I got through the Macau/China border somewhat earlier than expected, but was able to blag my way onto a coach running half an hour before the one I had booked. It was very comfortable too, with reclining seats so wide that there was only room for three of them in each row. With most people filling the front half of the vehicle, I had the rear half to myself to lie back, enjoy the view and listen to some music. It was actually quite regrettable when the journey only lasted a little more than two hours and not the four that I had read in one source that it could be.
The guidebook listed two hostels in Guangzhou. Whilst the one I had used during my previous visit was OK, in the interests of variation I headed for the other one this time. This was essentially a bit of a mistake. Although I could get a private room, the staff were gloriously unhelpful and the bathrooms not very pleasant. Still, it was only for one night and it was right by the main train station so I could go out to buy a ticket easily before bedtime.
Just as I had run into difficulties traveling across the country around national day at the start of October, now the build-up was beginning for the other major holiday: Chinese New Year. The station was a chaotic state of added barriers, police, signs and a loudspeaker blaring out information to the surrounding area twenty four hours a day. Fortunately there were few queues when I arrived, although it was frustrating when I initially went to the students-only window and couldn't get served. Fair enough that the sign was only in Chinese, but it was a bit frustrating when the woman would only laugh and refuse to serve me. Partly because there was no one queuing behind me so it wouldn't have hurt to just sell me a ticket anyway, but mainly because she didn't offer a word of explanation or even point at the sign.
Before that I found myself snacking in Starbucks whilst using the internet and was even sufficiently impressed to return the next morning for breakfast. Forgive me Lord, what have I become? For dinner I ate at some kind of Persian restaurant where we were entertained with a belly dancer, which was different.
In the morning, after breakfast at Satan's coffee bar, I took a taxi to the east train station for my train north. This too had been taken over by major crowd-control measures in readiness for the holiday madness that would rise over the coming days and weeks. Someone told me that 2.3 billion train journeys will be taken in China in that time, although I'm not certain how true that can be. What it meant today was the normal route to the platforms had been replaced by a long winding walk, up and down stairs and leaving me with not much time to spare when I eventually boarded for the 10:55 departure.
Generally I was heading north with Harbin and its ice festival in mind, but this could not be accomplished on a single train so my first intermediate stop-off was Hefei. An unremarkable city but I had been invited by Li Min, the girl I had met twice whilst climbing Huang Shan in December, who assured me that she was an excellent guide. I arrived early morning and made my way to a hotel closer to the city centre where I had a shower.
Squatting down in the bathroom after I dried myself to examine a small flood, I stood up and smacked my lower back against the underside corner of the edge of the marble sink unit. This managed to produce three wounds which were still weeping blood an hour later when Li Min was due to pick me up to go out sightseeing. My problem was that I couldn't apply the plasters to my lower back in the mirror and, besides, no plaster was big enough to cover them all. So, I had to text her to ask her to come up to help me with "a problem". Fearing that she was being lured to some horrible situation, she brought along a member of the hotel staff, telling them to "pretend you're my friend!". So I had the someone embarrassing job of leaning over whilst these two women I didn't really know cut some dressing and stuck it over the affected wounds.
Job done, we went out. It quickly became apparent that Li Min didn't know where anything was. She conceded that she had never been to these tourist spots before but assured me that "I am a very confident person, so I am sure I can be a good guide!". Her enthusiasm did get the job done to be fair though, even if it meant unhesitatingly asking countless passers-by to see if we were still heading in the right direction for whatever tomb, temple or scenic spot we were after.
Hefei might be the poorest city I have seen in China, certainly outside of the far-western Xinjiang province. Everywhere I went there were beggars to assail me, none of whom had any intention of getting out of my way or refraining from moving in front of each step to left or right I took to attempt to get around them. They were irrepressible! Small children could more easily be dealt with by putting a hand on top of their heads to hold them in place while I walked around. Others simply had to be pushed out of the way. I even found myself at one point pushing an old-ish man on crutches away so I could continue walking. Am I a monster or simply an innocent citizen doing what he needs to do to go about his business? Probably both, in truth.
Back at the hotel, I spent half an hour with the staff and their technical guy trying to get the internet connection in my room to work. They had already moved me from another room that morning when it wouldn't work and coupled with the pretend-friend incident, I got the feeling I was fast getting a bad reputation with the staff.
On day two in Hefei, Li Min and I collected her four year-old daughter, went to the bus station and took the hour-long bus to an out-of-town country park. When our bouncing ride finally arrived, it appeared that most of the place was under construction during the winter months. Many sights and activities such as multiple rope bridges, pedalos, dodgems, and even pathways looked very impressive but half-built and surrounded by digging equipment and workmen. Still, it was a pleasant walk and we got to see some interesting carvings at the far end of it all.
I was trying to convince mother to worry less about everything, particularly in relation to her daughter. She nervously relented and allowed the girl to, for example, mess around by the side of a large pond. I felt a bit guilty however when she used this new-found freedom to test the strength of the ice and soaked her leg up to the knee before I could grab her and stop her tumbling all the way in. She had her revenge though, smearing the mud from her shoes all over my trousers as I carried her away.
Xinya Hotel's number-one trouble causer had a protracted situation when he went back to change into cleaner clothes in the evening. My key card had been disabled because they had misunderstood that I wanted to stay for two nights, not one. For my part, I hadn't noticed the discrepancy because the deposit was the same price as a night's stay, so I had assumed that I had paid for two nights, not one and a deposit. The upshot was that I now owed them Y200 deposit which I would only be collecting when I checked out the next morning. Not having this, I had to find a bank whilst out so I could pay it to them on my return at midnight. Pointless...
The three of us got something to eat in the evening. Li Min's worrying worked to the extent of not wanting to let her daughter to have an ice cream dessert, or to take one mouthful of taste from it herself, in case either of them got a cold from it. I insisted, but the girl got most fun from mixing the various components of the complicated sundae with the different drinks on the table. She created some horrible-looking concoctions and now it was my time to be the worrier; Li Min agree to drink some of this stuff when offered whereas I politely but firmly declined.
We were going to say hello briefly the next day also, but the little girl had to go to hospital for a check-up when she fell from a motorbike her father was using to take her across town. Moments like this remind you of the differences between China and a modern country. A guy who puts a four year-old girl on a motorbike in a busy city centre, almost certainly without a crash helmet, might face prison back home. Here, it is the norm and no one questions it. I think it is the normal way to transport her and countless other children around.
I tried to time dinner for the last available hour before departing for the train station. Frustratingly, I had one of those situations where the meat-free dish turned up with chicken in it. After complaining and explaining again, the waitress apologised and took it away before bringing the same chicken dish back again. There's no point making a fuss, but from start to end, forty of my sixty minutes had disappeared so I had to get a couple of bread rolls and cakes to eat on the night train as I headed further north to Beijing.