Saturday, March 28, 2009

Riding the Chinese Cattle Car

I'd planned to take the bus from the Stone Forest back into Kunming. I learned that the train was full, but my new Dutch friends convinced me that it was easy to get a ticket. We arrived at the station about half an hour before the train was scheduled to pass through. With some trepidation, I approached the ticket window and asked for a ticket. One of the girls leaned over and spoke a few words of Chinese and the woman behind the window asked for a paltry amount of money. I had my ticket!

We weren't allowed to go out onto the platform to wait, but instead had to stay inside or cross the parking lot to the cluster of standing stones around which a small park had been constructed. When the train approached, the doors were opened and we all filed out onto the platform.

People were queuing up orderly lines painted on the concrete. Looking at the ticket, I could see that I had an assigned car and it corresponded to the lines. “Clever bastards, these Chinese,” I though, misquoting Peter Sellers. My car was not the same as the girls, but they assured me it didn't matter as there was no assigned seating.

I got up near the tracks to get a long shot of the train coming in. The uniformed station conductors started blowing their whistles gesturing me to get well back from the dotted line on the ground. Sheesh, I mean, the train is no where in sight!

I noticed that the woman in front of our line had a particularly nice basket. For some reason, I've acquired a fetish for baskets lately and a Chinese basket would fit nicely in my collection (of one basket so far). There wasn't much in it so I thought she might be willing to part with it. Between myself and the Dutch girls, were were unable to make her understand that I wanted to buy her basket. Well, there are bound to be more on the train.

When the train finally approached, everyone stood very still. The half dozen or so female conductors on the platform stood at attention, facing the train. As it pulled in, they all did a snappy left turn to face the train. Cool.

The moment it stopped and the doors open, mayhem, total mayhem erupted. The neat lines dissolved in chaos as the passengers dashed for whatever open door was nearest. Never mind the people trying to get out of the train, these folks wanted in as quick as possible. I looked back to see if some unspeakable horror had entered the station and prompted the panicked flight to the train. Nothing.

We tried to find a door that was not so tightly corked with people. The last car looked promising. There were very few people at the rear of that car. The door, however, was clogged with passengers. I asked the conductor if she would open the back door. No doing. I pointed out that the front of the car was sardine packed while the rear was nearly vacant. It was like the train came to a screeching halt and all the passengers were thrown up to the front end. Her response was to start shouting at the people to move back. They just stood and stared, not moving.

The girls managed to squeeze in. I was the last person on the platform and in real danger of being left behind. Were it not for my backpack, I would have grabbed the sides of the doors and climbed over the top of the people inside. Hey, if they want the pleasure of being in the doorway, they can experience the pleasure of my knees on their shoulders.

The conductor was not going to open that rear door for me, so I took off my pack, held it overhead and barged into the throng of people blocking the door. Seeing there was no stopping me, they made room and I plowed through the lot of them.

Once I'd run that gauntlet, all that remained was to make my way to the rear of the car. It was then I saw what I'd really gotten myself into; I was in a stripped down sleeper car. The ceiling was a good three meters from the metal plate floor. Simple wooden benches lined the walls and racks supported baggage overhead. The passengers squeezed onto the bench while the rest squatted on the floor or sat on whatever bags they had. Trash was scattered about the floor.

Train bumped and cranked to a start and we were rolling through the countryside. Since there was no where to sit, we stood at the end of the car. Our attention was equally divided between the marvel of the karst landscape we were passing through and the curious people with whom we were traveling.

After an hour of standing, I turned to my companions. “I forgot to ask how long this ride lasts.” They thought it was around three hours. Ouch. We passed a lake I saw from the bus. I figured the lake was only a half hour from the stone forest. That meant it was taking about three times as long as the bus!

We went through a few tunnels and turns. Looking out the window again, I saw another lake. It looked … familiar. I didn't recall two lakes on the trip out. Seeing the power plant on the north side of the lake confirmed it was the same lake. I realized that for the past hour we were simply snaking our way up to the top of the mountain to the east of the lake. Ouch.

There was a girl trying to get into the toilet behind us. It was locked and there didn't seem to be anyone inside. A few people tried to open it, but it was sealed with a mechanism that required a triangular socket wrench. We all took turns using a pocket knife, keys, bottle caps and pen caps to get the door open. When we next stopped, I gestured for assistance from one of the station conductors. She shook her head, unwilling to come aboard or loan me her wrench. Eventually, someone managed to pry the door open and a lineup for the toilet immediately formed. I guess there were more than a few people in the car with watery eyes!

People occupied themselves in whatever distraction they could. Between conversations, playing games, talking or texting on their cell phones, listening to music on their MP3 players, those who could, managed to snooze while propped up against a friend. In front of us was a group of about eight people playing cards (some played while other watched). After observing them for twenty minutes, I concluded that I had absolutely no idea as to the rules or objective of the game.

Arriving in Kunming, the passengers all crowded for the door at the front of our car. One of the Dutch girls wisely elected to exit by way of the window. In the station we followed the crowd through the passageway to the exit. There were a lot of people tying to get out; old, young, peasants, well dressed city folk, lots of different people.

Some people struggled with loads too big to manage. How they got them on the train is a mystery. One woman was trying to juggle a baby and a heavy box while carrying her luggage. As we came to a long stairway, I took the box from her. My hands were free so I could carry it to the top. She tried to resist my assistance, but quickly capitulated when I gestured to the top of the stair. I carried the box up and she took it from me gratefully. I didn't see a lot of people helping each other.

Apart from the crowded car and having to stand for three and half hours, the trip was an interesting slice into Chinese culture. We saw a bit of the countryside and watched the locals interact. Certainly an adventure, however tame it might be.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stone Forest of Yunnan

Before leaving Kunming, there was one more place I had to visit: the Stone Forest. From the pictures I saw on numerous advertisements, it's an area where stones rise vertically from the ground. I'd seen images of monoliths in Ireland and assumed this was something similar. I was quite mistaken.

Other travelers had informed me that the official site was heavily developed with paved walkways leading between the various sites. My guidebook explained that there were numerous karst stone forests in the region and it was easy enough to find a “wild” area to explore. I also learned that the tourists generally arrived midmorning and departed in the afternoon. I decided to spend the night in the area so I could experience the evening light and dawn.

I spent about half an hour dashing between the various bus stations in Kunming to find the next available ride to the Stone Forest area, about 120km East of Kunming. The trip cost about seven dollars and took close to three hours.

I got off the main road into the park and walked into the first guest house I saw. I was in a bit of a hurry to get to the forest while there was good light so I wasn't fussy about the hotel. The room was adequate and less expensive than any of the other places I'd stayed in China, so I was satisfied. I grabbed my camera gear and headed down the hill to the shilin (Chinese for “stone forest”).

Just past the entrance, I saw tall, sharp edged rocks, each more than three meters high, in every direction – including several in the large pond leading into the area.

Wanting to see something different, and generally being contrary, I dashed off the paved trails, over the lawns, and into the surrounding countryside. Here, I watched an old woman preparing for planting by hacking away the turf between the rocks. Outside the park proper, life goes on.

Back on the paved paths, I made my way around the forest. The park was more or less designed around a central grouping of rock a few hundred meters across. In the center, a pagoda-shaped tower blends in remarkably well.

There were quite a few groupings of stones with paths leading between and through them. There were also numerous signs providing information about the formations and, um, rather poetic requests to keep off the grass.

By the time I had circumnavigated the place, the sun was setting and it was time to go back to my hotel. I was eager to wake early and watch the sunrise over the stones.

I found a quiet restaurant near my hotel. Actually, they were all quiet as there were no tourists anywhere to be seen. When I left the park there were only a few scatterings of locals and a few bus tourists. I had the little town to myself. That is, until two Dutch girls showed up in a panic. “Do you know where we can stay that won't need our passports?” They left their passports in Kunming to get a visa or something. Hotels always insist you show your passport to get a room. I took them to my hotel and explained to the proprietor, in pantomime of course, that they were my friends and needed a room. Five minutes later they had their room and were greatly relieved.

Rising at the crack of dawn, I was greeted by an overcast sky. My wonderful sunrise was not to be. In fact, I was frustrated that I could take none of the photos I'd mentally composed the afternoon before. Without the sun falling on the rocks, they took on a uniform drabness in two dimensions.

Having visited the outskirts of the park, it was time to explore the interior. The Dutch girls knew their way around and led me to some of the more interesting places.

For all the complaints my fellow travelers had with regard to the pavement within the park, I was quite pleased and impressed with the way the place had been laid out. This was not a simple matter of laying sidewalks between clumps of rocks. The geological structures I explored included rock faces that towered a good fifty meters high. Standing at the edge of the forest, there was no way to appreciate just how staggeringly deep were the chasms between the rocks.

The place was remarkably clean and quite peaceful … until encountering a bus tour group. We would be wandering through the narrow passageways thinking we were the only people in the world when we'd run into a guided tour with fifty Chinese tourists on a mission to see the whole place. There were numerous places where you could sit down and just enjoy the landscape. They even included several spots to accommodate picnickers.

I wandered out to visit the village to the northeast of the park. My presence in the town was quite unusual. I understood that few tourists ever bother to take the time to look beyond the stones.

Every open door seemed to have someone working on a craft of some sort. Undoubtedly, the townspeople make a good portion of their income from the tourists. There are numerous kiosks throughout the park. Most sell some trinket or other, but one area provides Yi costumes for visitors to have their photo taken.

I spotted two women carrying great loads of something balanced on a bamboo yoke.

When they stopped for a brief rest, I learned that they were weighed down with dry pine needles. What these were intended for, I have no idea, but I convinced one of them to let me try carrying it. I could barely lift the thing! There was no way I was going to attempt walking lest I upset the well balanced load. The two woman, surely in their late fifties and standing no taller than five feet, proceeded to pick up their burdens and dash down the road at a pace that would humble a trail hiker.

See more images here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Overnight Bus to Kunming

If I had planned things better, I would not have left a package at my hotel in Kunming. From Lijiang I had an opportunity to travel to a few other cities that would have taken me farther and farther from the parcel I had left behind. So, I had no choice but return. This did, however, give me an opportunity to take the train from Dali to Kunming … except there was no way to get a ticket. That left the bus.

There are quite a few night buses making the trip from Lijiang to Kunming.It wasn't until I went to a ticket office that I learned what kindof buss. Walking pass the behemoth I marveled at its modern stylingbut stopped in my tracks when I figured out what was going on inside the windows. The bus was equipped with bunk beds!

My Tiger Leaping Gorge guide, Lee-oh, accompanied me so I left him in charge of getting me a ticket. Unfortunately I could not travel on that particular bus, but he assured me the bus at the depot would be thesame model and have beds. I was gleeful at the thought of sleeping the night away while traveling to my destination.

The bus station was some distance from the old city so it was necesarry to take a city bus to get there. We walked to the other side of the city and waited on the side of the street for one particular bus. After a considerable wait and a reasonably long ride, we arrived at the bus station.

Leaving my backpack at the left-luggage room, we headed across the street to eat supper. Several restaurants, all catering to bus travelers, vied for our business. I was eager to eat something substantial, something tasty and not overcooked. I failed at this endeavor but managed to satiate my hunger.

Night had fallen and it was time to go to the bus. I bid farewell to Lee-oh, picked up my bags and made my way through security - yes, they run your bag through an x-ray machine. My backpack went into the hold of the bus and took my camera bag and overnight bag on board with me.

I'd taken far too many overnight buses where I was forced to sit upright and hope that I was seated next to someone smaller than me. The thought of having my own little bunk was quite exciting. I was a bit concerned at the fact that it might very well be a tight fit, but I figured I could curl up and make the most of it. Ticket in hand, I boarded the bus.

This bus was the sister of the one I saw earlier. It had three rows of double-decker stainless steel bunk beds. Nearly all the other passengers had taken to their beds and were busy organizing their belongings and chatting away. They watched me make my way through the
narrow aisle to my bunk. I couldn't find it.

Although Arabic numbers were used, the bunk numbering system was mystifying. I kept an eye out for an empty bunk hoping it matched the number of my ticket. I still couldn't find it. I showed my ticked to one of the helpful passengers and he pointed to the other aisle and way to the back.

I made my way to the back of the bus and realized that my bed was very different from the others I'd seen. The back of the bus was set up with two huge beds stretching from one side of the bus to the other, where the passengers sleep shoulder to should. My spot was one in the middle.

Thoughts of a pleasant journey evaporated as I realized that I'd be squeezed in between two other people. Dejected, I hauled myself up into the upper bed and got arranged. I was able to stuff my bags next to the window at my head and my boots fit into a shelf at my feet.

I introduced myself to the three other guys laying there by offering them each a piece of gum. None of them spoke English, which is just as well as I was not in a mood to talk. I put on my MP3 player and tried to put myself in a positive mood.

The bus was ready to leave, but the back bed was not yet full. My spirits lifted. If the spot beside me was not taken, I would have a much larger sleeping area. I shifted to the left to test out my new comfort zone. Oh, no.

The back beds were designed to make sure you kept to your own spot. The thin mattress pads were separated by a steel ridge. It wasn't high enough to be painful, but it was high enough to be really uncomfortable. I tested out a few strategies to make use of the extra
space. Curling up, I could put my head on the other bed if I padded the spot below my knees. Not exactly like home, but it was a lot more comfortable than laying straight

My newfound pleasures were soon dampened as two other people made their way to the back. One of them was a teenage girl who was quite upset at the prospect of sleeping with all those strange men in the back. She sat on the edge of the bed as the bus moved along, and complained to the other passengers. It was clear that she was trying to browbeat
one of the other young men to change places with her. After about an hour, one of them gave up his bunk and swapped with her.

lay on my back and tried to relax. I was uncomfortably aware of the two young men trying to sleep on either side of me. They managed, some how. I took a few melatonin to help ease the transition and listened to an audio book.

I really thought I could sleep. While I was barely comfortable, I was certainly tired and the melatonin made me drowsy. Unfortunately, the bus had a tendency to shake. It was not the steady motion of a typical car or bus ride, but a sort of rhythmic sway. Furthermore,
whenever it hit a rough spot in the road, or the driver dodged something, the jolt was amplified by our distance from the ground. A small wiggle of the tires tran
slated into a resonating jostle at the top of the bus. This would happen every fifteen or twenty minutes. About every hour, the bus would hit a pothole and we poor fellows in the back were knocked awake.

Of course it didn't help that my bedmates would occasionally change position and I had to deal with an elbow or knee poking at me. I used my spare blanket to fend off these intrusions into my territory.

Somewhere, in the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a bathroom break. It was not until then that I realized there was no toilet aboard. Being an old had at overnight trips, I eschewed the consumption of liquids since the afternoon. Fortunately, my bedmates didn't have to go either so we actually got a good bit of sleep.

The bus stopped again and people started moving about. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Something didn't seem right. My bedmates had departed. I looked up and noted that just about everyone had left the bus. Those that remained were packing their belongings. I looked out the window and noted that we were not in a bus station but on the street. My clock indicated that it was four in the morning. Apparently, the bus arrived early.

I gathered my things, made my way out of the bus and picked up my backpack. The street was lined with long-distance buses and thronged with people. Some folks sat curled up on the pavement, probably waiting for a bus, while others made their way one direction or the other. I skipped the taxi offering and just started walking in a random direction, hoping that I would gain my bearings. Eventually, I figured out that I was not far from the train station.

From the station, I knew I could walk to the hotel where my bag was stored. It was a long walk, but I had plenty of time and really needed to work out the kinks.

Heading up a side street, I noticed a familiar neon sign. It was in Chinese, but I had a suspicion I knew what was inside. This might well be one of the few establishments open twenty-four hours a day in a Chinese city. I followed the broad stairway down into the bowels of the building – the people who came here had no need for windows. I stepped into a large, dimly lit, room. This is one of those businesses barely tolerated by the Chinese government. Young men flock to these places for entertainment. I was standing in the biggest internet gaming shop I'd ever seen.

The shop easily held two or three hundred modern computers with modern desks and comfortable chairs. I grabbed the first machine I saw and stated transferring my photos to my hard drives. There were perhaps a score of people using the computers at that early hour, so I had the place nearly to myself, comparatively speaking.

One of the staff dropped by and gave me a cup of tea. This was promptly refilled every time I emptied it. I drank a lot of tea that morning. I managed to pick the computer that received a steady draft of cold air from the open doors. I didn't realize this until after I started the complicated process of file transfers, so I wrapped my blanket about myself and went to work like some modern monk.

After a few hours of catching up on my e-mail and reading the latest news, I walked back to the hotel and settled down to a hearty breakfast. I needed to plan my next destination. I was, quite frankly, too damn cold. I had to decide if I wanted to continue my trip in China, or go elsewhere. As exotic as the place is, I really didn't want to spend my holiday in the cold.

My preference was to get to Vietnam, but my visa did not start for another two or three weeks. (Dear Vietnam, please be more flexible with your visas. Surely a one-month visa could begin upon arrival and not on a specific date?) Myanmar was not an option so that left Laos and Thailand. I wanted to go back to see the monks at Luang Probang, so Laos it was. However, there was still one thing left to see in Kunming: the Stone Forest.

Kunming in the morning