15.12.2013 - 19.12.2013 -2 °C
It had to happen, I suppose: have one place on my journey where there was such a concatenation of things go wrong that it marred the whole experience of being there. All in all, it would have been better not to have had the four nights in Kunming (I was compelled to stay that long because I needed a visa). Not that it was all bad, but it was bad enough to split my account into two posts – the bad and the good.
First, however, there is the long train trip down from Zigong. I had an hour or so to wait in the station, and was most entertained by the Passenger Transport Officer. I don’t know how senior that made him in the structure of the Zigong Railway Station, but his was the only office on the ground floor. But this was dinner time, so his office turned into a pop-up restaurant for his people: about six uniformed staff clustered around his desk, all sharing their food from communal pots. They ate quickly – after about 20 minutes, everyone took their plates etc away, washed up, he had a quiet smoke with one other officer, his desk was cleared of all dining paraphernalia and we have the model railway official’s office back. I was interrupted in my scrutiny by a girl, I thought at first she was a school student but it turned out that she was a level three university student, who made a beeline for the seat beside mine. I was very conscious of her sitting there, looking at me, sort of anxious about something: eventually, after a couple of false starts from her and smiles from me, she talked and we chatted through until it was time to go – she was off to visit her mother in Kunming.
I had decided to go for soft sleeper, since it didn’t cost very much and it was going to be something like 16 hours on the train. Funnily enough, a soft sleeper is no softer than a hard one. For the first part, I had the four berth compartment to myself: then I was joined by a bloke who snored through the night. I enjoyed the sensation of this long slow journey through the night, with its twists, its climbs, its stops for the up train or to collect passengers. At one point I was astonished to find snow on the hills beside the tracks – I had not seen any to the north, so had thought I would see none at all. I read later that snow in this area is so unexpected that it caused problems in north Vietnam, where people were stopping on its roads (difficult to negotiate at the best of times) to gawp at this strangeness.
In Kunming, I had paid for the premium garden view room in the hostel (not actually my first choice of place to stay (it was closed for renovation) or second (it was full for two nights): the room was nice alright and showed me the garden, so there was nothing misleading about its description. But there was NO HEATING! I mentioned the snow: it was still snowing when I hit Kunming, and overnight temperatures were always below zero while I was there. The bar was the one place to be warm and get some internet: it was normally crowded and closed at midnight.
My Monday started well, but then went downhill: I had a plan of things I was going to see, but had not worked out that Mondays are the one day that most tourist sites (museums, art galleries, even the Provincial library) close. It was Tuesday, however, that things really got bad. One of the major things influencing my choice to come to Kunming, indeed to this part of China, is the Stone Forest – a five hundred square kilometre park of intricate karst outcrops. I have seen many photos and videos of these and they look magical, but you need about five hours in park to get to the good stuff.
The park is a mere 73 km from Kunming. I knew exactly how to get there: I couldn’t take the train, because you need your passport for that and mine was in the Vietnamese Consulate, but there are buses. The #22 will take you to the East bus station, and from there a bus will take you directly to the park. It is worth repeating this: the directions were clear and the distance is 73 km. I left the hostel at around 9:30 and found the #22 bus stop. I waited. I waited some more. I grew moss I was there so long but eventually a #22 bus did arrive. It is about the oldest bus I have seen in China. It turned out that the East bus station is way out in the country, up in the hills above Kunming. The impotent #22 could barely make it up the hills – having so many people on board would not have helped (I longed for the wonderful new buses they use in Yichang which seemed to fly up the gorge hills).
But, finally, we made it to the East Bus Station, a brand new and fairly grand looking building with, I noticed, an even newer metro station. But then I am completely flummoxed: there are a large number of ticket windows, and I thought the writing over each represented a different destination. By now, it is a bit before noon, and I am wondering if there is any point continuing. But, yes, I will and I found out that simply saying “stone forest” produced a ticket. Finding the right gate for the Stone Forest was easy, but no bus actually left until 1:00. I still thought I would get to see something, particularly as the bus goes there directly by expressway. Hah! The expressway is funded by tolls: to collect tolls, you need tollgates. There were two between the East Bus Station and the Stone Forest (one was a mere 500 metres before the forest): each had the traffic backed up for 3 – 4 km. My estimation of when we would arrived kept being put back, but it was nearly 4:00 before I was off the bus.
Luckily I was able to work out that there were two more buses back to Kunming – at 5:00 and at 6:00. Unluckily, I found out that it is about a 4 km walk from where I was into where the karst formations began to cluster. So, after a wander around and a rather nice bacon fried rice I gulped down, I caught the 5:00 bus back to town.
Of course, going back, I couldn’t help but notice that the traffic was flowing easily both ways, with no hold ups at the tollgates. But my day was not quite done yet: I still had to contend with the #22 bus (I did try the metro, but it is not yet complete, and only runs further East, to the airport, at this stage). To be honest, I am no longer sure the #22 bus back exists. I found the right stop. I’d say that at one point, up to a hundred people were waiting for the #22 – some could obviously go by a different bus, but when a bus with the magic numbers finally turned up, thlere were a good 50 people waiting, and they’d been waiting for a long time. So, there was an altercation – the driver got extremely rude and shouty, and stopped a lot of people getting on the bus: I thought it was because they had shouted at him. It turns out that what he was shouting (I deduce this from later events, not a miraculous uptake of Chinese language skills) was “This bus says it is a #22 but it is not: I am going somewhere different”. I got on with about 6 others: at least the bus did go into Kunming, and thanks to my fruitless walk around, I knew where I was. Only then did it dawn on me that he was not actually letting people off – I stood up near a bus stop, but was ignored.
So, it was about 9:30 I finally made it back to the hostel, dinner plans ruined (but that’s OK because I had discovered that to stay warm in my frozen room, pot noodles helped).
I have nothing bad to say about the rest of my time in Kunming or a subsequent fleeing visit to change trains, save to say that Kunming had one final sting to administer: I took some money out during that fleeting visit and have now found out that this transaction has been duplicated: apparently I took precisely the same amount out several hours after I left.
Next post = nice Kunming