Arrival in Singapore

Arrival in Singapore
Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore


Changi Airport, Singapore, July 16 2015 “After Singapore you go where?” As I fumble around for an appropriate answer-the field is blank on my arrival card because I have no idea-the immigration officer is staring at me intently. There is no pre-ordained plan. I am stood here at 01:00 one July morning purely on impulse. “After Singapore you go where?” Wary of being shuffled round a corner into a room if he gets through his grammatically suspect question a third time, I write ‘Hanoi, Vietnam’ on the card and hand it over. Past duty free and out of the airport for a brief moment into a jungle wet summer heat that immediately clings to my clothes and skin. I have never felt anything like it. Just as quickly, we jump into a glacially air-conditioned taxi and, with my body temperature registering simultaneously 37 and 13 degrees celcius, the first part of my adventure, the 9000 miles of track, comes to an end. *February 2016, Singapore: Apologies for such a long absence while I acquainted myself with my new surroundings! A new website, 9000milesoftrack.com, will be up and running in due course. This will be an easier to access, better-looking version of this blog. A note will be added to the old blog when the new site is available. Speak to you soon!*


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Ten days to Hong Kong: part twelve

Ten days to Hong Kong: part twelve
Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong, China


One night Kaili and I decide to get dressed up for a drink at a stylish bar overlooking the incredible skyline and for the first time in twelve weeks on the road I look to my pack, for something to wear, and find the contents inadequate. Here in Hong Kong I have run out of track; there is no longer quite the same urgency to reach and navigate the next city to find the next hostel. In hindsight, I have got here far too quickly. What I need now is to stop, get to know somewhere properly and assimilate the experience of having travelled overland from Witney to Hong Kong. When I board the next sleeper train I will be a wiser, more adventurous and more creative traveller. Until then, accompanied by buddies in another incredibly sociable hostel – in particular jovial Boris from Toulouse – we explore the city through its food. To my surprise and disappointment, the cusine relies heavily on the trusty old instant noodles. They are served with wontons and chopsticks and slurped up in as dignified a manner as possible. Alternatives include various dishes originally brought over by the British and adapted to fit into Cantonese society. The attached photo of Macaroni Cheese is one such example. The saving grace is some fantastic Dim Sum, which a food tour and Kaili’s Mandarin help us dig out. At one such restaurant we meet friends from London reaching the end of their trip; it’s great to catch up with familiar faces from home for the first time. Hong Kong is more than just food and a skyline however. We explore beaches, centuries-old temples and a huge Buddha. It’s a fantastic few days. As our flight leaves the tarmac we speculate that we may well be back here for longer, depending on whether I can find work in Singapore…


Ten days to Hong Kong: part eleven

Ten days to Hong Kong: part eleven
Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen, China


Dep: Guilin North 9th July 21:33
Arr: Shenzhen 10th July 11:30

At the departure lounge in Guilin there is a huge group of visibly British students – from a sports team I think – all guys.

They are loud and drunk and carting around a crash test dummy, which accompanies them in pictures with the smiling locals. Turns out there is more than one way to travel in China.

Onboard (and to my annoyance next door to the dummy and his British buddies) I share a cabin with Dong Jinnan, a student in Nanjing who between his limited English and his phone’s translation app wants to know what I’m about.

After a number of these encounters I know how to answer this question fully without the need for a common language: a map of China with my route scrawled over it, a picture of my family, and a few choice photos from PointIt does the trick.

With a late departure time we head straight to our couchettes and just like that half of the fourteen hour trip disappears.

In the morning I teach him Sevens, a card game that passed rainy childhood afternoons back in the UK. I fare better here than I did against Thais in Germany earlier in the trip!

I will stay in touch with Dong, who tells me in a message later that I am his first foreign friend. With the train running an hour or so late (for old time’s sake I suppose), there is just time for a quick commemorative photo in Shenzhen before he heads out to meet his brother.

I take my place in the queue at the border to leave Mainland China for Hong Kong and the end of the line.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part ten

Ten days to Hong Kong: part ten
Guilin, China

Guilin, China


Aidie and I take the bus back to Guilin for our connecting trains in opposite directions. I am heading to Shenzhen to cross the border into Hong Kong, and she is going north to Jiangxi.

We share music collections on the way, which doesn’t work out well for me because she has already heard of The Cat Empire.

The Cat Empire is my trump card when it comes to sharing new music. No one has ever disliked The Cat Empire.

Ever.

Since the dawn of time.

They’re really good.

Getting the glory of introducing them to someone new taken away from me by some nameless traveler earlier in Aidie’s trip consigns me to staring out of the window grumpily as our bus edges through the Guilin suburbs.

In the city I say goodbye to my travel buddy and find my way on to the 100 bus to the city’s North train station for the last train journey of my adventure.

Seriously, if you’ve never listened to them you should really check out The Cat Empire.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part nine

Ten days to Hong Kong: part nine
Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo, China


The bamboo raft is driven by an incessant, waspish motor. Finally we pull in at a narrow, crescent-shaped rocky spit of land, overlooking dreamy karst formations on the opposite bank of the Li River.

With my Dutch hostel buddy Cindy and I have come upriver after a night in tacky, over-touristed Yangshuo, whose reputation as a backpacker haven must be at least a decade out of date.

Only at the rooftop bar of our hostel in Yangshuo can we snatch a glimpse of what originally drew the travellers.

I don’t regret the move, even if the extra journey limits my ability to explore the tranquil, fairytale scenery in any depth. Xingping can only be a few years away from discovery by the native masses, but until then it is quaint and pleasant.

Furthermore, my last Mainland Chinese hostel on this trip, This Old Place, is relentlessly sociable; it takes me a few hours to even get my bags into the dorm. I meet Aidie while checking in, an Israli in need of suggestions for her train trip north through China. I recommend Xi’an and set up a walk up the nearby peak for sunrise with Elchin, the Azerbijani sat next to her on the hostel’s rooftop terrace.

The Li River spit where we have come to a halt would be a nice spot but it is swarming with hawkers. A pair of bored cormorants sit at either end of a long wooden pole lining the shoulders of a guy who will pose for a picture…for a price. Indeed, it is difficult to move without being asked to part with some cash before we are hassled back to the quay.

As Elchin and I watch the sun strain to reach through the clouds off the peak the following morning, I am again wishing for more time to explore.

However, the race to Hong Kong before my visa expires is still on and staying on the right side of the law is no longer my only motivation.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part eight

Ten days to Hong Kong: part eight
Guilin, China

Guilin, China


On the fast train to Guilin I take my seat next to an old gentleman who, an hour or so in, reaches into a carrier bag at his feet and pulls out a branch of hand-picked lychees. He places a few on my table and grins. They are delicious, and he follows my thankyous with another bushel, covered in their red spiky skin. Outside the station he shakes my hand warmly and wanders off, battered briefcase in one hand and the remaining fruit in the other, bag swaying against his legs. There was no conversation between us. I am excited about my few hours in Guilin because I can relieve myself of a burden I have been carrying around for the past week. It doesn’t take long once I’ve hassled through the touts hawking trips out to Yangshuo (my final destination) in the station square to find what I’m looking for, just off the main street. Inside, after some gesturing and online translation they sit me down in front of a mirror and get to work. They scratch a glossy foam into my hair and scalp. They lead me round a corner to a sink where they execute a disconcertingly thorough hair, neck, ear and behind-the-ear wash. I try not to burst into nervous laughter. Back in front of the mirror, the hairdresser looks at me quizzically. Really, I want to say, ”Hello good Sir. Thank you in advance for your efforts. It would be magnificent if you could kindly retain an air of rugged adventurer but remove density, thickness and length from hair and beard.” Without the required linguistic virtuosity I merely point to a picture of myself from early April and look at him hopefully.  Later, having secured another couple months free from excessive grooming (all for about three pounds) I head out for lunch. The map provided by my Liuzhou station waiting room friend confuses the locals I ask, and presently there are four or five of them pointing in different directions. Others just watch! Instead then, I track down some of the local noodles on the street. I watch them being pulled into shape while I eat.   Really the barber has done a decent job; I look like I did before I set off, plus a few miles under my belt of course. And, with no common language, we could dispense with the pointless awkward hair salon banter. It’s time for a few more miles: the final leg of my journey is a short bus ride out to Yangshuo on the picturesque Li River. 


Ten days to Hong Kong: part seven

Ten days to Hong Kong: part seven
Liuzhou, China

Liuzhou, China


Dep Zhangjiajie 6th July 17:26 arr Liuzhou 7th July 04:57 “That looks like baby food.” It takes this rather direct assessment of my hitherto champion traveller’s breakfast to break the ice in Liuzhou station. Casting a critical eye over my admittedly uncoordinated attempts to assemble milky banana porridge in a public waiting room is a Chinese teacher of English. She expresses her envy upon hearing my itinerary. “I could only dream of doing this. You are like a leaf,” she says. “I am a stone. Chinese people have the hardest lives in the world.” I find that and her many other generalisations about life in China difficult to fathom, and she confuses me further by almost convincing me to change onto her train, which turns out to be cancelled. Thankfully though she is rather more constructive when guiding me through Guilin, which she has visited frequently. She corrects the Chengdu hostel’s suggested transfer (“No no no, it’s the 100 or 99, not the number 10 bus”) and labours to draw me a map showing a decent local restaurant. Earlier, I’d stared at the last of the visible scenery out of Zhangjiajie while enough kids to start a creche expended their energy. No spontaneous English classes this time though: as the sky darkened, the Jungle Gym turned back into partioned three-tier couchettes. With a quiet top bunk I could thankfully sleep a few hours before a pre-dawn arrival into Liuzhou and the wait for the connection to Guilin.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part six

Ten days to Hong Kong: part six
Zhangjiajie, China

Zhangjiajie, China


Despite an hour in the queue for my ticket, I still have plenty of time to shop and drink a coffee before my train from Zhangjiajie. Heavens be praised, the well-stocked supermarket next to the train station sells porridge oats! This, along with the fact that I seem to be getting the hang of managing the trains in this country full of contrasts and chaos, makes my day.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part five

Ten days to Hong Kong: part five
Huaihua Shi, China

Huaihua Shi, China


“What are you doing?”

This is the fifth request for my picture in the few minutes since we arrived and I am becoming increasingly exasperated.

“I am not the scenery!” I blurt out, not that there is an English speaker among them. “THIS is the scenery!”

I gesture off the viewing platform known as Tianbo Mansion, out over the spectacular, spiky karst formations smeared in dense forest. Low-lying clouds amble through the peaks.

Yet, the opportunity to have your picture taken with a foreigner apparently cannot be ignored.

Despite feeling like a Madame Taussauds waxwork, I am considerably more at ease up here than back at Zhangjiajie, the scenery said to have inspired Avatar.

I was curious to find out what could possibly have inspired a motion picture that, well, long.

But my visit to this section goes by in blur of shuttle bus, elevator and cable car queues, selfie sticks and the irritating static-backed tour guides. Screaming at the hordes through their microphones, they do at least have the knowledge to guide me to a quieter section of the park.

It is here that I meet Becky and her cohorts from Guangzhou. They are friendly, interested in my itinerary and, to my immense relief, led by a guide I can neither see nor hear.

Actually I almost don’t gain entry to Zhangjiajie National Park at all, as ticket reselling is policed by, you guessed it, a fingerprint scan. China agrees with Russia: my fingerprints aren’t valid.

Back at my hostel at the East Gate of the park, I calculate a route to avoid the tour groups for the following day, aided by my extremely helpful Chinese hostel mates. They also enthusiastically recommend other destinations I simply don’t have time to visit. I am travelling too fast.

My route on day two runs along the Golden Whip Stream, and – path sweepers aside – I have it to myself for the first hour or so. The calm, the water and the karst looming over me repair the damage done by the chaos the previous morning.

I head up from the end of the path to Stone Village. On the way I once again encounter my friends from Guangzhou.

And monkeys!

There is an uneasy coexistence between tourist and animal here. I am horrified to round a corner to find a woman donating a precious instant noodle pot. The monkey efficiently punches a hole in the packaging and munches on the synthetic snack.

At the top I find a quiet spot to unwrap a chocolate bar and gawp at the incredible…

“Excuse me, can I have a picture with you please?”

On a stranger’s camera somewhere in China there is a photo of us and a jaw-slackening backdrop…mostly obscured by the Snickers bar still attached to my mouth.


Ten days to Hong Kong: part four

Ten days to Hong Kong: part four
Zhangjiajie, China

Zhangjiajie, China


The journey north to Zhangjiajie is brief, relatively speaking. I am sat opposite the two cheery gents in the attached photo. With no common language I use maps and set phrases from the guide book and place names to explain myself. A chain smoking passenger wakes up from an uncomfortable-looking nap and launches into a diatribe I cannot understand. His breath is foul and half his teeth are missing or rotton. He waves cigarettes around in my face persistently. Readers, there are things I might do specifically to supply this blog with anecdotes but apparently smoking in a train vestibule with three strangers isn’t one of them! Mercifully Zhangjiajie’s bus station is located next door to the train station. So, I can stride confidently through the usual scrum of taxi drivers outside for the bus to the park entrance.