Huang Shan >> Hong Kong
The train left Huang Shan (Tunxi) fairly late at night, getting into Shanghai mid-morning. With just five hours before my connecting train, I went down to the coffee restaurant five minutes walk away that I had been in last time and killed some time before walking back at the end of the afternoon. With no tickets all the way to Hong Kong available, I was going to Gaungzhou, a hundred miles from the border (not far in a country of this scale) and had thirty seven hours to wing the rest after I arrived. In fact, as I killed time in Shanghai, I received an email suggesting I book a boat for the final leg of the journey. Possibly not the simplest option, but at least it meant a confirmed booking and I rather liked the idea of making my exit in style.
On the train I had a soft (1st-class) sleeper cabin with four bunks, but only one of them was occupied, albeit with two people. There was Haobing, a wife on her way to spend Christmas and new year with her in-laws, and her two year-old son. They were a nice pair and good to share the ride with, but the best fun was the next morning when the boy and I were messing around, including hitting each other with pillows shouting "Boom! Boom!". He was pretty big and well-built for his age. At one point we clashed heads by accident. My first reaction was to inwardly think "Ow, that hurt!", but to say nothing as guys do. Then, I realised that a small child's head had been on the other end of this thump so quickly stopped. I need not have worried, he hadn't seemed to even notice.
After six weeks of varying degrees of bitter cold, it was a pleasant oddity to get off the train in the southern city of Guangzhou and find that it was t-shirt weather. I took the metro across town to a hostel on an isle by the river. Historically it had been one of the many European concessions in China from the turn of the 19th century and this was reflected in its architecture. At first I rather like this and its relaxed atmosphere and thought it might be a nice place to live. As the day wore on though, I realised that most other foreigners in the city had the same view so there were more of their faces on view on the isle than Chinese, which rather defeats the object of coming abroad, in my view.
Having been assigned a room in the hostel upon my lunchtime arrival, I took a belated shower. Coming out I found two other travellers in my room. One of them was lecturing the other one about religion. His superior attitude and much older age compared to the quiet nodding of the much younger man made me assume that I was watching a teacher and his student. I discovered later that the 'student' was just a poor guy who found himself cornered in an unwanted conversation he couldn't escape. I listened to the pomposity for fifteen minutes while I dressed and sorted out my gear. Increasingly I found myself getting more and more irate by the myopia, ignorance and sheer arrogance of it all.
The subject moved inevitably, as it has done for strong-minded preachers for thousands of years, to how armegeddon was going to happen very soon and only idiots could fail to see the irrefutable evidence of this. If you're interested, we've got seven more years left, so I may still have to face the depressing thought of turning forty. Apparently the Roman empire will rise again in that time. Underestimating Silvio Berlosconi may be a mug's game, but I'm not sure even he could mastermind that in such a small timescale. I wanted to interject and take issue with this clown, but I just stayed quiet as I got on with my business. Next in focus were the Jews. He assured his mute student that they were going to suffer a holocaust worse that that suffered in Europe in the thirties and forties. Although he didn't say it openly enough that I could jump in and object to this, it was hard to escape the conclusion that he was looking forward to this and that he felt they rather deserved it.
Just as I was finishing up, he explained that further proof of the end of the world was the profecy that it would happen when "the slave becomes king". This, he claimed, was taking place by Barak Obama becoming American president. Now I unleashed myself. First he said that Obama was descended from slaves in the south. When I rubbished this, he claimed that the new president came from Africa and slaves come from Africa, therefore any African could reasonably be said to be, or to represent, slaves. I laid into him for his objectionable racism which he strongly defended on the grounds that everything he said was true and therefore couldn't be racist. Upon discovering that I wasn't a Christian he said "Oh, well, there's no point talking to you then. You'll never listen to reason". Ready to go out, I left the room and the student took the opportunity to duck out with me.
The student's name turned out to be Albert. He was a Swedish guy who had taken the opportunity to spend some months in Hangzhou learning the language before travelling around the country a bit and going back to Europe. He, like I, had a day to spend here before moving on tomorrow. After finding somewhere to eat, the two of us went to the former residence of some powerful historical figure which now housed displays of local art, both ancient and modern. It was pretty good but we were done in an hour so walked back towards the hostel.
On the way, we passed a man squatting on the pavement with a pair of snakes, each nearly two feet in length. He was holding court to a crowd of people who had gathered around him, explaining whatever it was he was about to do. We weren't sure at this time what his trick was or even if he'd already done it, so we declined to put money in the pot he passed around, but others did. In my mind, I wondered if he was going to swallow the tail like a sword swallower. Or, would he do something a little more family oriented? Whatever I thought, it certainly wasn't what he did. When he had collected all the money he thought he would get, he psyched himself up and . . . pushed one of the snakes, head first, up his nose! He pushed it so far that he could then pull it out of his mouth and proudly display this to his audience - two ends of the snake hanging out of two different orifices. As someone said to me when I told them about it later, how did he first discover that he could do this?
Albert and I took a nap at the hostel then went out to find one of the companies that ran cruises up and down the river. We found one and, as it was my last night in China, took the VIP option and booked ourselves on the next boat. When it arrived, we were ushered onto a deck above the lowerclass passengers into a large, mostly empty dining room. Everyone got a couple of generously sized pieces of meat and there was no alternative for me, but we were then allowed to help ourselves to the buffet of extras which was more than enough. By the time were were done, the boat was back at its dock even though only half the advertised time had gone by. It turned out that some more passenger could then get on but we could stay for another trip up river and back.
We bought ourselves a couple of bottles of beer and went up to the open upper deck to enjoy the nighttime scenery and to try to photograph it. Back at the dock again, we guessed we were supposed to leave. But, as other passengers disembarked and joined the boat, we just stayed where we were and waited until the boat had set off for a third time before going to order another pair of beers. Back at the dock for a third time, we decided to follow the same plan, even though all the other passengers from the top had gone this time. When we finally noticed that the serving staff were changed into the personal clothes and leaving the boat also, we realised that this really was the end so headed ashore. Stopping off at a German bar for some more beer and food on the way, we went back to the hostel.
My boat to Hong Kong was at 16:00 the next day. I knew very little about where it went from other than the name and that it was somewhere south of town. Figuring that it couldn't be too difficult, I left the hostel at midday, following the receptionist's advice that I should go to the bus station near the main train station. Albert had more time to kill until his evening train so he went to the park to spend the afternoon in the sun. We rode the metro together until he got off at his station and said goodbye. Carrying on to the bus station, I was unable to buy a ticket but was told that if I went somewhere else I would be able to find a connecting bus. Nearly an hour later, this bus came to another bus station, where after a few enquiries, I was walked around to the far end and put on another bus which was apparently what I wanted. After an hour on this bus, I was the only passenger left aboard when we terminated at some empty dusty yard which probably like to call itself a bus station also.
The driver pointed me further down the street, but I wasn't really what he was pointing at so checked out a few buildings with no success. Seeing a number of bright signs I walked down one side street to the big archways at the end only to find that it was the entrance to a national park with hills and lakes. Following another sign there, I walked for another mile in the sun, becoming slightly worried that I might very well be dozens of miles from my intended destination, before I finally found the terminal. There were forty five minutes before departure, but I was the first passenger to arrive by a long chalk.
I went to collect my ticket, which triggered a very long process of confused phone calls and multiple members of staff, even when I explained that I had bought it over the internet and had all my booking reference numbers. Surely I cannot be the first person to book this way? Finally, they were able to explain to me that tickets booked on the website can only be collected from the Hong Kong office. They had rung through and located my ticket at the other end, so told me that I would be personally escorted through all the ticket checks when I boarded. She also happily informed me that after I arrived I would be able to collect my ticket from the Hong Kong office. Her thrill at this seemed a little bit blunted when I was puzzled why I would want to collect a ticket after I had travelled.
I was hungry by now but, after noting how expensive the ice cream I bought at the ferry terminal was, I declined to buy any more food as I waited. The boat was a little late, but not by much and we boarded a few minutes after four. I had treated myself to a first class ticket and there were only three of us on the upper VIP deck. The price was only a little extra, but I have done this a few times recently so should probably stop it in the future. I have a lot of room to play with in the budget for this trip but that is no reason to needlessly spend it all.
The boat wasn't terribly big and jetted along the long estuary of the Pearl River (I think) for a couple of hours. The waterways around Hong Kong were terribly crowded with boats and ships of every size and description, all heading in different directions. I'm sure there was a system to it all, but it did seem that everyone was just heading in their own direction at their own speed, weaving through each other as required, much like pedestrians on a town square. As the sun disappeared behind the grey horizon, the boat docked in a harbour amongst the skyscapers of Kowloon and I walked onto land in Hong Kong.