looked like 1,000 people stormed the train.  The corridor outside the carriages was carpeted and a smartly uniformed attendant greeted us and led us to our Carriage 11 which held four roomy berths, a bunch of artificial but colourful flowers in a ship’s decanter-style vase on the crisp white table cloth covering the small table by the window. The two lower berths were already made up with clean linen, pillows and a duvet and all I had to do was sit there and toast my success with a nip from the bottle of Stolicnaya peach flavoured vodka which I had thoughtfully bought in the duty free when I had crossed the border the previous day.

Conveniently, I thought, the buffet car was right next to carriage 11 but, shortly after the train pulled out of Guangzhou, when I wandered down, it was fully occupied by uniformed staff busily eating what looked like small bowls of rice, kidney beans, veg and soup. Ignored until their meal was done and the tables cleared, a uniformed youth approached me and, in impeccable English, asked if he could be of service to me. Moments later, a 500ml bottle of (warm) beer of – for me – an unrecognizable brand – and a paper cup were produced and we were on our way. What more could I want?

More sleep, as it turned out, because the train  arrived atNanning at 0500 hours and my next train wasn’t until 1820 hours. The first serious miscalculation of the trip occurred here when I discovered that once I had bought my onward train tickets – soft sleeper, bottom berth again for the Nanning to Hanoi leg – I had no more Chinese money. Buckets of HK dollars of course and even a few US stashed away secretly but of yuan / reminbi, money exchangers, ATMs, that sort of thing, the immediate vicinity of the Nanning train station seemed to be severely lacking.

Having spent the outrageous sum of 20 yuan to put my bag in the left luggage, I was down to a single, crumpled one yuan note (approximate value 1 Yuan = $1.26 HK, 0.12 Euro cents, or 16 US cents). China is fairly cheap of course, generally speaking, but how to pass the next 13 hours or so appeared to me to be a bit of a poser.

Stumping around, as usual on the wrong side of the tracks, I became increasingly hungry, tired and snappy and then .. finally an ATM. Stuck the card in only to receive the unwarranted message that I had already received my daily withdrawal allowance! At least the machine didn’t eat my card as had once happened in Phnom Penh. Never mind, wander around with increasingly dragging steps until I found another more accommodating machine which spat out the readies. Off for breakfast and then the temptation to check in to a hotel for a half day rate as opposed to tramping around Nanning seeing the sights was briefly debated and I checked into a hotel within hailing distance of the train station.

Up well in time, after the refreshing zzzz, for a few cold beers and a tasty meal of unidentifiable meat bits, noodles, rice, sautéd (again unidentifiable) veg and a small plate of pickled bits and pieces and then off to pick up the bag and find my train.

Rather easier said than done, the station heaving and pulsating with what seemed like thousands and not a word of English in sight, either on the electronic noticeboards or on my ticket other than Nanning and Hanoi. Rather like at any international airport, I was herded into massive queues leading to x-ray machines where my bag was scanned but nobody looked at the results and then I had to mount a step and was quickly scanned with an electronic wand by a bored Chinese functionary in a drab uniform. It beeped rather ominously for me but I was contemptuously waved through another metal detector which again beeped but I was quickly shoved forward by the impatient throng behind me.

Funneled into an escalator to another cavernous waiting area, I again attempted to produce my ticket to uniformed men and women who point blank refused to even look at it before disinterestedly waving me away. However, the train was due to leave at 6:30 pm and on the dot of 6:20, bells rang and barriers lifted and I was carried forward on a rising surge of people, stumbling over the wheeley bags everybody seemed to be trailing behind then, I was pushed and jostled forward to the platform and a solitary waiting train.

On File

Kuwait was the first time I had ever been fingerprinted. I knew then that one phase of my life had come to an end and that I was being forced into a new one – one I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to embark upon at that time.

The thing that disturbed me most was the inevitability of the whole proceedings. I had just arrived in Kuwait to work as an Instructor at a oil refinery at Mena Abdullah and during my first morning, Sami, a brisk, bustling butterball of a little man led me to the Police headquarters for “formalities”.

Once inside the building I was led down an untidy corridor to a bare, cell like room where systematic fingerprint identification was made. Foolishly, I felt as if I should have been given a choice or my permission asked. Instead, a bored and disinterested police sergeant wearing a too tight tunic, buttons gaping to reveal dirty white underwear, grasped my arm by the wrist, inked my fingers thoroughly on a pad by pressing my hand down on it and then rolling my hand back and forth to gain maximum coverage, before pressing my finger tips down firmly on a pre-printed form.

To add offence to the whole issue was the perfunctionariness of the whole procedure and the absence of anything with which to wipe the offending black stain from my finger tips. Previous printees has both solved the problem, and shown their contempt, by wiping their hands on the bare, whitewashed, limestone walls of the room. I did the same, and finished off the job as best I could with some waste paper lifted gingerly from the rubbish bin.

Kuwait was definitely alien and shrouded in mystery for me. Everything was, from the ankle length robes and chequered headgear the men wore, to the voluminous black swaddling cloths the women were wrapped in, to the fierce dry heat, to the absence of greenery and to the ban on alcohol.

I was picked up from the airport at night by another Irish man called Tony and his close friend, a tall, well built Kuwaiti wearing an ankle length grey robe called a distacha. The ride from the airport through Kuwait city and then on beyond into the darkness on the Salmiah road to the village of Fahaheel was conducted in silence and coolness. Tony and Hamad dropped me off at an isolated, squat, three story block of flats and casually announced that mine was number 7 before they roared off into the night. Dusty roads snarled through unfinished building sites and heaps of rubble, lined with burnt out wrecks of cars marked a few rutted paths. From where I stood, on what looked like a disused building site, I could see across down a treeless street into town.

The next day I started work. Not knowing much about anything, I was lucky to have an understanding and sympathetic director and eager, mustached young engineers and mechanics, keen on improving their skills in order to gain a place at the Oklahoma Institute of Petroleum Studies in the States.

Leaving Fahaheel, a fifteen minute stroll past the new shopping centre, filled with narrow shops selling brand name watches, Japanese stereos and women’s designer clothes, totally at odds with the billowing black veils all Kuwaiti women wore, brought me to the new two storey fish market proudly perched in one corner of the curving bay.

Fish were haggled for noisily on the ground floor as Pakistani labourers dragged crates directly off the dhows straight into the tiled whiteness of the market. Men with large moustaches sat clustered together at small rickety tables on the balcony of the cafe overlooking the water, playing noisy games of dominoes. A mixed assortment of vegetables was scattered haphazardly on bits of cardboard and sacking, watched over by amorphous black clad shapes. Slovenly youths, wearing dirty ankle length distachas, slouched around, clearing soft drink cans, empty cigarette packets, the remains of meals and coffee residue from the tables by throwing them over the parapet directly into the waters of the Gulf below. Paul, my boss, had arranged to meet me there that evening and was smoking a tall brass water pipe and sipping a tiny cup of strong dark coffee flavoured with cardamom when I arrived.

Almost immediately, the reason for my invitation became apparent when he suggested going back to his mate, Sam’s apartment, to talk business.

“Steve, can you give a hand to carry these downstairs to the ute”

“These” were 5 gallon plastic bins with their lid taped on to some. Paul lifted one lid to examine the scum on the surface and a sour, rotten stench filled the small kitchen.

“This is sour mash,” Paul explained, “we’re taking it to someone else’s house for them to distil it into Flash.”

Over a homemade beer carefully poured first into a plastic jug, Paul explained that Flash was the raw alcohol from which anything else could be produced. “You want whisky?” Sam clarified, “Then you chuck in a handful of oak chips and the alcohol will absorb the colour and the flavour of the oak. If you want Cointreau, chuck an orange in and leave it for 6 months”

“You’ve got to be careful, though, with Flash, see.” Paul went on. “It has to be distilled properly. If it isn’t … Boom, you’re dead, in more ways than one. Never buy it from any of the Pakis down in the big camps. The way they do it, see, is to just stuff the sour mash in the freezer, pour off the liquid that doesn’t freeze and then repeat the process several times. They end up drinking raw wood alcohol and it’s no wonder they’re all as mad as they are. I remember last year, back in Saudi, some of the Paki’s died after drinking Snake eyes there.”

“Anyway” Sam interrupted, “we’re taking this over to this Yank in Ahmadi town. He works in the Lab at the refinery and after this stuff is run through the still, he’ll test it in the lab for purity. So, are you on to give us a hand?  Donkey like, I dragged and lugged heavy plastic bins down three flights of barren, roughly finished concrete steps to Sam’s ute. I wasn’t able to lift the bins up onto the back of the ute but Sam and Paul did this effortlessly, as if with long practice.

“You jump up there, Steve and keep an eye on the lids,” Paul said and obediently I hopped onto the back of the JMC ute. Paul got into the passenger seat inside while Sam drove.  The sudden jolt of starting off and the bouncing journey across a wilderness of rubble and junk before we hit a tarred road running in a straight line into the starry blackness of the night sloshed a considerable amount of sour mash over my clothes. The only way I could keep lids on so many bins was to lie on top of them and spread-eagle myself but that didn’t stop the contents from sloshing up and soaking my thin clothes.

“Ok up there,” Pail called through the open window and at that moment the night was split with the sound of police sirens. Sam immediately swerved off the tarred road and lurched through a wilderness of broken rocks and scrubby bushes cutting the engine and switching off the headlights. Seconds later a convoy of police cars screamed into view and just as rapidly disappeared into the other direction.

Sam waited a few moments longer before starting up and leisurely following the direction the convoy had taken.  I guessed we must have been coming into big money because the environment changed so suddenly. Instead of Fahaheel’s look and aspect of an abandoned building site of epic proportions, Ahmadi was American style, low slung ranch / bungalows on manicured squares of green grass. Sprinklers hissed in the background and low slung sports cars were parked everywhere. Sam turned left off the main strip and pulled into the attached garage of one of the ranches.

Before I knew what to do, Paul had pulled down roller shutters, closing off the garage and we were manhandling the bins into a sleek chrome and tile kitchen. I expected to see a Frankenstein style laboratory with a copper spiral and flashing lights but after a proffered cup of coffee which we all declined it was back in the ute and home to Fahaheel.

Over another homemade beer, Sam sold me all the equipment I could possible need to start home brewing myself and a few weeks later, just as I was enjoying my first 5 gallons of brew I was presented with a large laboratory gallon flask of clear liquid.
“Here, you go, but be careful now. This has already been cut once with water so it’s about 50% proof. You might want to cut it again and then cut it with tonic or coke or whatever you want to drink with it. Welcome to the world of Flash”



Off the Rails in HK

Part 1

The plan was simple – I would fly out of Saigon back to Hong Kong, clear some unfinished business there, catch up with some friends and then go into China. From there I would catch a succession of trains back into Northern Vietnam and then take the Reunification Express back down to Saigon. Two weeks, max, I thought and that was that.

Looking for a cheap flight from Saigon to Hong Kong involved the rather tortuous route of leaving Saigon on Tuesday 23 April at 9:00 AM for a flight to Singapore and a stopover there just long enough for lunch before the Singapore to Hong Kong leg, arriving there at 6:00 PM, a 9 hour trip for a standard 2 and a half hour direct flight. No such thing as a cheap flight, or perhaps no such thing as a cheap, direct flight.

But never mind, the whole point of flying to Hong Kong was to take a succession of trains all the way back through southern China and down into Northern Vietnam, stopping in Hanoi and all points south until I arrived back where I had started from.

Of course, such things as booking in advance and confirming trains and sleepers (not to mention hotels) didn’t actually occur to me. Booking in advance requires a bit of dedicated effort, organization and forward planning and while I enjoy the forward planning part as in where, how and when will I go, I never seem to get around to the grittier part of finding a hotel in advance in a place I’ve never been to before. Anyway, I have always been a great believer in serendipity and so far things have always worked out rather nicely. With a place the size of China – or for that matter, most places in the world, other than the eve of an world event like the Olympics or the World Cup – I have always been confident that I could find a place to stay without too much bother.

Furthermore, China has one of the largest and most extensive rail networks in the world, not to mention some of the fastest and most modern trains on some routes and I didn’t seriously envisage any problems in getting a sleeper given that I was being fairly flexible with dates. Arriving in Hong Kong on Tuesday night, I thought it might be nice to leave any time the following week.

So that when I fronted up in the China Travel Service (CTS) – a semi-government travel agent service for all of China – near Southern Playground in Wanchai, manned by smiling functionaries in attractive purple uniforms – looking for a soft sleeper, lower berth, please, from Shenzhen, just over the Hong Kong border to Guangzhou and from there on to Nanning, and then on to Hanoi, I was rather taken aback when I was told all trains were fully booked.

No problem getting a train to Guangzhou – I could either take the Hong Kong run MTR direct train from Hong Hom in Hong Kong itself, or cross over the border at Lo Wu and catch the high speed train – apparently they are so frequent that no booking is necessary – from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, but that was it, as far as CTS was concerned. Every train from Guangzhou to all points north, south and west, was booked.

“Impossible” I blurted, almost tempted to slip a few dollars across the counter to lubricate the transaction before I remembered that I was in Hong Kong and while such things may be commonplace in Vietnam or in China, they would be frowned upon, to put it mildly, in Hong Kong.

“Next Wednesday is May 01 and a national holiday in China, sir and many people take the opportunity to take several days off work. We call it a “Golden Week” for nearly all travel services are long booked up. The next available train from Guangzhou to Nanning will be on Monday 06 May. Would you like me to book that?”

Much as I like Hong Kong, after all, I had lived there for 12 years – so why had I forgotten about “Golden Week”? you’d wonder. I really didn’t want to spent a week there cooling my heels while waiting for a train, but I didn’t appear to have much choice.

Time for a beer and to revise my travel “plans”. I certainly didn’t want to fly and neither did I like long distance buses nor did I want to hang around in (expensive) Hong Kong, so what did that leave me?

The next day I decided to leave anyway and to hell with them all. Not on a real train, I suppose, just on the Hong Kong MTR up to the border at Lo Wu. Through immigration and onto the Chinese equivalent, the MRT and an hour’s ride down to Shekou, outside of Shenshen, the same ilk as the Fremantle of Perthor the Dun Laoghaire of Dublin.

At least, I am in China, I consoled myself and the hotels are cheaper and just as good and I know some excellent restaurants. Wandering out that night to one of my favourite bars I saw a small travel agent and on the off chance, went in to enquire. No problem, no explanations, but yes, I could get a train from Guangzhou to Nanning the next day, provided I could show my passport to the travel agency. Back to the hotel, grab the passport and rush back to the hole in the wall travel agency before it closes on Sunday night at 7:00PM and it is already 6:45.

Even more surprising – and pleasing – the price was significantly cheaper than the Hong Kong price quoted by the purple pups back in the Hong Kong CTS, even allowing for the difference in the exchange rate between Hong Kong dollars and Chinese Reminbi Yuan.

The next day, after a super spicy Xiangiang noodle breakfast, back on the MRT to Shenzhen and into the cavernous station outside Lo Wu Shopping Centre City. Teeming with would-be passengers, and über cool touts, offering copy watches, handbags and sexy DVD’s, all manner of bags, suitcases, bales and assorted bundles piled up, young girls swaying past on incredibly high heels, youths lolling on small baggage trolleys, old, wizened men crouching on their haunches, cigarettes cupped in gnarly hands, I began to wonder just how I was going to fight my way through the throng.



Peregrinations – Intro

At a dead loss writing creatively for the sequel of Raiding Cooley. Weather and acts of nature have stopped me from working in the garden so I have buckets of time, you’d think, to write my new best seller. However, although I have lot of projects – both for the garden and for writing – I am doing neither and here, instead, is a step to the side. Allow me to introduce  Perergrinations, a new page to Red Branch Chronicles  to join Celtic Trivia, Curves and Book Stuff.

Travel descriptions, recounts, stories, ramblings – no specific chronology but broken up into different geographic categories like Asia, Middle East, Europe, North and South America, Australia .

I’ll stick in photos and pics whenever I come across something suitable. Ok, Look out for the first post.