Chengdu, China (continued) – Saturday 12th to Monday 14th August
One thing we’ve learned from travelling across central Asia on the trains is that it’s best to buy tickets locally. However, travelling like this means you sometimes have to be a little flexible and relaxed with your moving dates. This turned out to be the case in Chengdu, as the first available sleeper train to Nanning was a full week after we’d arrived. So, we were stuck.
Brilliantly, Steam Hostel couldn’t extend our stay, so we decided it was time for an upgrade. Phil decided that the most important thing in the relentless heat was that our hotel had a pool. An outdoor pool. This left us with one option: the £49 a night Yinhe Dynasty Hotel right in the centre of the city. We figured two nights of European prices was just about worth it.
And really, that was kind of it from Chengdu. The centre of the city felt much like any other. Just, louder. For reasons unknown, some enterprising shopkeeper had started a trend of standing at the front of their store and making as much noise as possible to attract customers. Now, they were all at it. The resulting cacophony assaulting all and everyone, and, seemingly, attracted no more customers into the stores than might have gone in anyway.
Our relaxing weekend quickly passed by, and it was time to head for the train again to sleep our way to Nanning.
Nanning, China – Tuesday 15th August to Friday 18th August
We’d secured tickets on the 27 hour sleeper to Nanning for £41 each. Now, to the uninitiated, a 27 hour train journey seems like a crazy long time to be stuck on a train. But somewhere along the way we have worked out some kind of train riding zen-state, where time both stands still and flies by without any boredom, stress, or effort at all. So, we got on in Chengdu, made friends with the cutest four year old in China, then got off at Nanning. Somehow, more than a day passed in between.
Nanning was our gateway to Vietnam. So, the first job was getting our visas sorted. After the faff of securing Russian, Mongolian, Chinese, and Indian visas, it was absolute child’s play. We turned up to the consulate, filled in one simple form, gave them our passports, and two hours later we were visa’d up and ready to go. The only ‘difficult’ thing was having to get up early to get there when it opened!
The view from Phil’s bed on the way to Nanning was much improved from the previous sleeper
Being as we wanted to buy our train tickets out that afternoon we had to stump up £73 each for the super-express visa. If you have time to spare there are way cheaper options, but then you have to spend the money on food and accommodation instead. Another instance of something seeming expensive, but potentially saving money in the long run.
We were hoping to catch a train the next day, but at the station were told it was sold out, so secured £31 sleeper tickets for the day after: Friday. Remember that – it’ll be relevant later.
We were staying at the unremarkable Zelin Hotel, for £23.50 a night, so one extra night in the city wasn’t too much of a bind.
Better than that, it actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. On Thursday night (our last night in China), we decided to celebrate with a drink at The Queen’s Head. Quite by accident, we ended up hanging out with some British ex-pat teachers until the wee small hours. An unexpected, but really enjoyable evening. Both of us had forgotten how easy it was being able to speak to people who natively spoke English. It was the first time we been able to do so since Helsinki!
Unexpected expats fun in Nanning: Andy, Mark, Jack, and Aaron (from the left)
Our last day in China was a bit of a waiting game. We had to check out of our hotel before midday, and our train wasn’t until 6pm. So, tired, and not a little hungover, we settled into the brilliantly named Starcups Café for the afternoon.
Definitely not a Starbucks
Finally, hot and tired, we schlepped across town to the train station. After a short wait, while we stocked up on train supplies, we climbed the steps up to the platform to board our train. Tempting fate, Phil remarked, “I’m so glad we get to leave China today”. We stepped up to the turnstile, tickets in hand, where we were promptly turned away.
Baffled, we tried again, while the platform guard pointed at our tickets and waved his finger. At this point we examined our tickets more closely, looked at our calendars, and the penny dropped. We’d been sold tickets for Saturday! Evidently, when we’d booked our tickets a couple of days before, the ticket agent had logged on to the system with the wrong date. The date of issue on the front was the day after we’d bought them!
Now quite flustered, we rushed back to the ticket hall to try and get them changed. The train was due to depart in just half an hour. Hannah stepped up and was met with a pretty resolute ‘no’, from the desk. The train we wanted to be on was sold out. At this point Hannah did something which most would not. She pleaded, refused to take no for an answer, then stayed at the ticket desk and just waited.
With minutes to go, the ticket agent seemingly had a change of heart, and scribbled an alteration onto our ticket. Apparently there were spaces on the train after all! Elated, we hurried back to the platform and boarded the sleeper to Vietnam.
Leaving Nanning – our last view of a Chinese city
Somewhat surprisingly, we had the whole cabin to ourselves (sold out, indeed). So, finally relaxing, we were able to settle into probably the quietest, and most comfortable sleeper train on the journey so far! Very much ready to begin our next adventures in Vietnam.
China has been an amazing and surprising experience in so many ways. All the people we’ve met have been really lovey, helpful, and kind. The landscapes have been amazing, and the sights fascinating. But it’s been hard work. The relentless press of people was exhausting; and time and time again we found ourselves baffled and confused by systems which actually made getting things done harder rather than more straightforward.
For what is nominally a communist country, it dazzles with a culture that feels more capitalist and consumerist than either of us have ever experienced before. And, while the country as a whole marches forward economically, it’s plain to see that many are being left behind.
Next week, we spend a few eventful days in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, before heading down the coast in search of beaches.
Hannah and Phil x