If I thought I was feeling low, that damp dawn, as I tramped over the bridge to the looming gateway marking the entrance into China, I was soon disabused of the notion. I was not feeling low at all: I was suffering from altitude sickness, so far did the day yet have to sink.
It had been a tricky morning. A very early start from the railway, a dawn motorcycle ride to the border crossing, a rather sullen set of immigration officials on the Vietnamese side of the border and all the while a damp chill in the air. Across the bridge and underneath the gateway into China stood a few guards but largely the place was deserted except for our fellow border crossers. I entered the Chinese immigration post, filled out the arrival form and the health declaration, smiled at the smiling and friendly immigration official and then had to unpack my bag for the suspicious customs official who was intent on finding my guide book to confiscate it. He never found it but he gave the books he did find a thorough going over, perhaps fearing some anti-Communist slurs in my history of the Napoleonic Wars.
Most people moving through the area probably don’t spend too much time in the border town of Hekou and they probably never really see much of it. It certainly was not my intention to explore its outer reaches and inner nooks and crannies, but after finally finding a bank to change some money and and then tracking down an English speaker who could give us directions to the bus station, I promptly set off in the wrong direction. Indeed, it was not just the wrong direction: I covered what seemed to be half the town before finally deciding I was definitely on the wrong tracking. I copied down the characters for ‘long distance bus station’ and was guided back to the very place where I was given the first directions. There, just two hundred yards in the other direction stood the bus station and the ticket office where I could buy my ticket to see the fabulous rice paddies of Yuanyang that spiral out from the town of Xinjie.
Of course, it turns out that there are two towns in Yunnan province called Xinjie. One is a popular tourist destination in beautiful surroundings where people flock to see the sunlight dancing on the water’s surface; one is grim provincial town, a stop-over on the way to and from nowhere where no tourist or visitor ever stops but rather hurries on through. Naturally, on asking for a bus ticket to Xinjie, and not specifying which one, I was sold a ticket to the grim provincial town. Clambering aboard the bus and talking with fellow passengers I soon discovered the interesting little fact that while all our tickets said Xinjie, mine was half the cost. After a couple of hours of being jolted along a surprisingly bad road (and China seemed to have the worst roads of any of the countries in region) we stopped and I was ejected from the bus.
One of the many privileges of living or travelling in a communist country is that you get to offer up your passport or identity card at various police checkpoints. Soldiers stop buses and coaches, board them, demand papers, write down numbers, keep tabs on people and then wave them on their way. Our checkpoint stop at Xinjie was no different from any other. The bus was stopped. A young, almost boyish, soldier in a flack-jacket and too-large helmet stood at the door and two uniformed corporals climbed up and demanded our papers. I handed over my passport as did everyone else but, unlike anyone else on the bus, after the soldiers departed with our papers I was brusquely told to leave as well. This was my Xinjie: this was my stop.
Of course, having to get off the bus at a police checkpoint has its benefits. Of all the places to suddenly find your plans going up in smoke in a country where the language barrier is perhaps at its greatest, a police checkpoint at least gives you the possibility of help. That young, almost boyish, soldier with his flack-jacket and oversized helmet was no gun toting thug: despite speaking no English he took me to the town’s bus station and helped me buy a ticket. His smile never left his face. His colleagues at the check point set out chairs for me, so as to let me sit whilst I waited for the next bus. His lieutenant, a amiable man in his twenties, spoke English and as we departed clasped my hand in a vigorous hand shake. In fact, of all the places to find oneself momentarily out on one’s ear, a police checkpoint seems to be the very best place to be. The guardians of China’s regime could not have been nicer or more helpful. If only the bus service had been as helpful: there was no onward bus to the Xinjie I actually wanted that day and the only place I could go to was Kunming, a rather dreadful ten or so hours away.
In the end, though, that grim provincial Xinjie was not so terrible a place. I stayed there only briefly but the streets thronged with people, the markets were busy, the people often in traditional clothes. It was not the place to have a pee though. The trench the young, almost boyish, soldier directed one to was so overflowing with urine and feculent matter that even the flies avoided it. It did not even really smell: some atmospheres are so over-powering that the word smell loses its meaning. The air itself becomes a physical barrier.
Denied the chance to get Xinjie, and being short of time, I could do nothing but start my journey out of China. But China is big, really big: its roads are bad and journey times consequently lengthened by ridiculously low speeds. Worse still, the only bus available from Xinjie went on to Kunming and Kunming is in completely the wrong direction if one wants to head to the border. It is not only in the wrong direction, it is ten hours away in the wrong direction. By the time the nightmare journey was over, it was almost midnight and I was in a town far from where I wanted to be with the language barrier once again looming large.
Finding a hotel was not too difficult, booking a room not insurmountable. Even undisturbed sleep was possible once I had unplugged the telephone so as to block the calls of soliciting prostitutes. And in the morning my troubles seemed further away. The sun was shining and Kunming in the daylight was a far more welcoming place than the one it was at midnight. The pagodas and gateways and temples and cafes were inviting. The very air was friendlier. Yet the distance to be covered to get out of China and back on with the trip was daunting. It would be a long journey.