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.

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.