China – Episode 2

From the centre of Hong Kong, we took the metro to the last station one rainy morning, and crossed the border to Shenzhen. At the train station we had to queue a bit – we could have bought our ticket in Hong Kong, but for a ridiculously high commission. Getting our sleeper tickets in Shenzhen was as easy as it gets in China – a bit of queueing but that was it. Shenzhen is one of the “Special Economic Zones” in China, so probably a bit better off economically than other cities, although our guidebook mentioned that there was quite a lot of poverty. There’s not much to see there, so we sat around in a Chinese fast food outlet before spending much of the rest of the afternoon at McDonalds, which was the only place where we could get decent coffee. The train station was less of a mess than other Chinese train stations, so everything went easily and fast.
We arrived in Guilin in the early morning. We had chosen to go there because it was supposed to be one of the top tourist sights in the country, surrounded by beautiful karst scenery.
Well, we were not as impressed as our guidebook. The city was ok, with some nice places to walk around, a good amount of cafes and restaurants and outdoor seating, but that was about it. Many places were full of Chinese tourist groups, with tour guides yelling into megaphones. We rented bikes and cycled out into the countryside – fortunately there were enough helpful people around to help us find our way. The air was dusty and polluted, but we did find some nice spots with rice fields. Miguel’s bike chain was coming out all the time so he went around with his hands all black…
After 2 days we had enough and took a bus to Yangshuo. Already at our hostel in Guilin we were reminded of the many tourist scams in Yangshuo, like taxi drivers taking tourists to the wrong hotel.
Nothing like this happened to us. We got off the bus, a few people wanted to take us to their hotel but we said no and walked away, and they left us alone. We checked into a quiet hotel with an adorable manager, it was cheaper than most places we had stayed, but it was clean, it had a window that opened and a comfortable bed. Perfect. The town was, yes, touristic, but it seemed more like individual tourists and less groups. It was also much more quiet than Guilin, and after arriving we walked along the river on a quiet path and got some really nice views (photos coming later…). We spent the next day walking along the river from one village to another, again a lot of nice views. Fortunately we met a guy from Hong Kong who helped us negotiate with the boatmen who had to take us across the river (and wanted to get as much money as possible…). Along the way we were regularly greeted by “Hello! You! Bamboo!” (meaning “I want you to take my bamboo raft”) but we managed to just ignore them and walk on.
We could have spent much more time in this place, but we felt like moving on. I felt we were going to fall into the trap of running after tourist spots, and not following a certain line or path any more. So we decided to get back on the trains and stick to them as long as possible, and try to ignore other travellers’ advices (“oh you MUST go to X, and DON’T miss Y”) because I don’t see a sense in “collecting” tourist spots all over the world for months and months.
So we took a bus to Nanning, from where we knew there would be a train to Hanoi. Nanning is quite a modern city with lots of modern architecture everywhere and lots of shops, but not a lot to do otherwise. We were lucky having found a nice place to stay at an Australian couchsurfer’s place, which became a “home away from home” for 4 days.
We boarded the night train to Hanoi on Friday night, the train station was full and noisy and a mess as usual, but our train (at least the overnight part of it) was almost empty, we were 12 passengers travelling to Vietnam, and 9 conductors! The border crossings were easy and people were friendly.
We arrived in Hanoi at 5.30 am local time, waited at the train station for 15 minutes for the sun to rise, and walked into the centre. Already at 6 am the city was awake, people doing exercise, alone or, more commonly, in a group, and it was a young jogger who showed us the way into the centre.
So here we are, on the trains again. The plan is to go all the way down to Singapore, using trains as much as possible.