Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chapter 4...China

Chapter 4…China

Sunday, February 1st, 2004...“China…Part 1…”…

(Journal entry written from the train between Lao Cai and Hanoi)
Home. I'm going home. Every clickety-clack of the rails takes me a few more meters home. Out the window to my right is the Red River flowing from China toward my home and then out to the South China Sea. Out the window to my left is a water buffalo scratching his neck against a banana tree. Ladies hang a rainbow colored wash on lines in front of bamboo huts with grass roofs. In my railcar all around me are bobbing brown heads topped with thick black hair, sleeping, eating, looking out the windows, chatting or smoking. Some cigarette smoke finds its way out the open windows but most it seems finds its way back to me. But I don't mind so much now because every clickety-clack of the rails brings me a few more meters closer to home. Conical hats crown thin figures in the rice fields hoeing or plowing with water buffalo or planting. Spring and hope are in the air. What I see around me is like nothing I’ve ever seen the likes of before…this is a train ride that really defies description.

The 4 NES, (Native English Speakers) from our school, Brandon, Lynelle, Roger and I, left Hanoi on Friday Jan. 16th for China by train. We attended a conference in Hong Kong where we all spent the first week of our 2 week vacation and then spent the second week traveling together by train around southern China. These 2 weeks will be unforgettable and I’ll likely be writing about them in greater detail in the next few general letters.

Originally, I had planned to fly to the conference while Brandon (24), Roger (23) and Lynelle (20) planned to take the train. However, “the kids” as I shall herein affectionately call them, invited me to join them. At first I declined, thinking I’d be extra baggage to them, but I enjoy being with these 3 so much that I thought it would be the opportunity of a life-time. And I was right. Spending 2 weeks with “the kids” made me feel younger than 57…trying to keep up with them made me feel 87! However, I wouldn’t trade the experience and it would have been a mistake not to go with them.

As we started this incredible journey we had no idea really what awaited us. Only Roger had ever been to China before. We had a 4 person sleeper from Hanoi to the China border. There, we had to get off the Vietnamese train and switch to a train from China. That was our first clue that China was immensely more prosperous than Vietnam. The sleeper in China was BETTER than first class! It was luxury in every detail. We slept little however on the first leg of the journey as we were all too wound up and excited. Brandon had brought along his guitar so we sang and chatted most of the way to Nanning, our first stop in China.

Nanning is a small city by Chinese standards, only over a million people. It was a gloomy, cold, overcast day and before we left the train station, we waited while Brandon bought the train tickets for the next leg of our train journey. While we waited, I noticed that the Chinese people, are on average, about 20-30 lbs heavier than Vietnamese and they look well fed. You rarely see Vietnamese who are overweight. This was not the case in China. Another thing that struck me was how quiet and clean Nanning was. No horns honking. Traffic was orderly and smooth, unlike Hanoi. There were lanes for motorbikes and bikes and other lanes for cars, trucks and busses. This was a modern city compared to even HCM.

We had 6 hours between our next train from Nanning to Guangzhou so we decided to walk around, which became more burdensome with every passing period of time due to the heavy backpacks and baggage we had brought along. It was during this first day we all became painfully aware that we had packed way too heavy.
Our first stop was to have coffee on the 22nd floor of a revolving restaurant atop one of the finer hotels in Nanning. We were all pretty blurry eyed from the all night travel and we needed to wake up. We chatted, drank coffee and watched the city “turn” around us. Here as in Vietnam, when you order coffee you get one small cup with no refills. You pay for each cup. At $2.00 a cup, we made only one revolution in the restaurant.

Walking down one of the broad, clean boulevards of Nanning, I was so impressed with the quietness, order, and cleanliness. However, unlike Vietnam, there were no ready smiles from the citizens and at first we could find no one that could speak English. This would become an increasing problem as we traveled further thru China.

We came upon a small, well-manicured park and as our backpacks and luggage were too much to bear for further walking, we stopped to rest on some benches. People gazed at us as if we were foreigners! Brandon broke out his guitar and started to play. We began so sing together. Pretty soon we looked up and we were encircled by about 30-40 curious onlookers. Too bad I didn’t have the presence of mind to pass around my hat and take up a collection for the show we were giving. We all felt a little uneasy. No one spoke English and it was obvious foreigners were rare in this south China city.

After a few more songs, 3 young men emerged from the crowd and started speaking to us in English. They were college students and one was an English major. While two of the young men talked to the other 3 I started asking one of the young men all about Nanning. Now we were getting somewhere. Suddenly it dawned on me. There were no McDonalds at all in Vietnam. Not one golden arch to be found anywhere in the whole country. Could it be possible that Nanning might have Big Macs? I asked the young man. “Of course!” he answered as if McDonalds was a Chinese birthright. “Where?” I asked with excitement. Now mind you, I avoided McDonalds in the states unless there was nowhere else to go but after 5 months of eating things that I couldn’t identify, little less pronounce, this was going to be pure culinary joy! He pointed to some golden arches just above the trees in the park. We were only 500 yards from pay dirt! “McDonalds!!!” I screamed and pointed to my blurry-eyed mates. As if shot out of a cannon, we left the stunned crowd gazing wide-eyed behind us as we headed quickly with all our gear for a taste of home.

McDonalds, bless them, has the same menu in China as in the good ole US of A. And the place was packed. It took us ever so long to finally get seats where we could all sit together with our boxcar sized gear. A waitress came to our table with a picture menu and graciously took our order. This was no ordinary Mickey D’s…this was first class. And when, after drooling for those eternal minutes before the familiar food came to the table, I slowly took at last, my first bite of a Big Mac outside the home of the brave and the land of the free. Pure pleasure! Now when a man has been so deprived that he’d rather have McDonalds than a lobster tail, you know he is on the verge of being institutionalized. However, there was some comfort in knowing there were 4 of us all headed for the same institution.

Two Big Macs, a coke, large fries, a hot apple pie and an ice cream cone later, my mates and I sat comatose in a world of contented oblivion. For the longest time after we ate, no one said a word. The whirl of unidentified Chinese voices all around us were just soothing white noise to these stuffed and satisfied tired travelers. We didn’t want to move. China had afforded us our first, but by no means our last, culinary comfort zone. Now we were ready for a long winters nap. But it was past time we needed to be going to catch our train to Guangzhou.

Begrudgingly, we put on our packs and picked up our gear as weary soldiers going off to another battle. We had to rush to get to the train station. Our overnight train from Nanning to Guangzhou was as deluxe as the one we had arrived on. Four soft berths in our own cabin awaited us. This nite we didn’t spend much time singing or talking…we slept. And slept soundly.

The next morning we awoke, without option, to the sound of Chinese music. It was raining hard when we got off the train at Guangzhou, a city 2 hours bus ride from Hong Kong. We had decided to take the bus from Guangzhou to Hong Kong because it was cheaper. However, like in Nanning, we had a 6 hour layover. On our way to the bus terminal we walked past a McDonalds, much to my protest but the kids said maybe we could come back here after we bought our bus tickets. Disgruntled, I followed, looking back the whole while at the fading golden arches in the rain behind me.

My frustration and pouting was needless as right next to the China Hotel where we bought our bus tickets for Hong Kong was…dah dah dah dah tah dah! Another McDonalds!!! Perhaps, because of the downpour, this one was practically deserted. We cheerfully had round two of China’s finest cuisine. As the kids discussed where we could leave the gear while exploring this rain drenched city, the most unselfish and philanthropic idea came into my head. “Look. I’ll stay here at McDonalds and watch it while you kids run all over the city exploring!” Reluctant to leave me behind for fear I’d overdose on Big Macs, they did agree it was a thankless job that someone had to do. Actually, I used the time, not to eat, but to read Brandon’s book on China during the 3 hours they were gone shopping. (End of China Part 1)

Friday, February 6th, 2004...“China…Part 2…”…

(Continuation of China trip)
While sitting alone in the McDonalds in Guangzhou, as the rain poured down, I felt safe and secure in familiar surroundings. The tidy restaurant was practically deserted this Sunday morning. I started to read Brandon’s book on China and was fascinated by what I read. China, the most populous country on earth has about the same square miles as the US. However, they have 4 times as many people as we do, 1.2 billion. One out of every 4 people on planet earth lives in China. This is a 4,000 year old culture in the throes of reinventing itself.

There will be an increasing focus on China in the future as Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics. Tourism is in a state of super-nova proportions and China’s economy is exploding at a 9% growth rate, more than any country in the world. The USA, in comparison, has a 4% growth rate. America will find increasing competition, not with Japan, but China.

However, in spite of increasing prosperity, China is facing some huge social problems. For the last 20 years, the government has instituted “One Child Only” policy which means families are only allowed to have one child. Birth control is not an option, it is mandatory. If a family has more than one child, they will be fined heavily for each child. Since boy babies are preferred over girls, many female babies somehow disappeared from Chinese families, leaving China with a serious shortage of young females now. For every 100 women, there are 130 men. There is a rash of young women being kidnapped from cities and taken to remote villages to make up for a lack of farm brides. The shortage of women will become more serious in coming years.

At the time I was in Guangzhou, I was unaware that Time magazine was going to do a feature story about the youth of China in its Feb. 2nd issue. If you get a chance, you’d enjoy reading it as it states things that I am not allowed to write about here…I can’t write about human rights, politics, or religion. Missionaries and evangelists are strictly prohibited in both China and Vietnam and if a person is caught preaching Christianity, they will be immediately expelled from either country. In America, we take our freedoms for granted. In Vietnam and China, it is almost impossible for the average young person to get a visa to travel outside these borders. It felt so strange for us to be able to travel at will, providing we had visas, across these borders when others can’t. In time, the youth of both Vietnam and China will be changing these policies. Neither country can stop the internet, although certain sites are banned. The internet and foreigners are like a reservoir of freedom that is about to spill over the dam of information and truth control. The old is about to give way to the new.

While I read about China, hours passed invisibly and I was distracted by a strange, yet comforting sound, English. During the whole 2 weeks we were in China, I only heard 5 Chinese speak my native tongue. It was not a Chinaman who was speaking English but a foreigner named Ruben, who I introduced myself to and told him it was so good to hear English! He told me he was from Persia (the politically correct name for Iraq) and he lived in Los Angeles. We had quite a conversation. He informed me that he had a furniture business in LA and he had been coming to Guangzhou (formerly Canton) to buy handmade Chinese furniture since 1996.

Ruben was quite frank when he said, “You Americans are lazy! I was born in poverty in Iraq and I worked very hard to make enough money to come to America and start my business when I was just a teenager. The kids in America have everything handed to them. They could be rich like me if they wanted to work hard. America is the greatest country on earth…anyone could be rich if they wanted to but you Americans are apathetic, only making enough money to get by.”

Although this struck me as surreal, getting a lecture on prosperity from an Iraqi in China, there was a lot of truth in what he had to say. I felt a warning bell go off if my conscience and it told me to take note of this man’s words. I did not argue or speak, I just listened. As I’ve told my students in the classroom many times, “You don’t learn while you are speaking…you learn when you are quiet and listening.” So I listened to this Persian businessman-philosopher. As we were to learn in our travels thru China, there was a McDonalds in every city in China and in each one we found English speaking foreigners like ourselves. However, few Chinese speak our lingo. When Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet, they reason, why learn a minority language.

Four hours after my mates had left me in blissful solitude they returned rain-drenched but bubbly and excited. They had found bargains at a nearby market and had now increased their total baggage. It was now time for us to catch our bus to Hong Kong, the most prosperous city in China.

The 2 hour bus ride was eventful in-as-much as we had to get off and on the bus twice to go thru customs…once at the border of China and another time at the border of Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong was given back to China by the British in 1997, it is like a separate country from China and basically does its own thing. People in Hong Kong are free to come and go. People in China are not.

We arrived in the center of Hong Kong about 8 PM and somehow the kids seemed to manage to know how to get us where we needed to go by light-rail. We ended up at the facility where we were to have the conference and we were able to get into our dorm rooms a day early. We were not expected to arrive until Monday but beds were found for us and we all were thankful to have made it to our destination alive and well, although chilled to the bone.

The conference didn’t start until Wednesday nite so we had 3 days to explore Hong Kong. It is the most modern, prosperous, expensive city I’ve ever seen. Although the prices on food and clothing were astronomical, the price of public transportation was reasonable. For $20 you can buy an “Octopus” card which allows you about 3 days travel on all the public transportation vessels: busses, trains, subways, monorails, ferries, and light-rails. I spent one afternoon just riding the ferry back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong island. It reminded me of being on San Francisco Bay and it was the only sunny day we had during the 2 weeks of our vacation and conference. It gave me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to find my way around on Hong Kong’s public transit but truthfully, it is as easy as riding BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in my home area.

The conference, which featured many guest speakers from all over the world was truly an international event. We had citizens from 18 different countries, with Canada having the greatest representation. I loved the conference in every way except one…it was bitter cold and the buildings in Asia are not heated, so I was chilled to the marrow the whole week I was in Hong Kong. What the weather lacked, my mates in the dormitory made up for by their warmth and goodwill, and sense of sharing and humor. I wish there was time and opportunity to share all we heard. While in Hong Kong, I acquired a digital camera so once I get using it, I’ll send you some pictures of sites along our journey after Hong Kong.

One morning, while sitting at breakfast with Richard D., one of the teachers who I knew in California, he gave me word that 2 of my friends had passed away, Chuck and Marsha. Both were unexpected deaths. With the advent of email, news travels quickly, almost as if this was a family.

On Monday, January 26th, a group of about 15 of us broke camp and traveled together from Hong Kong back to Guangzhou by bus. That afternoon, the 4 of us from CLASP, plus Lynelle’s cousin Jodi from Canada, joined us on our continuing saga thru southern China. Our batteries were recharged and we were ready for the adventure of seeing China for the next week. And what adventures we were about to have! (End of Part 2)
Friday, February 6th, 2004...“China…Part 2…”…

Tuesday, February 10th, 2004...“China…Part 3…”…

(Continuation of China trip)

During our bus trip from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, I sat next to Darrel, one of our teachers who teaches in HCM City. It made the 2 hour bus ride go quickly and we said goodbye to him in Guangzhou as he and 2 of the other teachers flew on to Vietnam. That left the 5 of us from Hanoi and 8 visitors from Canada who had attended the conference with us. The 8 Canadians got a hotel in Guangzhou and the 5 of us got train tickets to continue our China odyssey.

Now, at this point I have a confession to make. I was getting travel weary and I was ready to return to Hanoi at this point. If it wasn’t for the fact that I love these 3 young people, Lynelle, Roger and Brandon so much, I’d have returned and left them at this point. However, it would have been a great mistake, as I was to learn later. Together we are stronger than all of us alone. I was cold, tired, and out of diabetes medication and I was starting to get cranky. The goodwill of the youngsters helped keep my sagging spirits up.

We caught a night train from Guangzhou and it was on this train we were to meet 3 incredible people. Before this train, we had always traveled as 4 in a closed compartment together but now Jodi, Lynelle’s cousin from Canada was with us and there were no compartments available for our trip to Guilin so 2 of the girls had to sleep in open bunks next to our bunks. Remember, I said there were only 5 English speaking Chinese we found and it was on this train we discovered one of them, Jessica, a sweet little young college student who had wonderful English. In the same compartment were 2 young English girls who had been teaching English in China, Mandy and Kayte. I was so thrilled by the advent of finding 3 English speakers right next door. We talked until they turned the lights out on us. Jessica had the bottom bunk and I had the top bunk but she insisted of sleeping on top to keep this frail old fellow from having to climb up the steps. It still amazes me how the young show respect for the elderly here.

In the morning, when we arrived in Guilin, we exchanged email addresses and vowed to write, as traveling companions often do. (And, I will add here that we have already received a couple of emails from Jessica.)
It was raining heavily as we departed the train station with backpacks that seemed heavier than before. Here, in the train station, we found another angel, another young college student named Ying, who spoke perfectly good English, and wanted to take us weary, wet travelers to breakfast. We accepted! Then Ying helped us get bus tickets to Yangzhou. And what a bus ride we had.

This bus ride, I shall call the bus ride of faith. Had numerous guardian angels not been working overtime, this 3 hour bus ride would have ended in disaster numerous times. The driver crossed the double yellow line an uncountable number of times. That is, had there been a double yellow line. In China, as in Vietnam, the number one rule is the biggest vehicle has the right-of-way. At times, it seems that truck drivers and bus drivers want to look into each others eyes before swerving the lighter vehicle aside. There is a strong desire in each human being to stay alive. I got deeply in touch with this desire during these eternal 3 hours that the bus swerved in and out of vehicles and pedestrians on our way to what we found to be the most beautiful place in China.

In all our travels, I was never so glad to get off a vehicle as I was this bus when it finally arrived at our destination, Yangzhou. Yangzhou is off the beaten path. It has not yet been fully discovered by tourists and we were finally here. The first hotel we checked into was a nightmare. All I wanted to do was get into a hot bathtub and warm up. Before I even took my backpack off in the hotel room, I was running water from the shower hose into the tub, waiting for some sign of even a little warm water to issue forth. Without warning, the shower hose broke and freezing water drenched my shoes. At about the same time, we heard a scream from the adjoining room and Brandon and Roger were told by Jodi that a man had broken into her room. That was it. We were “outta there!” We got our money back and went to another hotel. This next one was very expensive…but I was sure it had hot water. So, we checked in to the Li River Hotel and the first thing I did was check to make sure it had hot water and good locks on the door. By US standards this would be a one star or less, hotel, but in China, this was deluxe!

The 4 youngsters had energy to burn and had been cooped up too long and wanted to explore this mystical area. The limestone rock formations here are strange and mysterious and are like none except Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. While the others hiked the hills in the rain and mist, this cold January day, I soaked in a hot bathtub and later slept.

It was dark when the exuberant youngsters returned with tails of unfathomable beauty that abounded from this strange and romantic place. I was starving as I hadn’t eaten anything but a bowl of noodles all day so we all set out together to find a good restaurant in this quaint little village. I still marvel at the wonderful restaurant we found and culinary delights that I can still savor. The restaurant overlooked the Li River, which is one of the smaller rivers in China. Most of the meals on the menu of this nameless restaurant were Western and I ordered a steak, the first I had eaten since I left the good ole US of Beef in August. The others had various dishes and we shared bites All 5 of us were deeply satisfied with our meals and as we sat eating rich chocolate cake for dessert, firework displays went off around us. It was part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

So far, these few hours in this restaurant became the high point of our trip, thus far. I was warm and dry. I had just eaten the best meal I’d ever had in either Vietnam or China and I’d eaten chocolate cake and watched fireworks, both firsts in Asia for me. We practically had the restaurant to ourselves and our Chinese waitress was gracious and accommodating. As we leisurely sipped tea after the meal, we discussed points we had enjoyed from our Hong Kong conference. It was a rich and memorable time. My heart was knit more firmly to these 4 intelligent, sensitive young people, Lynelle, Jodi, Roger and Brandon. This would be the last time all 5 of us would have an evening together on this trip.

The next day, the 4 youngsters wanted to take a boat ride down the river. When they invited me along, at first I wanted to decline but some inner voice urged me to go. When we got down to the Li River, there was no boat, just a small lady on a raft. When I realized THIS was the boat they wanted to ride on, I begged off. This raft was 6 huge bamboo logs lashed together, navigated by a little Chinese lady who couldn’t have weighed more than 75lbs. including the heavy pole she used to guide the “craft.” Brandon urged me to go, and as this would be our last day together, I reluctantly, sat on one of 4 little stools on a plywood plank lashed to the bamboo. When I sat down, the boatwoman looked at me and at the nearly sinking raft with terror in her eyes. Roger stood at the rear of the craft as the other 3 carefully took seats on the other 3 little stools. That survival instinct started to become very strong again. Since the water line was almost up to the edge of the raft, Brandon said, “David. See how strong your faith is. See if you can walk out on the water.” “Brandon,” I said, “It took every ounce of faith I had just to get on this raft! I’m not getting off!”

We started off down the river, a river much like the Eel in Northern California. The boatwoman propelled the raft forward with her pole and I became more and more concerned as the raft was only inches above the water. The look in the boatwoman’s eyes was one of concern also. There were 4 stools on this craft for a reason…it was made for 4, not 5. It wasn’t too long until she navigated us to her houseboat. There, with relief, we got off the raft and into a battered old rowboat. At least this looked a little more seaworthy than the raft. Then, an incredible journey began. We drifted down the Li River, and for the most part, were the only vessel on the river. It was a serene, misty, day and all these fantastic limestone mountains surrounded us. Words failed us to describe them. Now this journey replaced the restaurant as the high point of our China trip. All 5 of us were spellbound. We would drift for minutes without saying anything, except perhaps, “WOW!”

We drifted down the river for about an hour, and suddenly, in this quiet and pristine setting a telephone rang. None of us had cell phones. Where was it coming from? To our amazement, here in remote China, the little boatwoman took her cell phone from her pocket and started talking! We all laughed at this comical event. What a great television commercial this would have made for her cell phone company! In Vietnam and China, almost everyone, no matter how poor, or how remote, has a cell phone and an email account.

It never occurred to me how we were going to get back upstream to Yangzhou, an hour away. The current was too strong for the little lady to paddle. So what was the solution. None of us knew. She set us ashore in a remote spot by a deserted lumber mill. Now I started to get concerned. This would have been a great place to get robbed. No one was around. No signs of life! We were virtually lost.

We walked a ways past the lumber mill and came to a busy road. Which way back to Yangzhou and how do we get there, walk? Thankfully, Brandon has a good sense of directions so he led the way and we put our thumbs out in hopes someone would have room for all 5 of us. It wasn’t long and a Chinese man in a van pulled over and, miraculously, had 5 seats and no passengers. The guardian angels came through again. Time and time again, things like this would just happen.

Back at Yangzhou we checked out of the Li River Hotel and decided we would have one last meal together before saying goodbye to Brandon. He was going to stay in Yangzhou for 3 more days and spend the month of Feb. traveling by himself around China. Then it would just be the 4 of us going back to Vietnam together, Jodi, Lynelle, Roger and I.

We found a cozy little restaurant in the market place of Yangzhou and had hot tea, coffee, and a last meal together. It was cold inside the restaurant and the waitress, seeing we were all chilled, brought a stone bucket with glowing hot coals and put under our table. In less than a minute we could feel the heat under the table embracing our feet and legs. What comfort! And what novelty. That is something you won’t see in America! I’ve seen fires ON tables but this was the first time I’ve seen a fire UNDER the table! OSHA doesn’t look lightly on putting a fire under a wood table!

After the meal, we hugged Brandon at the bus stop and we quietly, soberly, started the journey back to Guilin and eventually our journey home. Now we were going home. I would go as far as the China border with the rest of the crew, then, just inside Vietnam, at the border town of Lao Cai, I would return to Hanoi by train and the others would go on to Sapa for a last weekend before returning to work. (END of Part Part 4 to come)

Friday, February 13th, 2004...“China…Part 4(FINAL)…”…

(Continuation of China trip…last installment)

There was a quietness within the 4 of us, Roger, Lynelle, Jodi, and I as we started the bus trip from Yangzhou to Guilin. Brandon was the “life of our party” with his guitar everywhere we went. Now we had left the man and his music behind and it was a bit of a sad parting, although I knew we’d see Brandon again, back in Hanoi in a month. Almost with fatherly concern, I worried about Brandon traveling alone in China by himself. However, even at the time we left him, I realized he would not be alone. There always seemed to be an unseen force looking out for us wherever we went, like the miraculous empty van stopping on the deserted road to pick all of us up earlier in the day. Perhaps the bus ride back to Guilin was just as harrowing as the one coming, but there was not the same anxiety or worry in my heart and eyes this trip. Maybe all the experiences of Yangzhou had strengthened by weak faith. Stepping out in faith on a flimsy bamboo raft was certainly one of them!

When we arrived at Guilin our little angel, Ying, was there to meet us with her sparkling eyes, broad smile, and perfect English. She helped us buy train tickets for a trip back to Nanning. At this point, I had a decision to make…should I go on from Nanning to Hanoi while the others went to Sapa or travel with them? The decision was made for me. I wanted at this point to go home so badly. I felt physically exhausted and had the worst cold I’ve ever had. However, this was Wednesday and there wouldn’t be another train from Nanning to Hanoi until Saturday…so it was on with the troops.

We arrived in a cold and quiet Nanning about 9 PM that same night. We needed to get a hotel but so far, my batting average in choosing hotels for us was zilch-point-zero. I let Lynelle do the haggling and choosing, and after 3 rounds of negotiating at 2 different hotels, we settled on an 8 story place for $2 per person. You get what you pay for. This place was more stark than any hotel I’d ever slept in even in 57 years of life on planet earth. The hallway to our room from the 4 flights of stairs we’d climbed up with full combat gear, was longer than 2 of my Air Force barracks put together, only much drabber. When we finally came to our room, at the end of the long, dimly lit hall, I laughed when I saw the room. There were 4 small beds, and one chair in the most barren, Spartan hotel room in China. There was one small light in the huge room. The bathroom had a shower hose but no shower stall. You took a shower and let the water go all over the floor. Of course, as in all public facilities in Vietnam and China, this is a “bring your own toilet paper” society. Toilet paper is a luxury that is not furnished here.

Perhaps, as fair warning, I should take this opportunity to inform future Asian travelers, especially the more dainty and delicate type, of something you need to be aware of before you come here. First, the trains here lack a little something in the toilet compartment, like, for example, a toilet. Since this is an item you usually don’t carry around in your backpack, you have to make do with the wee little hole in the floor. Forgive me if this seems too graphic but it is better to be informed than surprised. It was ironic that in a “five-star” hotel in Guangzhou I found no Western toilets in the hotel restroom but in all McDonalds there are. Now I know why there are so many foreigners eating at the golden arches in China. As mentioned previously, no McDonalds at all exist in Vietnam. This is for political reasons that I am not free to go into here. When he comes back, Brandon jokingly suggested writing a guidebook about China listing all places with Western-style toilets.

After a restless night in “the barracks” at Nanning, we knew this time right where the McDonalds was so we made a beeline there for brunch. However, when 4 people travel together, the old Mexican travel adage is always true: “When you travel alone you come and go when you are ready…when you travel with others, you come and go when the last one is ready.” With the 4 of us, it seems we were always waiting on either Jodi or I to bring up the rear. Now the story gets interesting.

While in the McDonalds in Nanning, we met Janet, a young college student that Debbie L. from Boston and Evelyn P. from HCM had met two years before in Nanning. They had given us Janet’s phone number when we were at the conference together in Hong Kong and told us to call Janet and give her their greetings. Because she had kept in touch with these ladies via email over the last 2 years, we had Janet’s phone number and she promptly met us at the McDonalds there in Nanning. While visiting with her, just out of wishful thinking to have a Chinese guide, I invited her to travel on with us into Vietnam. Much to our amazement she instantly accepted the invitation!

What serendipity! We had just acquired a brilliant Chinese guide who spoke wonderful English…a rarity in China. However, there were some hurdles to jump over first. She had no suitcase or clothes with her so Lynelle and Jodi took her shopping and got some items for her to travel with on our journey ahead…and there was a matter of her buying a train ticket on a train that was already packed with TET holiday travelers. We were pushed for time and we ran to the train station with full backpacks, Janet trailing carrying just a shopping bag of the bare necessities for this spur of the moment trip.

We left her at the ticket window as we ran to the train that was just ready to depart for Kunming. We barely got on and I watched out the window for Janet. There was no sign of her. The whistle blew. The brakes on the coaches sounded their release. The train started to pull out with no sign of Janet coming from the station to the train. After all our excitement she didn’t make it.

We all settled into our berths as the train pulled out of Nanning. There was a somber quietness in all of us. We knew how heart-broken Janet must have felt after all that preparation to get her ready to travel with us and now she was left behind. I could picture the tears in her eyes. This was the low point of the whole China trip.

Downcast, I climbed into my upper berth and began to write in my log. My mates were quiet and gloomy too. After about an hour out of Nanning, Roger said the sun was shining outside, the first time that had happened in the last 2 weeks so I was coaxed down out of my gloom to look out on the sun shining on fields in the late afternoon. Lynelle amused herself my teaching a little Chinese girl to say her ABC’s. Suddenly, Lynelle squealed with delight. Lynelle was hugging Janet!!! She had made it but it took her over an hour to find us on the train! She had miraculously gotten a ticket at the last minute and she was off with us to Vietnam! Janet was to prove to be indispensable help to us for the rest of our time in China.

We talked way into the night and exchanged our life stories. Then toward midnight we climbed into our bunks in this packed train and I slept soundly until we arrived in Kunming the next morning. Now, at this point I have to add that I saw something everyday in China that I’d never seen before in Vietnam; my breath! I was cold to the bone the whole time we were in China, even on the trains. I had on my long underwear and my sweat suit over them. Then I had my trousers on and 3 sweaters…and I was still cold! I was to remain cold until I returned to Vietnam.

Before the train ever stopped in the rail station in Kunming, I could see the breath of the people outside and knew this January day was going to be cold also. When we got off the train, Janet talked to the ticket agent in the station and was able to get us 5 bus tickets for Hu Kou, a Chinese village which is on the Vietnam border. At 10:30 that morning, Lynelle, Roger, Janet, Jodi and I stepped onto a packed Chinese bus for a ride I will never forget. The scenery was spectacular, from Kunming thru 500 kms (about 400 miles) of countryside that looked identical in every respect to No. Calif. Some scenes made me think of the Cloverdale area. Some scenes made me think of the Shasta Lake area. The scenery was beautiful. The only thing that diminished this trip was the driver had Chinese action videos blaring for most of the ride…and I was starting to get a headache. After about 8 hours of the 10 hour ride I had a pounding headache.

Out in the fields farmers hoed soil by hand. Men and women were doing the same manual labor their ancestors did thousands of years before. Interspersed in the countryside would be ultra-modern villages that were still being built, likely by the booming government treasury, filled by Western money. China was such a contrast of prosperity and poverty side-by-side.

When we finally got to Hu Kou, which sits across the Red River from Lao Cai, Vietnam, I felt great relief in knowing I was only a day’s journey from home. Janet, Jodi and Lynelle got a hotel room across from Roger and I and we had our first real Chinese meal since coming to China 2 weeks before. Hu Kou was too small to have a McDonalds.

Roger and I cleared customs the next morning in a big, modern Western-style building where the Chinese soldiers were polite but very formal and direct. We were the only 2 in the building that morning besides the customs soldiers. Before we walked across the bridge between China and Vietnam, Roger showed a guard his Australian passport and I showed the guard my American passport. As often happened, the guard asked if Roger was my son. Seems strange I thought, for an American to have an Australian son, although I’d certainly be proud to have a son like Roger.

I’ll never forget the walk over the bridge that spans the Red River between China and Vietnam. It was like going thru a time machine. Hu Kou reminded me of a miniature San Diego and Lao Cai reminded me of a very poor and small Tijuana. The contrast between the modern, prosperous China and impoverished Vietnam was so stark and real at that crossing.

I almost bent down and kissed the red soil of Vietnam when we came to the other side. The temperature seemed almost balmy, and warm. The Vietnamese guards were familiar and friendly. While we cleared customs in a battered shack at the Vietnam border, I studied a blue and white map on the wall trying to identify the geography. Then I realized it was no map but blue paint peeling away from a white wall. I smiled and felt at home again.

Roger and I got a xe om (motorbike taxi) to take us to the train station. There I bought a train ticket for Hanoi and Roger and I would have breakfast together before he went back to the border to fetch Janet, Jodi, and Lynelle who wanted to sleep in. I would leave the others behind here and go on home. I was exhausted, out of money, and had the mother of all colds. Roger would go back to the border and wait for the 3 girls and then get a bus with them to go to the resort town to spend the weekend in Sapa.

Before I got on the train I hugged Roger goodbye. We had gotten incredibly close, all of us, traveling together, helping each other put our backpacks on, looking out for each other. I wouldn’t see Janet again but I learned from the others later that she had the time of her life with them in Sapa, staying up late talking about the purpose of life and seeing the sunrise from a mountain-top together. I wish I could have been there but I’d already gone past my limits. We never know where our limits are until we’ve gone past them. This 2 week journey in China expanded the borders of my heart and gave me greater appreciation for both Vietnam and America.

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