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A Journey Into the Past

sunny 30 °C

Since Ryley's Café was such a congenial place on my arrival in Yangshuo, I treated myself to an Indonesian coffee there upon my departure too; the ever-smiling and giggly waitress helped lighten the journey ahead. 'Oh, you didn't bring an umbrella?' she said as I walked in glistening. I resisted the reflex to tell her it was mostly sweat that was causing the reflections on my head; rain seemed somewhat more noble. 'It's no problem,' I replied, and continued to shift my seat to fill the gap in conversation.

It'd been five days since I arrived, and like many of the places I'd crossed on my path, it could have been so much more. Yangshuo was, in many ways, ideal for me. But the more I travelled, the more I realised that these places were all over the world, choosing one in which to live would be a tough game.

I sat reading, trying to memorise each stroke of the Chinese characters (letters) for 'Huangyao' so that I could find the correct bus in a few minute's time. My coffee sat on the table in front of me, its steam rose and filled my nose with the aroma of Sumatran canephora beans.
Soon enough, the digital face of my shiny Hong Kong watch ticked round to leaving time, and as I strode off back towards the bus station, I stuck the image Huangyao in simplified Mandarin characters on my mind's frontal lobe and scanned for the bus in the parking lot. This journey was not going to be a long one, but getting the wrong bus could change that outlook fairly quickly.

Some time later, the conductor signalled that the bus – with me on it – had arrived in Huangyao. The two and a half hour journey passed by in anticipation as I knew how old this town was and felt sure it would be a highlight. She looked at me with military certainty and gestured that I should alight; the army camouflaged top and trousers giving off an incongruous image to her smile. I hopped off and gazed in the direction of her pointing finger. I could gather she was telling me in Mandarin that I should stay with the man that seemed to be heading straight towards me; he was approaching from the street side. I immediately felt like a delivered package and told myself not to fall into the first guesthouse I saw, but instead to locate the one I circled in my book.

Within thirty seconds, I could tell this was not going to happen.

'How much?' I asked. Along with smiles and warmth, I received a four finger reply. I assumed that he meant forty Yuan. For the next ten minutes we played finger puppets over the price as I learned that what he meant to say was – you can have room number 4.
In my newly acquired room, I briskly swatted some mosquitoes and set out in search of clues to back up the claim that this town was a thousand years old; it looked utterly forgettable on first glance.

I walked a minute or two along the road, trying not to allow my heavily-bearded face to scare the local children; those children looked out from dowdy shop windows and stared as hard as a child's attention span would allow. I looked to my right, immediately noticing a small brick entranceway with faded Chinese characters above its threshold. The lenses in my eyes snapped into focus onto what lay beyond, and it was at this point that I realised I made the right decision to come looking; I had found a portal into the past.

I stepped past an idle man sitting in the shade of the archway and briefly wondered if I was right to go in. Past my silent questions of permittance was an overwhelming urge to just walk slowly and to journey with my eyes. Warm rushes of discovery washed over me while my gaze moved around from an old sun-faded community wall-painting to a thousand-year-old house to a man pulling a cart full of hay up a broken step on the stone floor; a floor which held itself together with a crumbling sense of ageing stubbornness. My feet led me from one corner to another, I couldn't feel my toes, I was all in my mind. The place looked as though it had not received a lick of paint since its inception over nine hundred years ago, but the few people that did walk past me had an adjusted look in their eye that said it doesn't matter, it's always been like this.

Old characters loomed in the shadows of doorways. As I stared at the aged skin of each wall and crevice, the whites of eyes turned to face me from darkened lives. Before continuing too much further, I took a moment to collect myself and then paused on each respectful gait so as not to miss anything. Rusted bicycles stood propped against ancient brick, red paper lanterns hung lifelessly outside every house front, the relative silence in the air occasionally broken by the loose steps of passing town folk, and then again an empty street, a millennia of quiet steps fade effervescently into the background of the present day in guise.

I came out into an opening by a small river. Worn paths led off into dated existence and a curved stone bridge crossed the tumbling water. I wandered as I'd been wandering for the last hour when a small Chinese man approached me and began making eating gestures with his hands; he was offering me food and a drink as I'm sure he could see I was hot and dehydrated from the inexorable afternoon sun. 'Follow me,' he said through a toothy grin. I decided to accept.

He scuttled towards an inner courtyard, his linen clothes flowing closely behind like ephemeral contrails. I sat down at a thick, circular wood and marble table in a room which made up part of his ageing stone house, the white walls rich in mould. A circa 1970's fan cooled the air and allowed me some respite from the day's heat. The man then virtually fell over himself to get me some green tea, which turned out to be rather more pink than green, and poured it carefully from an ornate brown clay pot before giving me a look to prompt a first sip. He then proceeded to bring me just about everything on his home-cooked menu – tofu cakes, rice, egg, tomatoes and green peppers. 'Beer? Wine?' he asked. 'Bu yong xie,' I replied, testing my newly-learned Mandarin. He insistently gesticulated with a thumb and forefinger that I try a little bit and then proceeded to grapple with a large white plastic keg near the table, whereby he extracted a modest amount and served it to me free of charge. I swirled the whiffy rosé and gave it a sniff, then a sip. Expecting to discover a unique and mysterious ancient secret, I was disappointed that it instead tasted of rice wine and stale grapes. Of course, I saluted his achievement, and spent the rest of the meal willing myself to get through it without hint of an inwardly-scrunched facial expression resembling a regretful chunk of lemon ingestion.
'Ah, um, ah, uh, OK,' I replied through filling hamster-cheeks. Once the noodles had joined the immense smorgasbord of food in front of me, he insisted on sitting at the opposite table whilst writing out a Chinese calligraphic business card on a thin piece of scrap paper so I would not forget our encounter. 'Hǎo chī,' I said, complimenting the dishes. 'Thank you,' he replied, and then suddenly pointed to the fan, 'Fan!' he declared, proudly showing his English ability. 'Cigarette!' he said holding up his whispily smoking roll-up. I knew I was now stuck in the 'name game' vortex, but decided to play along nonetheless with the newfound happiness of a satisfied stomach. I wrote the words down in his exercise book so he could study them and learn to write in English as well as pronounce them correctly. It always made me feel like I had a skill when sharing English, and privileged that is was a language carried in high regard; I was happy to help that little bit.

'Water?' asked the man – whom I now knew as Liang Nai Qun – and before I could answer, he ran to the fridge just three feet away and plucked out a bottle of cold water and began to pour it. 'Beer, egg, wine?' he offered again in an odd mix of flavours. He poured me more of his home-made wine into a small glass cup before making a gesture to let me know he wanted to 'cheers' me. He ran to the corner of the room, swung open the greasy fridge and grabbed another glass, loudly knocking over a china soup spoon in the process of his haste. He gaily poured himself a cup and topped up mine, looked at me with an expectant smile and declared 'Gānbēi!' Which literally means dry the cup. I held off breathing for a few moments after that noxious mouthful.

Liang stood in the middle of the sunlit stone room, 'England,' he said, and began making a football-playing motion. 'China, ping-pong,' he followed, his hands now swiping at an imaginary ball. 'Very good,' I retorted and gave him a thumbs up for effort. Liang was a fair indication of the type of people I would meet in China. And with more than a billion souls, I knew I'd be constantly blessed on this section of the journey.

It had been a number of months since a razor had touched my face. And since the fancy Taiwanese trimmer I'd acquired in Taipei was no longer working due to a difference in voltages (a pointless divergence if ever I saw one), I spent the five Yuan (50p) on a brief removal of what was left of my receding hair via the local barbers and a quietly staring child within. A quick shave later dropped several more years from my appearance and I immediately felt like a sheered sheep – exposed and aware of myself.

In the throngs of a crepuscular midpoint, I returned to the bygone streets of Huangyao's dynasterial past as the night emerged shadow-like from day. Paper lanterns glowed a meek-yellow, their red Han inscriptions lending an air of film-set authenticity – a comparison ironically misinterpretable due to my inexperience with something so real and exposure to many things that are, in fact, not. The human shapes once dimmed by shadows, were now present by candlelight or by flat screen TV illumination. This was the draw of China's polarity; you're just as likely to see apparent peasantry as you are technological ownership, and within the same community it lingers.

Lurkers showed in the openness of doorsteps; their dogs barked as I walked past, and if I had any significant hairs left on the back of my neck, they would have been raised. The incident with the pack dogs in Goa had my emotions mixed, and my instincts prick-eared at the sound of canine malevolence, causing a rush of hot blood and a chill that would numb my fingertips. But trusting in likeliness, I walked on through the blocks of absent light and back into dull pastel, leaving the howls and crescent moon behind me.

I woke early to a mountainous backdrop, the air on the guesthouse balcony scented by wood-burning stoves emanated from a cascading sprawl of Chinese rooftops in front of me. I gathered my washing from the line, packed my bag and took a sighted position of the street bus stop from inside the guesthouse lobby, awaiting the eight-twenty back to Guilin. The proprietor sat close by and asked me how to say dog in English as we looked upon the lazy hound cooling itself on the tiled floor from another hot day. I watched his facial expression as he spoke the simplistic sound and then laughed into his morning paperwork, returning to silence and occasional gesturing benevolence.

Three hours later I hopped off the bus and felt myself melt into the sun-beaten pavement on Guilin's streets. Inside the train station, I waited in line to buy a ticket for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. The perspiration dripped from my head, face and back, causing me to look like I'd emerged straight from a swimming pool. It was only thirty degrees, but it was so airless that I felt no relief from its strangling constraints and just continued to sweat more than I'd ever done before.

In China, no one is to wait on the platform before the train arrives. Large, high-ceiling waiting rooms full of baggage and bones accommodate the passengers in a basic degree of comfort before the announcement goes out to approach the waiting carriages. I slept on and off for three hours across three empty chairs in the waiting room, constantly aware of my luggage, my camera bag acting as it often did as a pillow for my heavy head; the logic was that if someone were to snatch it, I would surely notice. What I was beginning to notice was the recurring reality of open stall toilets in China, and that they are the norm, rather than an exception. Private toilet stalls with a closable door was simply not a regular occurrence here. Instead, inside the bathrooms, thick chest-height walls sectioned off each cubicle in which a man was supposed to squat over a channel in the floor and do his business, a channel which stretched the length of the toilet room and transported each man's breakfast like driftwood between your crouching posture. No door, no privacy.

Trying to forget the sight of the Chinese frog-stance, I purchased a packet of unknown sweets and a pot of noodles. The girl behind the counter grabbed the red pot from a selection of ten flavours, which turned out to be roast beef and left me wondering if that said anything about me as an Englishman. I poured hot water from the public urn into my tin cup containing a stash of Taiwanese tea leaves and sat in wait. An urn of boiling water was an ever-present facet of a public space such as this in China, how could you eat your noodles otherwise? I couldn't imagine the chaos this would present if it were implemented in train stations across Essex. The hospital burns unit would be expanded for sure.

I felt pleased with my decision to cut costs and go for a normal seat, rather than a sleeper berth on the train. My guidebook promised an eight hour journey for less than 300 Yuan, which didn't strike me as odd at the time, but later seemed a tad overpriced. As it happened, I would soon learn why.

My estimated arrival time of 1am receded into the distance, as the promise of my destination loomed on the air of my expectation. I could not sleep, for at any moment I would have to grab my things and alight at Kunming station. 2am passed, 3am, 4am and onwards the clocks ticked. I closed my eyes but daren't sleep a wink. As noon drew near I began to suspect that something was awry, but with a carriage-full of non-English-speaking locals, I had little chance to confirm anything. Besides, I was tired of looking like the clueless tourist, so I waited, convinced I hadn't missed the stop and was on the right train. It was at 1pm when the train pulled up to the platform at Kunming – my body racked with pain from eighteen hours of continuous sitting – that I cursed Lonely Planet's journey times for omitting the suffix 'teen' from the word eight.

I'm sure the receptionist at Kunhu Fandian Hotel had never seen such an indignant face before; the coruscating look of discovery snuffed out, until such time that I could rest my eyes and begin a new day in a new city. Kunming was a big city of over five million people – it was going to take some time.

Posted by kookie888 22:18 Archived in China

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