Friday, January 23, 2015

More Adventures in Transportation and Border Crossings: China Edition

After a too short stay in Hong Kong, with a final visit to the Peak and delicious Dim Sum, I planned to catch a metro to cross over into mainland China, where I would catch an overnight bus to Yangshuo, a climber's paradise of limestone karsts, flowing rivers, rice fields, and stunning greenery.  Of course, it couldn't wind up nearly as simple as that.

One of Sue's friends had insisted there was a late evening bus from Shenzehn to Yangshuo, but the information I had found online was wildly varied, and I couldn't seem to find a straight answer on what the actual schedule was, much less buy a ticket in advance.  It seemed like there was definitely an 8:30 bus, and supposedly a 10pm, but there was nothing concrete.  I knew it was a Friday and there would likely be heavy traffic around the border crossing, so I planned to allow plenty of time to get over.  Granted, I still got ready a bit later than planned, but I made it out to the street before 5 and flagged down a taxi, planning on getting a ride to a particular metro station.  It would have involved a lot of walking and multiple transfers to reach the line I needed, so a short taxi ride seemed easiest.  I hopped in the taxi and said the name of the metro stop, "Hung Hom."  To my surprise, the driver replied, "no!"  Confused, I thought perhaps he didn't know the spot, so I showed him on a map.  "Too far! No!"  I was dumbfounded.  I climbed out of the cab and tried again.   A total of EIGHT taxis refused to take me.  And that was the eight taxis I could actually get to stop and acknowledge me.  I had even gone into the apartment building to the concierge and asked her to try and find me one as well.  By the time I found a taxi who would actually take me where I needed to go, traffic was thick from rush hour.  I was pretty sure I was going to miss my window for that bus ride.  After nearly an hour of stop and go traffic, I arrived at Hung Hom station and boarded the packed metro to the border - a 45 minute ride.  

Once we arrived, the border itself was confusing.  The signs said, "Hong Kong Residents", "Mainland Visitors", and "Other / Non Mainland Visitors".  Well, I was visiting the mainland, but nothing said "Mainland Residents" or "Chinese Residents" or anything similar, so I was turned around, swept in the throng of people.  Finally I realized that I was "Other", and I found the small line.  The line moved slowly, but eventually I made my way to the front, officially exiting Hong Kong.  On the other side, there was a single, long queue marked "Foreigners" that I stood in to officially enter mainland China, as locals streamed through the multiple checkpoints to my right.  By the time I made it through the crossing, it was already 7:30.  A guard spotted me as I came out - I definitely stood out - and asked me where I was going.  When I said Yangshuo, he led me over to a small stand that sold bus tickets.  And my fears were confirmed - no bus.  The last one was indeed at 8:30, but it was sold out.  I couldn't figure out where the actual bus station was (to see if there were other options), and I didn't see any other places to buy tickets from any other companies.

Crossing into mainland China.

Through a series of hand signals and using a calculator to communicate times and numbers, I discovered that there was another bus at 8:30 in the morning, and I should arrive at the station at 8.  I took the reservation, not knowing what other options I might have.  I followed the guard back to the spot where I had come in, trying to find someone, anyone who could speak English and help direct me to a place to stay.  I spotted two white guys - obvious foreigners - and ran up to them asking where they were going.  They turned out to be Serbian, Mikko and Andre, visiting Shenzehn on business.  Thankfully, they were familiar enough with the town to help me out, and I followed them through the metro to a hotel I would have never found on my own - the One Way Hotel - which occupied a single floor of a high rise building and had a completely unmarked entrance.  The entryway lobby area was disgusting and smokey, but thankfully the room I was able to book was fine. 

I met up with the guys later to find food, going only as far as a Chinese fast food spot called Kung Fu, where the pork meatballs in gravy with rice were greasy, but not bad.  Finally back at the hotel, I quickly discovered that my room was directly above a karaoke bar, and the terrible singing reverberated around my room.  Armed with a noisemaking app on my phone and a pair of earplugs, I finally fell asleep.

Fast food in China.

I awoke in the dark room at what felt like a far too early hour, finally dragging myself out of bed at 6:45 and packing up, retracing our steps from the night before through the metro, and reaching the station by 8.  I grabbed a couple of steamed buns and assorted snacks from the 7eleven and waited.  Finally, just after 8:30, I was sent off with a little man who would take me to the bus.  Along with three other locals, we wandered all over the complex, sometimes waiting as the little man ran off, screaming into his phone.  We had no idea what was happening, but the locals didn't look too worried, so I tried to just go with it.  Eventually we climbed onto a local bus, getting shuttled out to a completely random spot - not a bus station.  We followed the man to a parking lot behind the building, where an empty bus was sitting.  It appeared that some people were working on the bus, so we waited some more.  Finally the four of us boarded, and we left around 9:30.  I quickly dozed off, occasionally waking as we made what felt like dons of stops.  Three hours later, I realized we were still in Shenzehn.  We had spent that long picking up other people for the journey!  It was only then that we truly set out, only stopping twice for quick bathroom stops until we got much closer to our destination.

Visiting the empty Shenzehn metro early in the morning.

Thankfully, one of those original three locals did speak some English and was going all the way to Guilin, so he helped let me know when we were nearing and had finally reached Yangshuo, a little over 10 hours after we had originally departed.  As we got closer, the scenery became more and more gorgeous - rocky limestone karats dotted with greenery rose imposingly out of the flat green fields around them, water-filled fields of rice for the most part.  It was completely dark by the time we arrived, and I was unceremoniously let off on the side of the road in front of a hotel in the midst of a major traffic jam.

The snack options at one of our few stops along the way.

Nearing Yangshuo.

Nearly there.

I approached a tuk tuk, but he couldn't understand even the English name of my hostel.  I tried calling them (I had very thankfully gotten a Chinese SIM card as soon as I crossed the border), but the line was consistently busy.  I actually emailed them as well, asking for the name and address in Chinese, but when they didn't respond immediately, I had no idea what else to do.  Finally, I just said loudly, "Does anyone speak English??"  To my amazement, a family stopped, the father figure volunteering that he did.  I told him the name of the hostel, and he looked it up on his phone, explaining the name and location to the tuk tuk driver in Chinese.  I thanked him profusely, then climbed aboard.  We wound through traffic and narrow roads that appeared to be under construction, my driver even climbing down to move a small boulder in our path at one point.  Finally, he dropped me off at a walking street, where I could clearly see the sign for Green Forest Hostel up on the third level, but it still took me some time to find the hidden stairwell that led up to it.  The hostel itself was actually incredibly nice, and I collapsed into the common area, too tired to venture out.  I ate dinner at the hostel and crashed into bed, thankful to finally be in Yangshuo after so much effort, feeling very, very far from the relative comforts of Hong Kong.

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