We were catching the night train from Hanoi to Nanning in China. This seemed like a really good idea at the time but, in hindsight, a day train or bus may have been a better option. We had managed to get first class soft sleeper beds, which was a positive sign, for AUD$66 each.
On our arrival at the train station it started to pour down with heavy rain and we sought the sanctuary of the train station office. Normally, when you book train tickets online you need to get the actual train tickets from the ticket office when you arrive at the train station. This was not the case tonight. When we approached the ticket office the lady pointed to a Vietnamese man and said we needed to see him. When we spoke to the Vietnamese man he checked a piece of paper and then started nodding and, in very poor English, got across to us that we needed to sit and wait – wait for what I was not so sure but apparently we were on his list of names. A few minutes later another Westerner arrived at the ticket office and he too ended up sitting with us waiting. The Vietnamese man kept returning to our location at periodic intervals and simply nodded, smiled and said ‘wait’. Of course this was driving my wife bonkers as the time for the trains’ departure drew closer and we still didn’t have our tickets – we were sitting and waiting perfectly!!
It was about 15 minutes before the trains’ departure, due to leave at 9.20pm, when the Vietnamese man came over and said, ‘come, come’, so we followed him onto the platform. He led us to a train carriage and motioned for us to get on. Apparently, we were in the middle of a ‘lost in translation’ moment. We had no friggin’ idea where our tickets were and the train ticket Inspector wanted to see our tickets and was not letting us or the other Westerner, a Chilean man named Sergio, onto the train. The Vietnamese man stood on the platform smiling and nodding, we queued to get on the train and the train ticket inspector refused to let us on – why are such simple things so complicated!!!!
Eventually a young Chinese guy, who was in the same carriage, came and gave the ticket inspector our train tickets. The Chinese guy was given four train tickets by the Vietnamese man, his own, Sergio’s, Diane’s and mine. The Chinese guy got on the train before us and didn’t think that we might have needed our train tickets to do the same. Diane can be a little vocal at times like this but she is nothing to what a revved up, hot-blooded, Latino can be like and Sergio was going off!! The Vietnamese guy just smiled and nodded. The Chinese guy was in the same sleeping compartment as us and was supposed to have given us our tickets before he got on the train – after a good start it was heading downhill.
We were now far too hyped to sleep and we chatted in our room until nearly midnight. The Vietnamese border check was due at 1am so we all shut up and tried to sleep – unsuccessfully, as the ticket inspector was soon banging on the door telling us to get ready for immigration.
God knows how many passengers were on the train but there were an awful lot of them – with only three being Westerners, the rest either Chinese or Vietnamese. At 1am the train stopped and we all had to pile out into the Immigration office and, to make matters worse, we all had to bring our luggage with us – at least the rain had stopped.
I have a theory that due to there being 1.3 Billion, give or take a million, of Chinese people in China that pushing and queue jumping is instilled into them at an early age, because if they don’t push and queue jump, they end up getting nothing. Hence, we polite and orderly westerners get shoved out of the way and pushed to the end of anything faintly resembling a queue by these squirming, impatient, queue jumpers. So here we are in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, squashed up with an unknown number of wriggling Chinese, trying to get ourselves and our luggage through a security check point, one person at a time, so we can have our passports stamped, all without any sleep whatsoever; happy? You bet your life we are!!!!
I know it was 1am on a Sunday and that overtime budgets and penalty rates are an issue, but surely the Vietnamese government could have rostered more than two Immigration Officers to stamp our passports – the process seemed to take forever! In fact, the process took one and a half hours and we were back in our beds at just after 2.30am. The next problem is the Chinese Immigration is about an hour away and you just cannot sleep knowing you have to do it all again soon. So at 3.30amish our sadistic ticket inspector knocks on the door and tells us to prepare for Chinese Immigration – had we slept? You bet your life we had not!
The Chinese Immigration Officers of course were a little more efficient and forceful than their Vietnamese neighbours. Firstly, they were dressed like they were going to war and they all had the ‘Clint Eastwood, go ahead make my day’ twinkle in their eyes. Secondly, they had some sort of fencing erected making their fellow countrymen form some sort of line. Di and I kept ourselves entertained by allowing a space in front of us in the line and then blocking the would be worming queue jumpers with our bags and bodies – we all have sadistic streaks in us.
To their credit the Chinese Immigration, unlike their Vietnamese counterparts, would not let anyone back onto the train until everyone was processed. This though create scenes reflective of the start of a Formula One race when the last person was processed – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen start your luggage’! Once the doors to the Immigration were opened it appeared we were now in Pamplona and everyone started running back to the train – except of course the three lone westerners who just meandered on over. Were we in a hurry? You bet your life we did not give a @#$#@#!
We were back snuggling up in our bed on the train just after 5.30am. At just after 5.31am we welcomed the sun rising. It was about this time we all fell asleep for the first time that night. The train was due to arrive at Nanning Train Station in China at 10am, Chinese time, which of course is 9am Vietnamese time, which of course means we lost an hours possible sleep time – could this night get any better? You bet your life it could!
The sleeper train should be renamed ‘the sleepless train’; seriously we emerged into the dazzling Nanning morning sunlight like extras from ‘The Walking Dead’.
The taxi touts swarmed all over us and we were stunned to find that we could not understand a word they were saying, it was as if they were speaking a different language – note to self, no one in the Chinese countryside speaks anything other than Chinese! We said farewell to Sergio and to our helpful Chinese travelling companion and we looked for an ATM. Okay, so we arrived in China with no Chinese currency but one would expect an ATM to be close to the railway station – wrong! We made a decision, because Diane has all my money, she would set off in search of an ATM whilst I sat under a tree in the shade and minded the bags. Diane was gone a while and eventually several streets away found a bank with an ATM and we were now financial again. Were we now feeling confident? You bet your life we were!
Our new-found confidence soon evaporated. We tried to get a taxi to take us to our hotel but they didn’t understand and refused to take us. We went from taxi to taxi without any success. Di had no internet on her phone so we couldn’t do any form of location search. Note to self, before entering China save google map location of hotel and get hotel address written in Chinese. Eventually, a very weary Diane went into a hotel across the road from the train station and asked if they could ring a taxi to take us to our hotel – the girl at the hotel reception looked at Diane blankly and then said ‘138 Yuan, one night’ – ‘lost in translation’ strikes again. The girl sensing that was the wrong answer did make a phone call and indicated for us to wait. A few minutes later a lady arrived, who did speak some English, and we got the message across we wanted a taxi to go to the Wanxing hotel. The lady wrote out the name of the hotel in Chinese and, with this, we were successful in getting the next taxi we tried to take us to the hotel for the grand total amount of 11 Yuan or just over AUD$2.
We would be spending one night before catching a fast train to Guilin the next morning. This hotel was close to where we would be catching the fast train the next morning, or so we thought. If we thought we had translation problems before, they got a whole lot worse when we tried to book into the hotel. At first they couldn’t find our booking until we said the magic words of Agoda, apparently Agoda bookings are stored in a different place. Then they wanted us to pay 400 Yuan but couldn’t get across as to why, as we had already paid for our room. We were told to sit – people keep telling us to sit lately, so we sat. Eventually the reception staff held a phone out to us and Di spoke to a manager who could speak some English. The 400 Yuan was a deposit which will be returned to us on checking out if we do not use the minibar. He also told us our rooms would not be ready until 2pm, it was now 12.30pm, we had to wait. Did we love China at this moment? You bet your life we did not!!!!
We walked into our room and plonked ourselves into bed and slept for a couple of hours. When we woke we went to, of all places, Walmart, yes there is a Walmart in Nanning. We had to buy food for the next days’ train trip and Walmart was the place to do it. On the way back from Walmart we stopped at a Steak Restaurant and decided to treat ourselves to a more expensive meal than usual – we had earned it I felt. We walked back to the hotel and, on entering our room, we were so looking forward to a good nights’ sleep. We turned on the light switch and there was a load popping sound and all the electricity for the room went – nothing worked. I went down to the reception desk and just grabbed one of the guys down there and indicated for him to follow me – I was not bothering to even try to explain the room had no electricity. Thankfully, once he saw nothing worked, he raced down stairs. We sat there very, very @##$#@# tired and waited. The manager we spoke to on the phone earlier came to our room with an electrician or hotel handyman. Diane said that we had to change rooms. The manager agreed and moved us upstairs. I went up to the room first. When I entered the room it stank of cigarette smoke and I noticed there wasn’t a fridge in this room. Di then arrived and was not, how do you say, HAPPY! I went downstairs to see the English speaking manager just as our old room had power restored. I told him we would stay in this room and I went and got Di to come back down. Did we sleep well that night? You bet your life we did!
We had to get up early the next morning and missed breakfast. Di had bought a Sim card the previous day near Walmart so we were now online. Di used google translator to explain to the hotel reception staff that we needed them to order a taxi for us to take us to Nanning Dong (East) train station. There was lots of head nodding and a phone call was made. A taxi arrived shortly and the hotel staff member had a discussion with the taxi driver and all seemed just peachy. We sat back in the taxi and Di followed our progress on google map. The first five minutes of the trip seemed all rosy until the taxi driver missed a turn and then another turn, Google map showed he was taking us to the airport. I guess it was our fault for assuming the hotel staff member had told the taxi driver our destination – wrong. What ensured was Diane busily typing in English on Google translator and then passing it forward to the taxi driver – not sure what she wrote but I saw the taxi drivers face drop. He then wrote on his phone in Chinese which translated to ‘you are now changing the destination’ – just take us to the train station will you!!!!!!!!!!
The frustration between the taxi driver and Diane and I would reach extraordinary heights over the next half hour or so. We had left the hotel early to give ourselves plenty of time to work out the process of catching the train to Guilin. That time buffer was fast evaporating. Di was looking at Google map and was confused as to the direction we were going and several times challenged the driver as to whether he knew which way we were going. In the end, though, the fault was Google map as it was showing us the old Nanning Dong train station and ,on our arrival at the new station, it was clear the train station was now in a modern train station, in a different place to what was on Google map. We paid what was on the meter as most of the stress was sort of our fault and the taxi fare which should have been about 25 Yuan or AUD$5 came to 100 Yuan and our 15 minute trip took 60 minutes.
The train station is massive.
We found the train ticket office and unbelievably it had no one queuing for a ticket. We had booked the 3 hour journey on the Fast Train for AUD$35 each, online. A minute after Di had picked up our tickets there were queues at the ticket office 20 people deep – finally a slice of luck in China. We found our gate for our train easily enough. We had to go through a security check on entering the train station and again when going to the platform. Boarding for our train was announced 15 minutes before departure and you can imagine the squash to get through the gates – we had first class seats so we were in no hurry and waited until most of the crush was over.
We leisurely wandered onto the train and looked at the sheer beauty of our large seats with loads of leg room. There was plenty of room for our bags and we were off to Guilin on a Fast Train.
Do we love China so far? You bet your life we do!!!