You are hereGuizhou Province

Guizhou Province

By John Locke - Posted on 14 September 2000

Rice paddies surrounding village Here's an e-mail I sent from Kaili, part way through our trip.

Kaili, Guizhou Province
September 15, 2000

I should have known when the English speaker pointed to two Chinese words on our train tickets and said "this means you have no seats." I thought that meant we would be more or less sitting on our luggage in a boxcar. If only.

With one foot delicately placed between the guy on the floor with one leg and one arm and a sweating gentleman in a suit, one arm clinging to the luggage rack, and my body hanging between, I lifted my other leg next to someone's face so the 6th beverage cart in 15 minutes could squeeze past. Between carts, Jill and I leaned in the hall next to the unused garbage bin and water spigot with 6 others. We were at the front of the car, but the stairway part had another 10 people. There were seats in the train but they were all occupied beyond capacity, with people sitting on the floor and filling the aisle. We only had 9 hours to go... Jill nudged me and said we're going to ride our bikes the rest of the way, no matter what...

When we arrived in ChongQing, I was getting sick. It was pouring down rain, and hauling our heavy bags up the hill to find a hotel that didn't exist anymore from a map I had only glanced at, Jill found a travel agency that directed us to the Chung King hotel (the older Wade-Giles spelling for the city). After breakfast, I crawled into bed with a fever of 100.6, and stayed there for the next day.

As quickly as my fever started, it ended. We walked for a couple of hours to the train station to pick up our bikes, going through a labyrinth of hillside trails, stairs, and squalid apartments surrounded by rubbish to descend the hill to the station.

Finally, after 3 days and much bureaucratic hell in ChongQing, we pedaled out of town on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. ChongQing has a waterfront viaduct that looks like Aurora in downtown Seattle but with potted plants. We crossed a bridge over the Yang Tze, climbed a hill on the other side, and were greeted by hillside rice paddies nestled between suburban high-rises. Soon the buildings disappeared, and we were in the country.

Despite what I've written so far, the Chinese countryside is astonishing. Rock faces launch from river bottoms wearing tropical greenery like an evening scarf. An older woman strolled along the road with an ordinary-looking umbrella made of sticks tied together in an elaborate frame. A girl sheparded four sheep out onto the street in front of me, slapped one with a stick to guide it in the right direction down the road, and then, with another flick they were all off on a side trail.

The further south we got, the more celebrity we had wherever we went. Stop for a fry bread snack, and before you know it, there are 50 children wide-eyed staring at us, three feet away. We wash our bicycles at a gas station, and another crowd gathers. In one town, after watching us eat a noodle soup, we got an escort of twenty bicycles parading us out of the village. There were still half a dozen with us when we reached the next village. Everybody's very friendly, but we find ourselves longing for quiet anonymity at times, retreating to the rooms of the guesthouses.

We continue to be looked after, though, wherever we went. A couple hours before dark, we were climbing up a stretch of red mucky road, torn up for construction. Traffic was stopped and reversed at half-hour intervals, and it was a steep climb. Right at the gate for the traffic, a woman in horn-rimmed glasses came out and ushered us into her guesthouse. A Japanese man who spoke English but now lives in China came up and explained that there was no place in the next 40 km we could stay, and it was about to rain.

Another evening, we hadn't made it to the town we were straining for (our maps, though decent, have deceptive distances...). We found ourselves riding up a mountainside in the dark (turned out to be 14 km straight of uphill). A man rode up next to us on his scooter and insisted we stop at his house for tea, because he could tell we needed it. Then he rode next to us lighting up the road for the 3 km up to the local guesthouse.

White geese, pigs, oxen munching while slowly pulling a plow... Chickens everywhere, dogs here and there, now and then a cat and a cow.

Right before darkness fell on another evening found us on the side of yet another climb, still 20 km away from our night's destination. When it gets dark here, it's not a gradual thing. Suddenly, night. We were debating about hiring someone in a truck to take us over the pass when a van with a truck back stopped. It turned out to be the local police officers, all three of them with two of their buddies, who loaded us up and drove us all the way into the town. Then they bought us dinner, nearly drank us under the table, and deposited us in the local hotel.

Everywhere imaginable, and some places unimaginable, rice paddies contour the slopes, a cartographer's dream. In some places the road resembles the rice paddies, switchbacking back and forth up the side of the mountains.

And that is why we took the train--the mountains. Between the town of DongXi and Tongzi, we climbed at least five hills over a thousand feet each, some probably closer to three thousand. Instead of taking us two days to get to Tongzi from ChongQing, it took nearly five. As pretty as the scenery is, there's no way we would make it to Guilin in time for our flight home.

So in Tongzi, we bought our train tickets and got our bikes loaded on the same train. But there were no sleeper seats available--only the hard class. And we were about to discover how bad the hard class could be.

Every couple of hours, between the carts, the meat vendors, and the full bladders, a big pile of garbage oozed by, swept by train officials down the aisles and out the door at the front of the car into the countryside. The signs in the car said "No Smoking, use the waste receptacle, do not throw garbage on the floor or out the window." But, of course, nobody else could read English, including the train officials. At least half the people smoked. The floor was the garbage receptacle, taking the sunflower seed hulls, spitwads, noodle boxes, chopsticks, orange rinds, and whatever other items people wanted to get rid of. Except for the baby poop--I saw one father carefully lay out some newspaper and plastic, and actually scoop the whole mess up. And then he threw it out the window.

Eventually a couple of English speakers caught up with us, and we had a great conversation about all kinds of things. At the city of Guiyang, they secured some seats for us, and after that, it was mostly bearable. But when we arrived in Kaili station at 11:30 pm, I stood up to get my bags, and three Chinese men filled the space I had evacuated as if it were a vacuum.

So now we're in Kaili, Guiyang Province. We're taking a rest day here, doing our laundry, catching up on notes, postcards, and assorted chores so we can get a crack of dawn start on our final leg into Guilin. We have a week before our flight back to Beijing, and we hope to get there in 5 days. It seems like the trip is nearing the end already.

It's been amazing, wonderful, breathtaking, beautiful--but we are ready for a good pizza and a quiet evening with no phrasebook in sight!


More to come...