Directions and geography underpin some of China’s provinces, city and street names. In its most common form; Bei as in Bejing (north) and Hubei, Hunan (nan = south), Guangdong (dong = east) and Guanxi (xi = west) and its the latter two that will feature in my itinerary as I first journey from Guangzhou to Nanning by train and then overnight by sleeper train to Hanoi in Vietnam – my first international trip in three years and only one of a handful of times I’ve travelled across borders by train (save England and Wales of course).
Nanning is another jigsaw in the process of being pieced together. It’s somewhere between Changsha and Taichung (in Taiwan) and quite possibly a potential Shenzhen as dilapidated buildings are being torn down like sheets of old wallpaper to be renewed by gleaming new structures. A good example of this is in the transport infrastructure itself as the gargantuan Guangzhou South I departed from is replaced by the equally mammoth Nanning East where a lot of the trains from GZ now terminate. Mine however is scheduled to stop a bit further up the track at the almost ubiquitous scene of the more shabby central station. In between, hazy scenes of farmland, forest and the kind of karst rock formation famed in this area of China and northern Vietnam are known for speed by. A sprinkle of thin trees line the top of a ridge forming a barrier between the white sky and the train. Their presence delivers an engaging pleasure something akin to light speckles of rain on the skin.
At Nanning, the older central station is undergoing work to accommodate the forthcoming metro system – already operational from the East station though I didn’t see any others in use so where it goes I have no idea. My main priority is to get a room for the night and I stick with the humble 7 Days Inn who insist on sliding a call girl card under my door even though on this occasion I already have female company. So we explore the city together taking in the river before discovering the inner city nightlife and a hot pot. The next day my friend departs leaving me to get my own perspective of the city and in its centre lies Starbucks and other temples of western delights save a decent pizzeria, but as my friend observed the previous evening I can get that in Guangzhou to which I responded in good natured banter that we could have gotten hot pot there too. Anyway on this white skied Tuesday I settle on Sushi. It’s a good choice. More importantly though my onward ticket to Hanoi is secured and I amble toward central for its departure.
Those who will journey with me include several dreadlocked hippy types with backpacks in their 20s who are obviously ‘doin’ Asia the real way man.’ Most passengers however are not surprisingly local or regional and in my compartment are two guys also in their 20s and a girl probably around the same age. I am beginning to feel like the old man no-one wants to talk to. When I first came to China, my fellow train dwellers were friendly, curious and would talk but this time only one does and even then the dialogue is as sporadic as the few towns that pass by in the dwindling dusk and nocturne. What I do learn though is he makes the trip fairly frequently as he knows the lay of the land and has a Vietnamese sim card. An hour or so after the ageing train slides away from the platform the night surrounds and will stay until we reach Hanoi. Why am I doing this? For starters it’s an adventure which may not last much longer; already a high speed line is mooted for the Nanning to Pingxian route and possibly beyond. There will always be romance associated with train journeys in foreign lands; the Orient Express, The Ghan, The Trans Siberian and this one was irresistibly within reach.
Something else dwindling is my iPhone battery, so I plug in to find the socket isn’t working. I run up the carriage to the bathroom or rather a row of sinks which also have sockets for electric shavers – again nothing. My only option is to switch off overnight to try and conserve the remaining power supply. First port of call is the border at Pingxian where we are instructed to get off with bags to cross low lying platforms to the Chinese immigration. As always no one tells us much and only when I get to the counter with my passport does the woman official tell me I need to fill in a departure card. Why are these places so ill informed and badly designed? Even modern day airports. After passing through we are penned in for an hour until everyone has been checked before we can resume our place on the train and the journey. The big surprise here is I expect to shunt up the track a few yards to Vietnamese customs but the young man in my compartment tells me it’s another two hours’ away! This will mean alighting again at some unearthly hour for a similar procedure except this time the customs house is like a grand hotel of bygone years. The glitz has worn thin and where the concierge may have stood are now Vietnamese officials. It takes a long time to be seen as all three personnel seem to take an interest in the same man. When the official before me finally decides to look at my passport it takes him a while to calculate the date that I need to depart (Britons currently get 15 days). My due date is January 3rd 2017 which doesn’t seem too long but I should be done by then. My intention is to have a few days’ in Hanoi before venturing on another train south to Ho Chi Minh then into Cambodia but for complications back in Guangzhou I will only see Hanoi.
Back on the train I utilise my soft sleeper for the remainder of the journey and like so many times in my personal history of nocturnal travel; Amsterdam and London at 5am, Calais and Paris at God knows what time, Shenzhen at 3am I awake with heightened senses around 04.30 to see buildings lining the track – some with lights on some without. These are slender concrete apartment blocks of only a few floors, each standing side by side oblong against the impending dawn, they would be a cool place to live. As it turns out this is not Hanoi but whatever precedes it. Then there are more fields and a knock at the compartment door. The conductor tells us 20 minutes to Gia Lam. The appearance outside of a new cluster of buildings represent the beginnings of the capital city and the train slouches to its resting place in a far flung northern suburb. What I didn’t anticipate was taxi drivers in mass waiting on the actual platform! But this is Asia, expect the unexpected. I ignore them all and venture into the darkened lane in search of a bus. Only then do I realise my failure to locate a money exchange and some locals kindly donate a few thousand Vietnamese dong for me to get a bus into town. In the rush of being alien in the early hours of an unknown city it doesn’t seem to take long before a lot of the hostels and hotels I’ve read about whizz past the window, this must be the old quarter. It was and I jump the few steps from the bus onto the pavement which sets in motion my next task – to find my hotel in semi-darkness. Some more lovely folk at a tiny convenience hovel point the way to a nearby street. I offer the remainder of the cash given to me – in essence returning it to Vietnamese hands – but they politely wave me away. My intention to return later and purchase something from them never eventuates which makes me feel a little guilty. The lane they suggested is the right one but the numbers don’t tally, ‘maybe it’s down here’ I think to myself and down yet another vein stands my beautiful hotel. A tea of cola brown served by a reception princess and the dawn find me there.