Cheng Chin Yuen

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

18th July - San Jiang – Huai Hua – Kai Li

The San Jiang train station was so low down the pecking order that it was not allowed to issue allocated seats or sleeper berths. That left us and everybody at the mozzie infested station with the ‘no seat’ class. When the train finally arrived in the light drizzle and when we entered the carriage, we understood that ‘no seat’ class really meant no seats. At 2.50am, the train was filled with a groggy mess of bodies in varying degrees of unconsciousness. Men, women, children and babies were asleep or trying to sleep in the most comfortable positions they could contort their bodies into between the tables and the next body. The stuffy cabin stank of sweat, smoke and of the generous slimy layer of spit on the floor. It took quite a bit of getting used to but there were people sleeping on the floor under the benches. This ride could be survived.

For a few minutes, we stood along the aisle in the middle of the carriage, shell shocked. The trains in India were in much better shape. They were smaller but at least you could put your bag down on the floor without fear of the spit factor. The carriage was much bigger than those in India and to reach the overhead luggage racks, you had to stand on the seats! That ultimately meant placing your butt on a bit of someone’s spit.

Fortunately for Karen, a lady was kind enough to shift her children to leave some space for the bigger half of Karen’s butt. I stood along the aisle next to Karen, fully loaded, unwilling to let my bags touch down on bacterialand. I was still trying to make some sense of the scene. One guy was trying to get the ceiling fan going by spinning the blade with his finger. It did begin whirling after the kickstart…for a while. One lady wanted to lie down so her friend gave up his place, stood by the aisle and tried to sleep. Another guy let his head slip onto a lady’s shoulder and got a lashing. There was always someone going to the loo at the end of the carriage. Every time the door opened, a faint urine waft was sent down the carriage. There exists an unwritten rule in the ‘no seat’ class that once you have found a seat, no one in the world can take it away from you. I stood long and loaded enough for the guy next to me to offer his seat to me for a while. He, his wife and their sleeping baby son occupied the entire bench meant for 3 to 4 adults. I declined. Eventually I moved to the carriage intersection just behind the toilets, found a relatively clean space and sat down on my backpack. It wasn’t too bad, I had some other bags to lean on and the toilet didn’t smell as long as the door was closed.

It wasn’t too bad until one stop where the door behind me opened and a flood of people scrambled in. In the usual case, the train officers would be at their battle-stations long before the train came to a standstill to ensure that alighting passengers managed to exit the carriage before the battling ram of humanity came on board. Somehow, the dude in charge came late and I found myself stuck in the middle of the push-of-war. The simple logic of standing aside first for those alighting much alike our worsening MRT situation back home is simply non-existent. The problem was that unlike our wide MRT doors, the train doors limit the human flow to a single file. My saviour in a sloppy blue uniform barged to the stalemate, screamed, shouted, swore, shoved people and kicked their baggage out of the way till he reached the door to perform his bouncer duty with authority. People rushed out and people rushed in and I occupied my rightful space after the commotion. In this aspect, the Chinese and the Indians (and perhaps in due time, the Singaporeans) are one and the same.

As we entered Hunan, more and more people shared the space with me. They spoke with a funny accent much alike the Chinese in Penang. A bit tsao(2) siah(1) or run sound or pronounced with the incorrect intonations.

We arrived in Huai Hua at about 7am. All the carriage toilets must have discharged their shit all at one go for the station smelled worse than any Indian train station we’ve been to. At the exit, one man was quarrelling with a lady worker manning the gates. Both were shouting but the lady was doing it through her loudhailer which would otherwise be used for directing the human traffic.

Acting on the advice of the owner of our breakfast place, we decided to bus to Kai Li instead of the trains which he described as ‘very messy’. I believe him as there were 5 very long queues at the ticketing booths.

Three consecutive smoke-filled bus-rides eventually got us to Kai Li. The most interesting thing that happened was my only toilet stop. The round shit pit was slightly over a metre in diameter. You were supposed to squat on the two planks placed across it. Below was a sizzling mass of milk chocolate. The sizzling effect came from a writhing surface of maggots. The whole thing looked like a rock concert held in a stadium with the fat fly mothers watching their children eagerly from the side. None of us who went to the ‘toilet’ wanted our asses over a sea of maggots so we did our business on the grass.

In Kai Li we stayed in Petroleum Hotel. It was owned by Sinopec, a local petrol giant but couldn’t they think of a better name? It was quite an experience especially with 6 storeys and no lift. The cheapest room was of course on the highest floor. In the state we were in, we paid 10 yuan more for a bigger room on the fourth floor. Interestingly, no 200 yuan key deposit is needed here because, you have no key. On the third level there is a keymaster who will open the door for you when you return to your room.

Kai Li isn’t too bad for a big town but there is a Yangtze’s on every street showing porn flicks. And if you are too shy watching porn with a room full of dirty blokes, you can by them from the many pasar malam vendors. There is also half a street selling automated majong tables which can shuffle and set the tiles for you. I saw a motorcycle carrier (a cross between a motorbike and a pickup) loaded with ducks and geese. To prevent any escape, the birds were bound with masking tape. The human make up here is more complicated with quite a few tribal folks walking the streets in their respective garb. The accents are also increasingly difficult to understand.

For dinner, we had some splendid ginger chicken noodles (3.5 yuan per bowl) and tao(2) huay(1) soup. The latter was tasteless soya bean curd in a tasteless bean-sprout soup eaten with rice and an oily peanut-mutton bits dish. Hey, we are always game for new dishes! Dog-meat may be up next on the list…

19th July – Kai Li to Chong An

Next time I visit China, it will be with an oxygen tank. There were three smokers in front of us today on the 1.5 hour ride to the tribal village of Chong An and we had to be sitting directly behind the heaviest smoker of the lot. He smoke 4 cigarettes in total and the wind blew some ashes on to us.

*Ok I think you get the idea of how bad the smoking situation is over here so I won’t mention it again in the future but we suffer on every bus-ride.

Chong An follows a five-day market cycle and with our luck and reliable information from the tourist information in Kai Li, today was market day!

Although we arrived in the early afternoon, Chong An was still in a festive mood. Most ladies were in their traditional gear and the streets and stalls were abuzz with people in their large bamboo hats, shouldering their purchases in two baskets balanced on a bamboo carrying pole. Huge pieces of watermelons were the favourite snack and quite a few chickens were suspended from the poles. They accepted what was to come and did not struggle or cluck too much. It was a market for locals and pleasantly devoid of useless tourist souvenirs. Everyone around us looked like a farmer and here it was easy to tell that we were tourists.

In the poultry section, sheep eyeballs were up for grabs. ‘Very nice to eat’, said the butcher as he lopped the hoof off a leg. They looked a bit like tang(1) yuan(2) with an overdose of zhi(1) ma(2) stuffing.

They friendly folks didn’t seem to mind being photographed and the ‘photo charge’ was asked tongue-in-cheek always with a big smile or hearty laughter. The highlight was really seeing all these women (yes, it was again mostly women doing the work) interacting with each other. They were wearing four main kinds of head-dresses. Most common was a white scarf tied over the head to look like a kind of squarish cap. The second was like the first but with a brownish-purple silky wrapping. Women that wore these two types of headgear usually wore a sky blue long-sleeved shirt. The third was a white triangular volcano like cap with extended eves over the ears. A tuff of hair sprouted from the mouth of volcano so the overall effect is rather comical. The last was similar to what a nurse would wear but with more elaborate weavings and bright dangly stuff at the back. Stuck into the hair was always a comb. Women wearing the latter two usually wore black with a blue apron in the front. The kids here are shy, curious but not daring to come too close to us. In India, we would have been swamped with ‘one photo!’ or ‘one rupee!’ demands.

Ancient wooden houses lined the cobbled back-streets. Framing all doors were scarlet Chinese dui(4) lian(2) and posters of fearsome protector Gods. We wandered into a coffin-makers house. The short man was axing his third coffin into shape. They were the massive kind you see in the Shen Tiao Xia Nu series. He spoke shyly and gently, telling us that his poor house was on the verge of collapse. You should check out this guy’s biceps in the photo.

Dinner was had at the only sit-down restaurant in town. We thought our pork rib and vege hotpot was great until we saw the fish hotpot the other table was having. Across the river a farmer, his wife and daughter were herding their ducks for an evening bath.

Accommodation for tonight is at Xiao(3) Jiang(1) Nan(2) Lu(3) You(2) Fan(4) Dian(4), where the little sandfly-like insects that sucked our blood in the afternoon were thankfully gone in the evening. The moths and little cockroaches also enhanced the rural feel and the bath-tub in the external bathroom functioned as a big water container from which you would scoop refreshingly cold water to douse yourself with. Raise your hand too high and you will hit the lone tungsten bulb hanging from the ceiling. Well for 40 yuan, you can’t complain and the friendly uncle is kind enough to arm us with a bottle of insect repellent, one more bottle of green ointment and 4 mozzie coils. Dobry Noch!

20th July – Chong An to An Shun

At breakfast this morning, I was quite impressed by a two year old boy sitting at the opposite table all alone, eating his steaming bowl of noodles while his granny enjoyed her morning chatter on the pavement. He is the first two year old I have seen who could use chopsticks proficiently and who could tackle the health hazard independently. It was quite a joy watching and photographing the little one till the stall owner told us that his mother died in a recent car accident. He still doesn’t know the truth yet and lives with his granny while his dad works in Guangdong.

On the long bus-ride to An Shun, I scored a minor victory by politely asking a smoker two rows behind us to snuff it out. It was an air-conditioned bus and the majority of the passengers save one happened to be tolerant non-smokers. Maybe, I was in a foul mood as I was falling sick.

Yup it’s confirmed that I am sick. 38.6 degrees. Thank goodness the hotel is clean and cheap. Diving into bed now.


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