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Andy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 24 Feb 2007

Location: Nanning, China


The journey to Nanning, my first stop in China, was a long one that began with a very wobbly moped ride in Hanoi - its difficult to stay on a motorbike when turning with a heavy rucksack on your back.

Next i had to get a bus from Hanoi to the border, where i said goodbye to Vietnam. The country is a fascinating place, developing rapidly. On the outskirts of Hanoi i spotted a typically socialist poster complete with industrial and agricultural iconography, smiling families, and the ever present hammer and sickle. A few metres later stood a billboard advertising a new, modern and luxurious private village. Contemporary Vietnam with its many contradictions was encapsulated in those two juxtaposed posters.

I was surprised by the speed and efficiency with which Chinese immigration stamped me into the country. China is still a politically repressive state, the Communist Party retains its monopoly on power and a strict control over many aspects of society. Indeed the Lonely Planet warns that other travellers coming from Vietnam had their China guidebooks confiscated by border officials due to sensitivity over maps of China not including Taiwan. Thankfully mine stayed safely in my bag.

From the border i caught another coach to Nanning. Originally my plans were to avoid this route and head straight from Vietnam to Kunming, but recently the train linking the two cities was put permanently out of service by a large landslide. Always have a Plan B when backpacking.

The journey was long and strange. It felt odd to be by myself after spending the last 85 days (bar one) with Ruth.

I arrived in Nanning and looked around for a place to stay - none were particularly appealing, so i booked into the best budget accommodation that Lonely Planet recommends. It did not bode well for the future. My room was cold, small and pitifully decorated (if the word can be used at all). I could have been in prison. Don't get me started on the shared bathrooms with squat toilets! The standard of accommodation in China did not bode well for the future; mainly expensive, grotty, white-tiled monoliths with no character. Quite a shock after Vietnam.

China can be a strangely regimented place. On every floor in my hotel was an attendant. I wasn't trustworthy enough to receive my own key. Each time i left my room, even for ablutions, i had to afterwards trapse down to the desk and fetch the attendant who would come and open the door for me. Walking round the streets i saw a uniformed officer physically manhandle a women who was attempting to cross the road before he had blown his whistle. Only after he had signalled to everyone that it was okay to cross could everyone proceed. Perhaps it was just Nanning, but i could not help feeling the population are treated like children.

The moment i arrived in China travelling became that much more difficult. The tourist industry is not nearly so developed here, especially in Nanning where there were no tourists - I hadn't seen one since i left Hanoi. The route is evidently not that popular. As such I was stared at alot! A woman approached me in the street while i tried to decipher which road contained all the teashops. She stood a foot away from my face, staring blankly. My piercing also received lots of attention. People would point and stare, or walk past, unconsciously touching their bottom lip as if they feared a spike would suddenly burst forth if they weren't careful.
Compared to southeast asia hardly anyone speaks English. Signs were also indecipherable. It is easy to travel in a country which uses the roman alphabet. Here (expectedly), signs were all in Chinese characters; nothing but a jumble to my eyes.

Nanning is not worthy of a stop. It's an uninteresting city, only useful for an overnight rest to catch up on sleep. The only thing i saw with a modicum of interest was ballroom dancing on a green patch of grass by the side of a main crossroad. Chinese of all ages were shuffling, badly, out of time to the music. They all wore blank expressions; they didn't smile, laugh or talk. A fun time was clearly had by all.

I booked a train ticket to Kunming straight after. I was surprised to learn it was an overnight train taking 14 hours. On the map the distance between the two is about an inch, occupying a tiny corner of far south China. China is gigantic. Space and distance take on a different dimension in this country, especially compared to England. My perception of geographical distance had made me overly confident with regard to the sights i had time to see before i had to be in Beijing. I needed to pick up the pace somewhat.