BootsnAll Travel Network

Back in the Game

After buying my subway ticket to the stop nearest Shamian Island, I waited for the train for only a few minutes. Since there didn’t seem to be any way to tell what stop we were approaching,  I had to count the stops before arriving at my destination. Leaving the subway, it had suddenly darkened outside, and I pulled out my guidebook to try and figure out where I was. A young Chinese girl approached me and asked me if I needed help, and she quickly pointed in the direction over a small canal, “Shamian Island.” I thanked her and headed off over the bridge towards the island, which is not only home to many British and European style buildings, but also houses the US embassy,which is where American families have to go when they adopt Chinese baby girls. It was something I wanted to see for myself, but as the island is one of the bigger tourist attractions in itself, I thought I might meet some people there.

Shamian Island in Guangzhou is really just that, an island not just geographically but also culturally. Almost all the buildings were old colonial style, and the small cobbled streets were lined with tall trees, something very rare in China. As I approached the main square, I saw my first adoptee family, two American parents with a little Chinese girl in a stroller and another one about 5 walking alongside. And then I saw another, and another. It was kind of strange, and all the stores around the streets sold baby goods like clothes and stuff, and rented strollers, since the parents were required to stay in China for a month they could rent whatever they needed. I popped into one store to look for a Chinese outfit for my nephew, but couldn’t find anything. Suddenly I realized I was being very stupid. All the clothes were for girl babies, since all the babies given up for adoption are girls. I couldn’t find one boys outfit in the entire area. It started to rain a bit, and I went into a restaurant for some lunch. The menu was a mixture of Chinese and very standard “American” food, like hamburgers and burritos and stuff. I ordered, and eavesdropped on the family sitting behind me. A young American couple was also ordering, and they requested a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for their young Chinese daughter. For some reason, this made me really annoyed, like why couldn’t they have her eat Chinese food while in China? I’m not sure why this bothered me, since it clearly wasn’t any of my business, but I was irked.

As I was finishing up eating, it started to rain outside, and I paid and hurried out to find the nearest internet cafe, but all the terminals were full. Determined to not waste another day doing nothing, I set out on the subway to the center of town and found a nice park to walk through. The rain had cleared slightly, and there were a few people walking through the park, which had a nice pond and pagoda in the center. A couple was playing badminton under a gazebo, and there were a few older men playing a board game that I didn’t recognize. It was nice and peaceful, and I made my through the park to the other side. I looked at my map, and thought I was not too far from a shopping mall where there was supposed to be an English bookstore, which I was in desperate need of. Normally you can trade books at hostels and guesthouses, or even other travelers if you are lucky. But I was at a hotel where there wasn’t a book exchange, and having met no one for three days, I needed to spend the money on a new book for my 25 hour train ride the next day. The mall turned out to be much farther than it looked on the map, but I finally found it. The bookstore was the best I had seen in China, small but with a wide selection from classics to romance novels. They were really cheap as well, and I bought a couple just in case. I wandered around the mall a little bit, but didn’t want to spend anymore money than necessary, so I set back out. I passed by a Pizza Hut, and realized I was hungry again, so I stopped for an early dinner since I wasn’t sure what I would find near my hotel. The Pizza Hut was a madhouse! There was about a half hour wait for a table, and the tables were packed with families out for a nice meal. It was the nicest Pizza Hut I have ever seen, and while any self respecting Chicagoan wouldn’t eat Pizza Hut on the worst of days, it was a pretty decent pizza I have to say and a necessity as I was still in my rice avoidance mode. Still needing an internet cafe, I asked my waiter to write down the address of one in my guidebook in Chinese, and I went outside and got a taxi to the address. This internet place was like many in China, a huge almost warehouse like feel with hundreds of terminals, all full of young Chinese playing video games and chatting. They are also the cheapest anywhere, and I spent the better part of the evening there. I hopped in a taxi back to my hotel and, after flipping through the stations and realizing there were no English channels, decided to call it a night.

The next morning, I had a few hours before my train left at 3pm. Knowing there was a Starbucks at the hotel I had been dropped off at the previous day, I went there for a coffee and breakfast. I asked the girls if there was a supermarket nearby, so I could stock up for my train ride, and they gave me directions to the center of town, and said the supermarket was in the subway station just two stops away. I got back on the subway, and after a short ride, found myself in a huge underground subway station. I walked around this subway station, which turned into an 8 story mall above it, for over an hour trying to find the supermarket. I couldn’t find one person that spoke English well enough to ask directions, and they kept directing me to a Watsons, which is a drug and beauty store. It was so insanely frustrating, and very China. Looking at my watch, I realized I was now rushed for time, and hopped back on the subway towards my hotel. I quickly stopped at the McDonalds outside of my hotel, ( I know I know) which was so packed you couldn’t even get in a proper line, to grab some lunch for the train. It took almost half an hour for me to get to the counter to order and then get my food, which by that time I was in a small state of panic. I rushed back to my hotel, grabbed all my bags out of storage while no one was looking, and headed out towards the train. Being rushed and almost late for a train is bad enough; when you are in China it becomes a stress attack, since I had no idea where I needed to go. Showing my ticket to the first uniformed person, she pointed up the stairs, where I hurried past the throngs of people and onto the platform. My carriage was of course, seemingly miles away, and I had about 6 minutes to spare, so I hurried down the platform instead of boarding the train. Walking through cramped train corridors with a backpack and miscellaenous other bags was near impossible. I finally found my carriage number and boarded, with just a few minutes before the whistle sounded.

Once in the carriage, I was surprised to find that the compartments were open, and had no doors or anything to separate them. There were six beds to a compartment like the last sleeper,but there were no walls at the ends of the beds. I found my bunk and basically hurled my bags up on the luggage storage, keenly aware that I was not only the one Westerner on the train, but I had about 20 pairs of eyes staring at me, watching what I was doing. You get quite used to this in China, but when there are two of you, it is much easier to deal with and laugh about. But I was by myself, and hot and sweaty and completely bushed. I threw my daybag on the top bunk, and sat on one of the little pulldown chairs in the aisle and sighed. I hadn’t had a chance to buy water or anything before boarding, and I was dying for a drink,but I would need to wait for the drink cart to come around. The conductor finally came by, and looking at my ticket, pointed at the middle bunk, and then at my. Ah, I wasn’t on the top bunk, but the middle. I quickly moved my stuff down, and made up my bed as best I could, then grabbed one of the books I had bought and sat on the little pulldown chair again. And everyone watched me read.

And this continued for the rest of the day, as anything I did was a source of entertainment for my bunkmates. Reading my China guidebook caused all kinds of commotion it seemed, but with no one trying to speak English to me, and me not really in the mood for a struggle, they said nothing to me about it. The dinner cart came around, and I bought some rice with vegetables and meat (pork I think) for about $4. After dinner, I made my way to the dining car, hoping to run into some fellow travelers and stretch my legs. Car after car, numerous CHinese stared at me as I walked by, but didn’t say anything. I finally saw a few other Westerners lounging in one compartment, but my halted “Hey” greeting sparked no response, as I might as well have said “F you.” I continued on, reached the empty dining car, and then turned back, as past the dining car was the overcrowded hard seat carriages, where I had no desire to ever be again. I finally reached my compartment again, and sensing it was the right thing to do, changed and got into bed to read. Everyone else was in bed, and another man joined us in the bunk above mine, apparently having paid for an upgrade, smart man. I settled in and read my book, and after an announcement in Chinese, all the lights went out. I guess I’m going to sleep now, I thought to myself. But I realized I was tired anyway, so I put away my book and tried to sleep.

Not surprisingly after my hectic day, I fell asleep rather quickly, but was constantly woken up by talking, by hoiking and spitting (my carriage was near the bathroom) and various other nighttime noises. Somehow, I managed to always fall back asleep however, and I finally slept continuously and completely. Until 7am, when screechingly loud Chinese opera blasted from the overhead speaker in the corridor (remember we have no doors). Everyone started moving around and getting up, which I didn’t understand that much because we weren’t due to arrive until 3pm in Kunming. But everyone was up, making tea and ramen noodles, slurping away, munching on sunflower seeds and hoiking and spitting. The situation was fairly hopeless, and I finally succumbed to the pressure and got out of bed. I went to make some Nescafe instant coffee, something I’ve grown accustomed to in China, but only out of necessity. And everyone watched me as I drank a big plastic cup of coffee, while they drank their tea out of glass thermoses. After my coffee and a few crackers, I grabbed my clothes and got in line for the bathroom to change. After being cut in front of and ousted numerous times, I was finally faster than the other person, and walked into the toilet. Now, toilets in China are bad enough, but on the train they are something of nightmares. Just a hole in the floor leading to the tracks, a handrail to hold on to (aren’t they thoughtful) and an inch of random liquid, probably a mixture of urine, water and noodle broth, covering the floor. I had seen worse however, and I quickly squatted to take care of business. I was used to this now, and even on the herky jerky train it was no problem. Taking my shorts that I wanted to change into, I held onto the doorknob and stepped out of my flip flop, since they were filthy and wet, and stepped out of my pajama shorts. Carefully, I stepped into my hiking shorts, and then back into my flip flop. I started on the left foot, stepping out of my flip flop, out of my pajama shorts and into… I watched helplessly as my left flip flop, my precious Teva flipflop that had lasted me 9 months, slid too close to the toilet hole and was sucked down onto the train tracks. It happened in two seconds, too fast for me to even make a move towards it. I stood there bewildered, holding onto the doorknob and trying to just process what happened. Um. I supressed a giggle. Crap. I loved those things. Since I was in a little cubicle and on one foot, it was very hard for me to move around, and in the end, I had to step down with my left, bare, foot, and finish changing. I left the bathroom shoeless, and reached my compartment, quickly going for my big backpack high up on the rack. My carriage compartments looked at my, looked at my bare foot, and then went back to whatever they were doing. Apparently, me reading or drinking coffee is an event. Coming back from the toilet missing a shoe isn’t that interesting. I found my other sandals and went back to the sinks to clean off my foot, and then threw my poor flip flop away. ‘Sniff” bye you guys, I’ll miss you.

Somewhere in between being insanely pissed off at losing a pair of flip flops, and laughing at the stupidity of the situation, and being sad at not having anyone to laugh about it with, I got back into my bunk and sighed. It was only a few more hours to Kunming, so I settled back with my book for a while. It was pretty crap but kind of entertaining, and it read quickly, so I was almost half way through when I got up to get some lunch. I sat on the little chair and ate, and was approached by a young Chinese girl who I hadn’t seen earlier. She introduced herself as Jacqueline, clearly her English name, and wanted to chat with me for a while. Seeing no way out, I politely answered her questions and we talked for a while about Chicago and the US, and what I thought of China. It was the same conversation I’ve had so many times before,but Jacquelines English was good and she was easy to talk to. We exchanged email addresses as you often do, and got our stuff ready to depart.

Finally arriving in Kunming, I waved goodbye to Jacqueline, and set out in search of the bus that would take me to the hostel that I wanted to go to. I finally found it across the street from the train station, and paid the 1Yuan fare. I had to switch buses, and while the bus was really crowded, the street I needed was clear on a street sign outside and I got off the bus. I switched to another bus, and following the directions, went two stops and got off again. The hostel was nowhere in sight, but I started to walk in the direction of the numbers. Suddenly, the numbers changed and started going down again. Puzzled, I stopped and asked someone, pointing at my guidebook the name of the hostel. They just looked at my and shrugged no. I was clearly on the right street, but the numbers just weren’t making sense. I finally stopped in a bank, and after much hand gestures, pointing and confusion, the girl called the guesthouse to ask for directions. She pointed towards her right and said “5 minutes.” Relieved, I set off again in the direction I came from, only to find that 5 minutes meant 15, especially with bags and luggage. But I finally found it, and luckily, they had a dorm bed available for 20Yuan and I quickly paid and went to the room. I hadn’t been in a dorm room in months and was pleased to find it clean and comfortable. Except for the mattress which was really a big blanket folded over, which can only be described as Hard. There was still a bottom bunk available so I grabbed it, and quickly grabbed my stuff for a shower. There was no one in the room, and no one when I got back from the shower. There was only a few things I needed to do in Kunming,one of which was now buying a new pair of flip flops, and after showering I went out to find some food. WIth all my wanderings and getting lost and showering and such, it was now after 6pm. Before eating, I stopped at a few sports stores along the road, but no one had flip flops close to what I was looking for. For dinner, I went to one place recommended as a good place to meet other travelers, and settled with some food and a local beer and my book. A few couples came and went, but this cafe didn’t seem to be the magnet for travelers as my book claimed. A few more drinks I gave in and left and went back to my hostel. There were two people in my room when I got back, both in bed and one was already sleeping. Normally I would hate a loud and noisy hostel if I was really tired, but I would have almost preferred that to the silence and lack of commeraderie. I got ready for bed and, sleeping on my duvet to provide more cushioning, read for a while and then turned out the light.

The next morning, I went to the front desk to pay for another night, and met two people checking in, John from Scotland and Alex from California. They had just arrived from Vietnam, and overheard me asking where the Vietnam consulate was since I needed my visa. We chatted for a bit, and I set out with them to get some breakfast before going to the consulate. Oddly, both spoke Mandarin, which is fairly rare in itself but for two people who just met it was rather strange. We set off for the market after breakfast, and made plans to meet up for dinner since I had to go to the embassy and they had some shopping to do. I didn’t see any flip flops in the market and John said I’d have better luck and choice in Vietnam anyway, so I put it out of my mind for a while. I found the Vietnam embassy, and after paying my 400Yuan fee, was told to pick it up in three days. That was a long time to be in Kunming, a relatively clean but nondescript Chinese city, and there wasn’t much to see, so I needed to try and find somewhere else to go for a few days while I waited. After wandering around the shops for a while, I asked the young guys working in the Nike store where there was an internet place. Not understanding me, I mimicked the typing motion, and they quickly showed me across the street to another large internet place. If you need internet in China, when in doubt ask teenaged boys, they will always know. Again, it was faster and newer, and much cheaper than the internet at my hostel.

The hours passed quickly, and I set back towards the hostel to shower and change, and met John and Alex for dinner at the cafe I had tried to go the night before. But this time, there were loads of other people there, including three other guys that John knew already. After dinner and a few beers, none of us wanted to go home except Alex, so John asked the girls working at the cafe where a good club was. We got some sketchy directions, but set off to find the place. Along with me and John, was Woytek from Poland, Ken from Japan and Ricardo from Mexico. A few blocks down, we saw some bright lights and thought we had found the place and went inside. We were intrigued when we saw all the Chinese workers inside wearing Scottish kilts and paraphenalia, and the entire bar was decked out in some kind of Tim Burton Scottish fantasy. And it was jammed full of Chinese people listening to Scottish music and drinking. THey found us a table, but after looking at the prices of beer, we quickly got up to leave, it was way too expensive for us. We asked again about the nightclub, and quickly found it around the corner. Inside was a big dance club, full of people drinking and dancing. We were the only tourists in there, and me, John and Woytek towered over all the other people in the club, Ricardo and Ken blended in slightly better. The music wasn’t awful, I’ve heard worse in some Chicago clubs,but then they played Ghostbusters and the crowd went crazy. We ordered a bucket of beers, expensive but apparently the cheapest option for drinks, and went to dance. For a Tuesday night, the place was heaving. There were people passed out on tables, and when I went to the bathroom there was a girl getting sick and her friends putting on makeup. It was nuts. Getting back to my table, the other guys decided they had enough, and looking at my watch, realized it was after 2 anyway, so we left. It was short walk back to the hostel, and I got into my room, which was now full of people, and crashed.

I managed to sleep in for a bit the next day, even though I was periodically woken by other people getting up to pack and move around, the norm in dorms but something I had forgotten about. Not having anything to do in Kunming and not in the mood for sightseeing, I showered and had some breakfast at the same cafe, who served awesome muesli with fruit and yoghurt, since I was so sick of eggs. There I met a nice Dutch couple who chatted with me about China and where to go, and they were heading to Dali for a few days. There was also talk among the guys that they were going to Dali also, and I decided to book a ticket for the next day, since my Vietnam visa wouldn’t be ready yet anyway. The day was almost half over, and I went into the central part of town to do a little window shopping. I found a huge Western supermarket and actually walked around this place for about an hour, not just because it was air conditioned, but they had some foods I had been craving since Hong Kong. I finally decided to get some blue cheese and crackers and bought a bottle of red Chinese wine for dinner, and kept walking around, looking in a bookstore and a few other shops. The day was pretty much a waste, with some internet time, eating, shopping and just wandering around. Back at my hostel, I ate my cheese and crackers and had some wine, and went off to meet Mark and Linda, the Dutch couple, for a drink at the cafe. I realized that after 5 days alone, I was finally back in the groove, and had met some cool other travelers to hang out with for a few days. While I wasn’t that excited about China anymore, I was just looking forward to going to Dali the following day and meeting up with everyone. It was good to be back.

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One response to “Back in the Game”

  1. Bob Anderson says:


    Your reports have generated countless hours of enjoyment and fascination. Many times I wished I could have been there. What adventures you have had! Although I have known you all your life (being friends with your Mom and Dad), I certainly have gotten to know you even better by this very special travelogue.

    Small observation. I was quite pleased to learn (from Where the Hell Am I?) that the younger generation still plays dominoes. It’s a delightful game for all ages. Not too long ago, I spent a couple hours playing with my 95 year old aunt.

    Keep ’em coming.

    “Uncle” Bob.

    P.S. As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, “be careful out there”.

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