I haven’t slept much, my sleep is besieged by a peculiar and cryptic dream which had been reoccurring frequently under various guises ever since that night I first crossed the desert to China. It seemed somehow appropriate that I should dream once more, again as I slept on a train and on the cusp of finally leaving China behind me after two months. The morning found me in a strange and contemplative mood, neither joyous nor sorrowful; although once my initial relief, that my bags in the open hard sleeper hadn’t been razored whilest I slept, had subsided I could feel the gradual darkening of gathering cloud. A sudden urgency gripped me, to get out of China as soon as possible, it would be the only thing which could stave off the burgeoning and possibly debilitating slump. I became strangely fearful of the prospect of spending a night in Nanning, I had to leave soon, today if possible.
This was the lowest point of my travels, I felt I was in for a rough ride over the next few days with gloom setting in, and with so many days, seven months, and so many miles to go it seemed like I had an immense task before me, although in truth I never felt like turning back and just returning home to be honest, I did however imagine what it would be like if I did. Back in cold and rainy Ireland, staring out the window on a miserable November afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to go, imagining myself back here with the whole of southeast asia left unexplored and me trapped back there, it would have been crushing. Here I was alone, but it didnt bother me as low as I felt I didnt need the comfort of others to help me through, I had learned from my travels on the trains that I had high tolerance to loneliness and indeed ofter sought it out. I can honestly say that in all my ten months of traveling alone there was never one day where I felt I missed the comfort of home.
Back to the task at hand, examining my out of date Lonely Planet, it wasn’t quite clear if I could catch a train to Hanoi given that I was to arrive in Nanning in mid morning or for that matter what I should do if I could not. Bungling off the train I was swept along by the throng out the door to the stations entrance. i wander around lost for a while looking for a ticket booth for something like the “friendship train” or whatever bizarre Chinese euphemism the cross border train is called. Eventually an elderly lady comes to my aid, she has some sort of semi-broken english and claims to be living in America now. She brings me to the ticket box, the girl behind the counter says something which she claims means that the train wont be running again for another five days. Damn, what do I do now? Looks like Im spending the night in Nanning one way or another.
Wandering the street across from the train station, it seems the hostel indicated on the Lonely Planet map now longer exists. I ask at the hotel next to the address but they cant understand what Im looking for. I wander a little into the city trying to figure out my next move, but eventually the weight of my bags persuades me to concede defeat; I return to the hotel and using my severely limited Chinese skills somehow manage to book a nights accommodation. The room is spacious, sterile looking and without the unnecessary additives of character or homeliness which most budget Chinese hotels tend to forgo. Momentarily slumping on the bed in an exhausted stupor, I quickly pull myself together, I have to figure out how to get to Vietnam, one night here is enough. Leafing through my Lonely Planet it would seem that even they struggle to find anything much to recommend about Nanning, there is some halfhearted mention of a museum containing the world largest bronze drum collection or something and a slightly unusual fountain somewhere but the overriding message is just get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
Right, time to formulate a plan of action, the map shows a tourist information office not too far away, surely they can help me. Weaving through traffic and enduring the usual gormless stares I eventually arrive, the girl in the office speaks a sufficient amount of english to inform me that I would need to send my passport off to the Vietnamese embassy and consequently give them some money too. “But I already have a visa” I explain, “no, no, the way is now bad” she smiled sweetly, “you must get another check – and give us money”, hmmm this didnt seem right to me. Her boss emerges from the back office “yes, yes, the way is now bad, you must check from embassy, – and pay us money”. “Ok, I dont think Ill be doing that, thanks.” Leaving the office I hadn’t got a clue what to do next. I was sure they were trying to scam me, it wasn’t so much the money but rather the delay which irked me most.
There was a long distance bus station outside the city somewhere but I wasnt confident Id be able to direct a taxi there. I wandered deeper into the city with growing exasperation not sure what exactly I was looking for. After several hours of fruitless search I suddenly remember that there was another agency nextdoor to the first travel agency but it seemed to cater only for Chinese, might as well give it a try, what else can I do?
Sure enough the girls inside had no english and I was left flailing with my phrasebook. Then they begin shouting into the back of the office and out comes a young lad, “Alwight mate, how can I help you?” he asks in a dodgy english accent. Finally! A stroke of good luck! Turns out the guy had lived in Brighton for a few years. Explaining my difficulty he helps me out, writing down the characters for the taxi driver, for the ticket office at the station and even went so far as to call a taxi for me. What a hero, I wish I could remember his name, I’d write it here so he could be listed on the Lonely Planet’s website as one of the best things about Nanning, apart from the drum museum and the fancy fountain of course, I think he called himself Aaron. He didnt seem to know anything about the way which was supposedly “now bad” either.
Having booked a ticket for early the next morning, I return to Nanning, as night approaches its getting cold, I buy another alarm clock to wake me in time to catch the bus in the morning, smashing my previous one against the tiled floor, “you’ve have failed me once too often”. It would be one of perhaps twelve alarm clocks I would buy before I would return home, all of which would desert me in some crucial hour of need.
Settling in for the night the hotel takes on a creepy dissonance. It has the feel of some baron soulless place used by long distance businessmen. Each floor consists of a single enormous corridor which fifty rooms evenly spaced along the length. It reminds me of how mental hospitals are always depicted in films, cold echoing with unseen disembodied voices, sudden incomprehensible shouts and random wild uncontrolled laughter, in the distance at the end of the corridor for some reason there is always a hunched shambling figure floodlight beneath flickering florescent lightening, clutching at a sweeping broom but never seen to be actually sweeping. Inside my room I frequently get phone calls from breathless female voices, “eeeekkkk?” comes the surprised response when I reply in english. Eventually I pull the phone out of the wall to stop them harassing me. The mummers in the corridor are occasionally broken by the clip-clip-clop of stiletto high heels as scantly young ladies comes and go from rooms.
Checking my email, I received a nice mail from Eoin and Ashling saying that there were to be married, having gotten engage in Borneo. They’d traveled a long distance since Beijing and here was me just about to leave China.