Days 643-644: Back in ‘Nam

05.10.10-06.10.10:

I arrived in the Chinese town of Nanning exceptionally early in the morning and looked about for transport to the border.  I honestly can’t remember how I got there, but I did and was one of the first people that day to cross into Vietnam.  I’ve got to say: nice border post: it seems to double as a national park.  After being stamped out of China and being stamped into my ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THIRD country (WOO!) I took a free ride on one of the large electric golf buggies that take you to the nearby minibus park.

I arrived just after nine and was gutted to be told that the next minibus for Hanoi wasn’t going to leave for another hour.  That was until I saw that the nine o’clock minibus hadn’t made it out of the bus park yet. Arms flailing and bags akimbo, I whistled the minibus which ignored me and was just about to make off down the highway before my banging on the back window slowed it down long enough for me to clamber aboard.

‘Hanoi?’ I asked, gasping for breath.

‘Hanoi!’ said the driver and welcomed me on board.

The minibus arrived in Vietnam’s capital city around one in the afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was at the southern bus station looking for a coach to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Min City, but not by the people who live there.  Or me.).  There was one leaving at 3 o’clock that went direct and would take 48 hours to get there.  Another two nights on buses: that would be five in a row.

It seemed simpler than changing in Danang, so I went for it.  It was only when I got on board did I see the error of my ways.  Mollycuddled by the splendour of Chinese buses, I had forgotten just how back other countries (like the USA) treated their coach-going public.  There was cargo everywhere: in fact the back seats had been removed to make way for more cargo and there were people making beds on the cargo.  All the overhead shelves where full of cargo, as was the cargo hold and even the spaces under the seats were jam packed with cargo.  The passengers seemed a minor concern.  The reels of electrical cable on the floor at my feet meant that my knees where up by my chest, but that’s okay, because the seat in front of me was so damn close I couldn’t have sat with my knees out straight anyway.

In a fit of bugger it, I bought the seat next to me, but before we got going a bus pulled up alongside: it was a bed-bus, the kind you get in China.  Within seconds I was off my bus and asking them were this luxury liner was going.

‘Danang.’

Danang.  Halfway to Saigon.  That would do.

I charged back into the ticket terminal and demanded my money back, using the (fair) point that I wasn’t cargo, I was a human being.  I’d be prepared to put up with these kind of shenanigans in Africa were there was no other choice, but to sit and try to sleep scrunched up for two nights in a row when I could be laying horizontal on a bed of swan’s feathers FOR THE SAME PRICE would be nothing short of insanity.

They were a little reluctant to give me my money, but I was in no mood to play that game, so I did what I always do in these situations, whipped out my phone and started dialling the tourist police.  Works a treat 😉

With my refund in hand, I jumped on the bed-bus to Denang.  What’s more, this bed-bus had fully adjustable beds, so unlike the Chinese ones, you could put the back completely upright!  Oh happy day!  Even better, it left before my original bus, and if all went to plan, I’d get into Saigon six hours earlier, even though I’d have to change buses in Danang.  RESULT!

As we departed, I saw that it was Hanoi city’s 1000th birthday this year.  Happy birthday Hanoi!  I have wonderful warm memories of this place from when I was last here, it’s a cracking town: billions of scooters buzzing around like benign hornets, a beautiful central lake, sensational food and lovely people.  I pressed my hand against the window.  Sorry I can’t stay Hanoi, I’ve got a promise to keep with an old friend.

Wednesday’s blog can happily be tagged on the end of this one.  What happened?  Well I got off the bus in the morning in the city of Danang, had breakfast down by the river and then returned to the bus station to take the FIFTH overnighter in a row to Saigon.  I looked out of the window and watched Vietnam go flying by in the pouring rain.

Brief and to the point, I don’t think it warrants its own entry, do you?

Days M227-228: Holy Macau!

Fri 11.05.12 – Sat 12.05.12:

This would be my last full day in Fragrant Harbour, or as you know it, Hong Kong. It started late (as last night had ended), but before long I was up an’ at ’em, collecting my Chinese visa and heading over to the Queen Vic for a bite to eat.

I won a free meal at the Queen Victoria for coming second at the quiz on Monday, and if there’s something I’ve learnt in life it’s that you should never pass up the opportunity for a free lunch. Therefore I dropped by, and although Stuart wasn’t there, helped myself to a generous steak. See kids? Being a smart-arse sometimes pays dividends. I don’t see you getting a free lunch for being good at football, fellow schoolmates of mine quite possibly picked before me ARE YOU READING THIS?

The rest of the afternoon was whiled away playing on the longest escalator in the world, going to the free zoo, mooching around the botanical gardens, all very pleasant. In the evening, I had half-planned to have a night out in Macau, but with Michael not keen and me running short of Mexican jumping beans as it is, I thought I’d be better off having a well-deserved night in for a change – you know, an early one. This was the plan until Michael returned around 11pm and demanded that I play Arkham City until some ungodly hour of the night. An early one! As if!!

By 9am the next day I was on the ferry over to Macau. It takes an hour and I’m not coming this close and not ticking it off my side list of territories. Macau would bring the running total up to 18.

Macau was a Portuguese colony up until 1999, and is remarkable as the only one (with the possible exception of Goa) that they didn’t leave completely in the shit. Reference: East Timor, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome & Principe and Cape “Bleedin’” Verde. As Macau is the only place that the gambling-obsessed Chinese can legally bet their children’s futures on black, it is now truly the Las Vegas of the East. In fact, sod Las Vegas – for the past five years, Macau has routinely brought in more money than that glitzy American trash-heap in the desert. And Macau has something Las Vegas doesn’t – a soul. You see, Macau has been around for donkey’s years and has the bootiful ol’ buildings to prove it. So while Las Vegas has to make do with aping (badly) some of the more glorious examples of human endeavour, Macau has the real thing.

Plus – get this – even though Macau was never a British colony, they drive on the LEFT!! Yippee! Civilisation at last!!

I can honestly say that Macau really knocked me for six. I was half expecting an ugly set of tawdry concrete skyscrapers rendered in the most appallingly tasteless gold plastic shite, the architectural equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s mum, and while there is some of that, you mercifully cannot see it from the old town – which was (for me) an adventure playground of old churches, monuments and temples. And so long as they remain, the developers will never destroy the heart and soul of Macau.

I jumped the ferry back to HK to pick up my things. Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t around for me to say ta-ta, so I just left him his brand new toilet seat (I broke his old one!) and was on my way.

Guangzhou is just two hours from Hong Kong on the train and it was about 8pm before I arrived. I met a lovely girl from Russia called Lena who helped me pick the right Underground line to get to Chris and Debbie’s place. Thanks Lena! Chris was staying at the hospital with wife Debbie and their newborn daughter, Talia, so after meeting me and showing me the ropes I was left alone in this swanky apartment in downtown. Determined to finally, FINALLY get an early night, I put all my things on charge and set about sorting through my bag for things I could dump on Chris and Debbie (such as my Lonely Planet guidebook for the South Pacific) and stuff that I could throw away.

All done, I settled down in front of the telly to wind down and became engrossed in ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ a made-for-TV film starring Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon about Jack Kevorkian aka ‘Dr. Death’. Terrible moniker aside, it was really good, and before I knew it it was 1am. No problem, I think as I’m about to turn the telly off, but then NEXT: SENNA. Damnit, I *really* want to watch this film.

Although being nothing more than a fair-weather armchair supporter of sports in general, I grew up with the Grand Prix on the telly every Sunday afternoon – my Dad, an ex-racing driver himself, is an avid fan. I still can’t hear the wasp-like drone of an F1 car without thinking about Yorkshire puds and gravy. I remember watching the San Marino Grand Prix on that shocking day in 1994 when Ayrton Senna, one of the best F1 drivers of all time, crashed into the barrier at 300kph and literally died live on camera. Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain, Princess Di – yes they were tragedies, but as Heysel, Hillsborough and 9/11 taught us – when we watch, helpless, as terrible events are beamed into our living rooms as they happen it adds a rawness and a grim connection that stays with you for the rest of your life.

So I stayed up to watch Senna. It was a damn good film. A damn good film.

Day M229: The New Arrival

Sun 13.05.12:

Over the last three and a half years I’ve missed a shed load of my friend’s life events that photos on Facebook just can’t compensate for. The weddings of Si and Lol, Michelle and Daniel, Brian and Laura, Lucy and Tim, Scott and Louise, Stan and Helen (for which I was supposed to be Best Man)*. I’m currently racing home to Liverpool so I don’t miss three more weddings – Dino and Ruth, Hugh and Gemma and Danny and Penny – which are due to take place at the end of August/beginning of September. I’ve also missed a load of births and also (on a sadder note) a number of funerals. That being the case, it was several shades of awesome today to be the first of Chris and Debbie’s mates from Liverpool to meet baby Talia, the Scouse Clan’s newest arrival. I even beat the grandparents!

She WILL support Everton! Woohahaha!!

At three days old, she’s not that articulate when it comes to discussing the finer points of Dostoyevsky’s symbolic posturing, but I’m sure her parents will work of that. Funnily enough, when I arrived at the hospital, a bunch of Chris and Debbie’s ex-pat mates were visiting, all but one of them hailing from – you guessed it – Liverpool!

All Your Base
All Your Base Are Belong to Scouse

Anyway, I’m pretty sure you don’t tune in each week (as far as you can tune a website) to hear about my friend’s new bundle of joy but to find out how the hell I expect (nay, demand!) to visit every country in the world without flying. I was going to leave tonight, see… on the 7pm train for Kunming. However, there was beer and talk of pizza and Mandy called on Skype and, well, I decided to stay one more night and get off early the next morning. This was a decision that I would later come to rue.

*Sorry, yes, and Kate and Simon’s. So many, I’m losing track!!

Day M230: On The Road Again

Mon 14.05.12:

Apart from that brief unpleasantness in Australia, travelling up and down to Townsville on one of those wretched overpriced Aussie coaches, this ‘phase’ of The Odyssey Expedition has seen little land travel. Much of the past eight months have been spent at sea and I had almost forgotten what it was like to have to hold in a poo for days until a decent karzee presented itself. I would quickly have to relearn that lesson if I was to press on with this insane little quest. Last night, again intending to go to sleep before the dawn chorus for once in my life, I found myself quite embroiled in the football. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not the biggest of sports fans, but I do like to take a passing interest – and big important matches are always of interest to me.

Yesterday was the end of the English Football Season, and with a ton of games being played all over the country (including Everton and Liverpool, though sadly not against each other) there was only one match that everybody in their right mind should have been watching: Man City vs QPR. The reason was clear. If Man City won this match, they would win the league for the first time in 44 years. If they lost or drew, then Man United, that team of manky automatons so adored by glory-hunting f—wits the world over, would win. Again. For the twentieth time. YAWN.

You see there is no joy in doing something for the twentieth time, unless maybe there’s been a big gap since you last did it. If Man United won the league again, everybody, including their biggest fans, would have just shrugged their shoulders and said ‘oh’. It’s boring watching Michael Schumacher win every Grand Prix (that’s why they now make him drive whilst wearing boxing gloves and one big shoe), it’s boring seeing Australia win the Ashes, it’s boring seeing Ian Thorpe win every single swimming event at the Olympics – as Mohammed Ali knew, you had to lose once in a while to keep things interesting. And explosion of delight when the underdog wins is something that Man United fans will never really understand.

I was living in Manchester in 1998 when Man City were relegated to what was then the second division – the third tier of professional football. They won the last match of the season in magnificent fashion – 5-2 away from home, but in order for Man City to stay up, one of the other three teams in the relegation zone had to lose their final match. The jubilation at the win was soon replaced by despair as the news of the other results filtered through. All the other teams in the relegation zone had won their matches. Man City would be going down. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry in pub before, with perhaps the exception of when Jemini scored nil points at Eurovision. Although that was a very different pub.

To go from that to being a gnat’s pube away from winning the Premiership in just over 10 years is epic, and by God I wanted them to win, just to wipe that smug look of those Man United fan’s faces. So by 89 minutes when City were 2-1 down, with a draw not good enough, my nails were bitten down just as much as if I’d been a City fan all my life (which of course I haven’t, being a scouser, that would just be weird).

And, like the end of a great film, it all turned around in the last few minutes, despair turned to hope and hope turned into jubilation. They won 3-2 and in doing so won the top league of English football for the first time since the 60s. Well done, Man City, you entertained the pants off me for 95 minutes, and for that I salute you.

And you know what was also great? The fact they were given so much injury time – a Man United trick if ever there was one. Well I get the gloves on the other foot now eh, United? One less minute and they wouldn’t have scored the third and final goal. DO YOU SEE THE IRONY, MAN U? DO YA?!!

All this deviation from the narrative – HOW ON EARTH DO YOU VISIT EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WITHOUT FLYING? – is probably irksome to most, not least if you’re not English, couldn’t give a toss about football or a girl. But one more thing, my team, Everton, won their last match. Liverpool lost theirs, so Everton finished higher than them in the table. Again. BRING IT!!

Er… so where was I?

Ah yes: travel.

It was therefore another late night/early morning combo for this hapless backpacker. The train for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province and gateway to Laos, was due to depart at 7am. So all packed and fully recharged, I set off at 6am to begin the race down to Singapore. Boarding the marvellous Guangzhou underground with my magic plastic token, I headed over to Guangzhou East station (Kunming is in the west, but never mind) for the train.

But it was not to be! First up, there was no train running at 7am. THE INTERNET LIED! Second, the afternoon train, due to depart at 3pm, was full. My only option was the night train, which left at 7pm. I should have left yesterday. But there is always an alternative to the train and it’s called the bus. So I raced over to Guangzhou main station to find out who/why/what/when/where is going on with regards to buses to Kunming. There was a bus leaving at 11.30am which would (if I was understanding this correctly (which I wasn’t)) get into Kunming at 8am tomorrow. Fantastic! That would be way quicker than train, and, since it was a sleeping bus, infinitely more comfortable than a hard seat: I’d get a bed.

But it was only a bit past seven, so I set off to do some internettage before I left. I was holding out hope that Mr. Gaby Sharef of Gold Star Line Shipping would get back to me about a ship that may be leaving Kuala Lumpur for Sri Lanka this week. I walked and I walked and I walked. With all my bags. In the scorching hot morning sun of Southern China. Looking for a café with wifi, a Starbucks, a McDonalds, anything… but no. Everywhere I went I was confronted with splash screens in Chinese asking me for my local mobile number, something I didn’t have. This was turning into a nightmare.

In the end, I jumped back on the underground and headed back to Chris and Debbie’s flat, well, not to the flat proper as I had locked myself out when I left, but to the café around the corner that I knew had free internet (I had used it the day before). Only problem: the café didn’t open until 10am. So I sat and waited. As soon as they opened, I went inside and logged on. Gaby had indeed written back. There was a ship leaving Kuala Lumpur on FRIDAY EVENING! If I could make it, I could be on.

I did some mental calculations. I arrive Kunming tomorrow at 7am. Bus to border with Laos, 12 hours, bus from border to Vientiane, maybe 24 hours. I could be in Thailand on Wednesday evening. It’s 11 hours from the Laos border to Bangkok, 14 hours to the Malaysian border at Hat Yai, and then a further eight or so hours from there to Kuala Lumpur. All thing being equal, I could *maybe* make it for Friday morning. It would mean 4 straight nights sleeping on buses, but it could be – theoretically – done.

And so I charged back to Guangzhou main station determined to make the connection. This time next week, I could be in Sri Lanka. Ah, but only if it were so…

The bus was a typical Chinese sleeper, a marvellous way to travel in which everybody gets a flat bunkbed to themselves, the air-con is turbo-charged, but that’s okay, because they give you a nice heavy blanket. I spoke about the joys of Chinese long-distance coaches last time I was here in September 2010, and my point still stands: compared to the crappy, dirty, seat-only-reclines-10° coached of the UK, the US and Australia, this is head, shoulders and balls above rest. If there’s one thing that depresses me more than anything while travelling around the world on public transport, it’s how dreadfully wretched my country is when it comes to the form of transport that it pretty much invented.

So I jumped up onto my bunk and before I knew it we were off through the paddy fields and jasmine vales of Southern China. We raced through the night and I steeled myself for an early start tomorrow. As things transpired, I needn’t have bothered…

Day M231: Hang on, I’m Kunming

Tue 15.05.12:

8am came and went. It was by this stage I realised that when the nice lady at the Guangzhou bus station has said the bus took 14 hours, she meant to say it arrived at 14 hours. As in 2pm the next day. This did not bode well for my race down to Kuala Lumpur for the Gold Star Line ship leaving on Friday. Now it would be afternoon by the time I arrived in Kunming, at best. Oh why didn’t I leave Guangzhou on Sunday as I had intended?! Buggeration on stilts.

So it was after two in the afternoon before the bus rolled into to Kunming East Bus Station. I went inside and was told that the bus for Laos left from the Southern Bus Station – which makes sense, since Laos is pretty much due south of here.

Having bus stations on the outer rim of a large city makes so much sense it almost makes my brain explode that London has STILL not adopted this model. It’s absolutely nuts that coaches in the UK drop you off RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of the congested city centre of London. I’ve been on buses that have taken longer to get from the start of the M1 to central London (10 miles) than they did from Liverpool to the start of the M1 (200 miles).

A northern bus station at Edgeware? A western one at Heathrow? A southern one at Morden? An eastern one at Woolwich Arsenal – all easily linked to the Underground? WHY THE BLOODY HELL NOT, EH?

I’ll tell you why not: because none of the wankers in charge ever have to take the bus.

Anyway, a short taxi ride over to the Southern Bus Terminal was just what the doctor ordered. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to spend more time in Kunming, it gets a good write-up from all the people I know who’ve been there. But I’ll give them this: EVERY SINGLE BUILDING had a solar-powered water heater on the roof. THIS I LIKE.

There was a direct bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and it was leaving at 6pm. This was the good news. The bad news was that it would take 35 hours to get there. This would dump me in the middle of Vientiane at 4am (there is a one-hour time difference), and the border to Thailand doesn’t open until 6am.

But needs must and all that jazz. I bought at ticket for 587 Yuan, which is about 50 quid (I think) and set off to double-check the interwebs for any news about this ship on Friday. I walked over to a massive shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping mall as we know in the west, it was more like a covered market, only in a shopping mall. That’s why I called it a centre, not a mall. Malls have no soul. Thousands of shops selling all kinds of clothes, toys, trinkets and collectables. The commercial face of modern China. How Chairman “let’s do away with money” Mao is still on their banknotes is anybody’s guess.

I asked at the information desk if there were any cafés with wi-fi, but the guy didn’t understand me. Then a chap in a suit came over to explain what I wanted to the information guy. No, there wasn’t anywhere for me to get online. Wonderfully enough though, the guy in the suit, Wen, said I could use his office to get online. THIS is the kind of incredible altruism and generosity of spirit that has made my journey to the four corners of the planet so incredibly enjoyable and life-affirming.

I didn’t want to take the Mick, so I was only online long enough to see if there was any update from my friend Gaby Sharef. It seemed that if I could get down to KL in time, the ship was still on. I thanked Wen and was on my merry way.

The ‘VIP’ bus to Vientiane was AMAZING. Usually on a sleeper bus around these parts you get yourself a skinny little bed, which is more than enough for me. But, what’s this? Oh YES – a proper, big-enough-to-fit-two-people bed. I was smacked of the gob and no mistake. I knew that the road down through the mountains of northern Laos would be twisty as hell, but I actually found myself looking forward to this two-night trip.

Every so often we stopped for food, one of my personal SEVEN WONDERS OF TRAVEL (along with The People, The Architecture, The Culture/History, The Landscape, The Fauna and The Price of Beer), especially in places like China where everything you eat is weird and wonderful.

Back onboard and I had taken the driver’s mate’s seat at the front of the bus, good job too, if I hadn’t I would have crossed over The Highest Bridge In The World and I would have been none-the-wiser. As it was, in the inky blackness of the highway at night I couldn’t see anything much anyway, but it was nice to know.