Shanghai – Shangri-La, Days 1-3

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My friend Darcy and I recently took a trip to Yunnan by rail and bus. People told us we were mad not just to fly and be there in about three hours, but we wanted the train experience (even though it was 37 hours to Kunming, our first stop in Yunnan…) plus it was significantly cheaper. We decided to make it a bit less insane by stopping part-way in Guizhou Province. This still meant 24 hours on the train from Shanghai but we decided to shell out for the soft sleeper. We lucked out as there was only one other person in our four-bed berth, a sweet 25-year-old woman called Xiao Bao Bao (Little Bun Bun?!) She was travelling home to her small town in Guizhou. We chatted with her a bit (mainly Darcy as her Chinese is much better than mine, having lived here for six years) and all decided it was time for a nap after about an hour of being on the train.

We slept from about 4:30pm to 7pm, then Darcy and I decided to go for a beer in the garish pink dining car. The food looked horribly unappetising and we were glad we’d brought our own snacks for the journey. There was a small dead fish in the vase of flowers on our table. We ordered a bottle of beer which the waitress failed to open so we had to call her back. We shared that and decided to get another, which wasn’t easy as the staff seemed intent on sitting around at one end of the carriage, smoking copious amounts of cigarettes and ignoring us. They eventually chucked us out because all the staff needed the dining car to eat their dinner and apparently there would not be enough space for us… we went back to our berth and slept until late the next morning.

Twenty-four hours on a train really doesn’t feel too long when you have a decent bed and sufficiently quiet neighbours. I thought I was going to spend hours reading and listening to music but actually I slept for more than half of the journey and spent the rest staring out the window at the beautiful scenery. Once we entered Guizhou there were loads of those manmade Chinese landscapes where the hills look like they’ve been carved with a scalpel and paddy fields ascend in giant steps towards the sky.

When we arrived in Kaili we checked into our hotel (we started off the trip with a bit of luxury, knowing we’d be getting hard sleeper trains and staying in hostels for the rest of it). We needed to get train tickets to Kunming for the next day, which we hadn’t been able to book in advance because we were told you can only get train tickets from a particular destination if you’re in that destination. You can also only do it five days in advance, no more. Very helpful when trying to plan a trip with overnight stops…

The hotel manager spoke English and agreed to drive us to get tickets. We had to stop at his house on the way and wait in the car while he went in to close his window because it was raining. We told him that before getting the train the following day we wanted to visit Xijiang, a nearby village populated by the Miao people (a local ethnic minority). Getting there and back in a day seemed to be impossible on the public bus, so he suggested we get an English-speaking driver to take us there and give us a tour… for 700rmb (about £70). This was ridiculous and way over budget so we pressed him to tell us about Chinese tours. We ended up booking one for 240rmb and there were only two other people on the tour.

That evening we went for some food at a local restaurant and watched a film back at the hotel (Water for Elephants). We chilled a bottle of white wine in a plastic rubbish bin full of ice as the hotel could not provide us with a bucket or a fridge. We got a call on the hotel phone from a prostitute at around 9pm (a regular room service apparently). She put the phone down when she heard foreigners on the other end. We then found a cockroach in the impeccably clean bathroom.

Our driver on the tour the next morning was a very jolly man who took pleasure in childlike things like making a piece of grass into a wind instrument and blowing into it as we walked along. The couple we shared the tour with were not so cool. They were from Shanghai and were not very friendly or respectful towards the locals.

Xijiang was ridiculously beautiful in a postcard kind of way, with traditional Miao houses tumbling over the hillside and a stormy river passing through. Bulls are very important in local farming and there were lots of features on the buildings and on the local dress which represented bulls’ horns.

The village was generally pretty unspoilt by tourism despite the many tour groups visiting. Houses were preserved as was and we didn’t see any other westerners there. There was a performance of traditional dancing and singing, and we got to hang out with the leader of the village and drink mi jiu (rice wine) with him. It was loads nicer than other rice wine I’ve tried, probably because it was made with honey.

There was an astonishing amount of children in Xijiang and Kaili, a stark contrast with the one-child families usually seen in Shanghai and elsewhere. Ethnic minorities are allowed to have more children so there were loads of them on every corner. One small boy comically ignored Darcy when she tried to strike up a conversation – he very matter-of-factly pointed the way to the leader of the village, presumably meaning “Leave me alone and go on your way.”

Once back in Kaili, we went back to the hotel to collect our bags and the manager tried to persuade us to hang around there until it was time to go to the train station. We said we just wanted to get there and eat near the station so we could relax, but he insisted the food round there was dirty and we should eat in the area of the hotel, preferably in the hotel restaurant. He wouldn’t help us get a taxi unless it was to somewhere he recommended so we thanked him and went off on our own. We found a lovely restaurant near the station with a really friendly couple working there. We sat outside and ate fresh hand-pulled noodles in the sunshine while being stared at by small wild-eyed dogs and tiny babies being carried in wicker baskets on their grandparents’ backs.

In the train station we met a really nice man; a farmer who obviously had a hard life and had sores on his shoulders from carrying heavy loads all day. He was really happy that we spoke to him and showed him respect. When he said goodbye and went to get his train he was beaming from ear to ear.

Our train arrived late and we found our beds in the hard sleeper carriage – the middle bunks in a 6-bed berth. We kept our big backpacks with us on the beds as there wasn’t really anywhere else to put them and it was safer that way. Unfortunately this meant that not only could I not sit up on the bed as the top bunk was so close, I also couldn’t stretch out at all as the bag took up so much room. This was no problem for Darcy, who is tiny and promptly fell asleep. I had my feet hanging off the end a little bit and a woman kept knocking them when climbing up and down from the top bunk. The lights all went out so there was no option but to go to sleep… there are no private bedside lights in the hard sleeper. Sleeping proved difficult however, due to the lack of space, a woman shouting into her mobile on the lower bunk and a man smoking in the next berth (there were no doors on these ones so it was all effectively just one big room). I can’t complain though. The journey was only 13 hours and overnight so it made perfect sense to get the hard sleeper as it was so much cheaper. My ten-hour flight home at Christmastime is going to feel like nothing…

Anyway, stay tuned to hear about Yunnan when I get round to going through my pictures.

4 Responses to “Shanghai – Shangri-La, Days 1-3”
  1. Elbe says:

    I really enjoyed reading this Alexis!!
    My favourite bits were the prostitute-room-service and the small dead fish in the vase of flowers. These things made me chuckle.
    I miss you, but am so glad you seem to be having such an amazing time!
    Best wishes

  2. Elbe says:

    oh so apparently, I have a picture of Noel fielding as my lil profile pic on here. I didn’t even know I had an account, so there you go!

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