I’ve been back in China near two months now. It’s been eventful, but largely undramatic, with everything going as planned (though there was only the loosest of plans to start with) with a couple of exceptions.
The first minor problem occurred when I arrived at Gatwick Airport and saw that the departures screen had my flight to Hong Kong marked only with “Please wait for further information” and nothing else – not exactly reassuring words. The airline provided 15 pounds-worth of food vouchers to make up for it. As I’d eaten already these were spent on a tub of mango ice cream and four beers. Eight hours later the flight left. It wasn’t a serious problem. I’ve spent enough time hanging around transport terminals these last few years, and there wasn’t anything urgent to do at the other end.
Hong Kong was as much of a sensory overload as ever, all exhaust fumes and old neon signs. The sun had set by the time I reached my usual hostel in North Point, but jetlag meant there was no way I was getting any decent sleep. Eventually I passed out around 6am, slept through my alarm and woke at midday, my plans to get a quick visa severely compromised. I managed to find the place by 2pm, and waited patiently next to the shutters until I realised it was Sunday and they only open on weekdays anyway.
I sorted out the visa the next day, along with a boat ticket and the changing of my remaining money. Everyone was more than helpful, which is something I’ve learned not to expect from embassy workers. Then I had a day free to see the sights, but I’ve seen them and they are all expensive, so I didn’t bother.
On Wednesday I caught the ferry to Zhuhai. There were only twenty people on the boat, which meant I was interviewed three times by seperate representatives of the HK tourist board, who all wanted to know how my trip had been. I lay down listening to Can, alternately dozed off and felt sick, then finally arrived at the ferry terminal in China Proper.
It had been hot in HK, but in Zhuhai it was something else – stultifyingly humid, a Finnish sauna with no exit. I really don’t know I managed to get semi-used to this atmosphere the previous summer. After a brief wait Ashley turned up and took me to the apartment he now shares with Brandy, one of those seaside places in Jida I felt like moving to last year but never bothered.
All I had to do was buy a ticket to Beijing, which left the best part of four days to see the old sights, meet up with old friends, eat cheap food and meet the newbies. In the end most of this came down to hanging out at Live Bar and sleeping off the usual second wave of jetlag. It was nice to be back, but there was nothing to change my decision to move on. Typically my favorite barbecue has closed. I don’t know why anything decent in the city either closes or goes downhill fast, and now I don’t have to care any more.
I left for Beijing on the Saturday. The bus to Guangzhou leaves every fifteen minutes and takes two hours to get there, so I though three-and-a-half hours would be ample time. It wasn’t. We passed the train station with an hour until departure, but then spent half an hour in two traffic queues first leading up the road for 100 metres, then leading back down again on the other side. When we were through that I had only fifteen minutes to sprint with a heavy backpack and a medium sized box across a bridge, through the sea of humanity and across the square to the station entrance, to find which queue to jump, to go through airport-style security, find where my train was going from, sprint to the exit and jump on the train just as it was pulling away, then lie down panting, soaking wet from sweat. It was easy to sleep, especially as for once I didn’t attract a student of English who wanted to practice on me. Probably the style of my entrance put them off.
The next morning I bought some dragon’s-eye fruit from a vendor for breakfast. Two thirds of it was rotten. About to head to the buffet car, I asked the guard when we’d be arriving and was told “in three hours.” I’d assumed getting across the county takes two days, not less than one, and called John to tell him I’d be there ahead of schedule. The approach to the train station was not entirely encouraging. As we got closer to the station the smog became thicker and thicker until we could see moreorless nothing past the embankment. At this point the train stopped and everyone tried to get off at quickly as possible.
The one remaining adventure was attempting to get to the centre. Beijing West Train Station is huge, but for some reason has no connection to the subway system. The only other options were buses, all jam-packed and going to places I’d never heard of, and a taxi rank with a queue of around a hundred people, which seemed slightly preferable. A lift to the nearest metro station and two non-oxygen-rich trains later I was in Guo Mao, ready to start another six months.
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