Travel Story Tuesday: Learning Chinese and Old Women Who Steal (Pt. 2)

Woohoo! It's travel story Tuesday again! This week is actually Part Two of last week's story about Phil's experience bussing through Cambodia, Laos, and China. If you haven't read Part One, you can do so here. 


Brief recap: I've just made it through Laos on a variety of buses, I had to share a bed with an old woman on one of the busses, and I made to to the border of China where I haggled with some old women for currency exchange. 

From the border the bus made its way to Kunming, a large city in southern China.  It was a bit of a culture shock to see such a modern, affluent, large city.  Up to that point I had traveled through the jungle and mountains, and I had been living off of bags of whatever treats looked vegetarian-ish. Now I get to Kunming and I see billboards and nice public buses and people in suits on their way to work.  Unfortunately one thing that I didn’t see was anyone who spoke English, or any signs that were understandable. I figured I’d find some of both, eventually.

My goal once I was at the huge bus terminal was just to hop on the next bus north to Xi’an.  In my own naive planning I thought there would be several buses available and people who could speak English.  I found what looked like the place where people could buy tickets and stood in line.  While waiting I tried studying a large map of China, but I couldn’t understand any of the writing of course.

It was finally my turn, I walked up to the counter and asked if they spoke English.  They replied in Chinese, not a good sign.  I asked again, maybe louder and more slowly so they would understand (haha, typical tourist). The lady yelled back to the other workers, I guess asking if anyone understood what I was saying.  No one did.  I kept saying Xi’an! But nothing.  Finally I guess my pronounciation had improved and they got out a map and drew a dot where we were and where I needed to go and pointed me to the bus stop.  I was far from confident.  A small city bus arrived and I showed them my ticket and they motioned for me to get on.  

The bus ran right through what looked like downtown.  I saw McDonalds, Starbucks and skyscrapers.  It felt like being in New York, but...not.  As the Khmer say, “Same same but different”  haha  I got off the bus, at the end of the line and there was another huge bus stop.  At first I thought, “Great I’m right back where I started.”  But it was a different bug bus stop, then I finally understood.  I had reached the north bus terminal and I had left from the south bus terminal.  I had not even considered that there could be two separate terminals.  I got off and got in line again to buy a ticket to Xi’an.  I was an old pro at this by now and had the pronunciation down perfectly.

I had a couple hours to wait for the bus and I was starving so I decided to go looking for food.  I had remembered passing a McDonalds not too far back so that was my mission after seeing nothing in the vicinity. I left the bus terminal and found a motorcycle taxi.  He seemed nice enough,  all I said was “McDonalds” and he seemed to understand.  He didn’t though and I ended up pointing in the directions I wanted him to go.  Eventually we made it and then through hand signals tried to tell me how much.  I think it was 10.  So I pulled out my new currency and gave him 2 fives.  He kind of laughed and said no.  I was confused, He tried grabbing the 10, but I said no, and gave him the two fives.  He got angry and began yelling.  People started looking at us.  After a few minutes watching him go a little crazy I finally just gave him the 10 and he was happy.  I was just utterly confused by the exchange.  

Once I got into McDonalds I was relieved to see that it looked like a real McDonalds!!  I dont even like McDonalds, but trust me, after that whole trip I was very excited to see pancakes on the breakfast menu.  I decided to go into the restroom because it had been a long time since  I had been in a clean, full plumbing bathroom.  Unfortunately that would still have to wait since I was surprised to see a squat pot… I ordered my pancakes and went to pay with my fives again, and the lady wouldn’t accept them either!  Now I was beginning to think something was up with these fives.  The lady explained to me that they were fives but more like fifty cents!  The currency lady ripped me off, well played old currency lady, well played…  I made my way back to the bus terminal and made it on to the bus without much trouble and I was on my way to Xi’an.

I got off the bus in Xi’an with no plan at all.  I walked around for a bit, everyone looked very busy like they had somewhere to be but I only wish I did.  After walking a few blocks in this ancient city I found a huge internet cafe, there were well over a hundred computers in there and it was dark and smoky.  But I needed to get to the internet to find a place to stay.  I wanted to stay in Xi’an a couple days so I could go and see the terracotta warriors.  Most people on the computers were playing games of some kind.  I just wanted the internet.  I found a fantastic looking hostel at a good price and decided to try and make my way there. I decided to take a picture of the address on their website that was written in both English and Chinese.  I was getting better at this.  I found a taxi, showed him the picture and I was there within 15 minutes.  At the hostel, I felt like I could finally relax. Everyone spoke English there!  I got a bed and signed up for a tour to the warriors the next day.  Then I went to my room and finally relaxed.

The next day I had an awesome breakfast and got ready for my tour (real food was soooo nice, after just rice with salt).  In the van there were several other people on the tour from all over the world.  I didn’t notice any other Americans though.  We arrived to the terracotta warriors place and got out. We toured the entire complex, and it was pretty incredible.  The number of statues, the details in the faces, the mystery as to how they made them, really just amazing to see.  Unfortunately I had left my camera in the van… Never to be seen again.

Once back to the hostel I started talking to a Swedish couple who had been on the tour as well. I had seen them the whole time but I never talked to them (or anyone, surprise surprise haha). Anyway, I asked if I could get some of their pictures from that day and they were happy to share.  I ended up really getting along with them, and we travelled together to our Beijing the next day since we were equally clueless.  Many months later the woman had contacted me via skype because they had lost all their pictures from that trip and I was able to send them some, so we were both lucky.  We took the train from Xi’an to Beijing, and it was really nice, way better than the trains I took in India a few months previous.  Once in Beijing we parted and I was alone again.

But this time I did have a plan.  I knew a couple that worked for the US state department and they had offered to let me stay there a couple nights until the day of my flight.  And, I had an address.  Beijing is bigger than you think haha  But boy did I see some crazy stuff trying to get there.  Again, it seemed like I was on the complete opposite side of the city.  I took a taxi most of the way.  I was seriously tired of buses.  I was amazed to see an IKEA and all these other western businesses.  Probably the best thing I saw though was a Papa Johns!  I had to stop and eat a big whole pizza (remember, I’d been living in the jungles of Cambodia for a year, and hadn’t had pizza in just as long). After probably about 4 or 5 hours I made it to their apartment next to the US embassy.  I was sweaty, stinky and probably looked like an awkward homeless man but they still let me in after I showed my passport haha.  Once I was there they really took good care of me, showed me around and everything.  

The next day was my last full day before finally going home.  My mission was to see the great Wall.  Now, there are several parts to the wall, it isn’t one continuous wall throughout the country.  I had read that some parts were really touristy and others hadn’t been completely renovated yet.  Guess which one I wanted to see haha (I’m don’t like talking to new people…).  The problem with the non-touristy ones was that they were much harder to get to.  At least this time I had a guidebook and almost a weeks worth of chinese travel experience.  I was also almost broke.  I decided to take a local bus out of the city and go to a remote big town in the mountains that was near the section of the Great Wall that seemed most intriguing to me.  

I got of the bus in the town, and found a row of microbuses with signs on the windshield indicating their destination, in Chinese haha.  I spent the next twenty minutes carefully playing a matching game.  My guidebook had the name of the place of the Great Wall in Chinese and I was trying to match the symbols to the signs on the microbuses.  I got in the one I thought looked right and waited.  I waited and watched as we drove, no other foreigners in sight.  Around every turn I looked for the wall, I remember the first time I saw a glimpse of it high up in the mountains.  Amazing.  I was so excited.  We stopped on the side of the road at a little village.  I walked across I rickety wooden bridge over a river and climbed up the mountain to the Great Wall.  It was so much fun to climb all over and reach the top of the wall and walk along it for as far as I wanted.  Truly spectacular views and surroundings.  After a few hours I made my way back the same way I came.  Made it back to the apartment and packed for my 16 hour flight home the next morning.  It was an experience I will never forget.

Basically, Phil's done some ridiculous traveling that I'm pretty jealous of (sans being stolen from and losing the camera). Have questions or comments about his trip? Want to hear more of his stories? Feel free to email me all your thoughts at taylorpierce@comcast.net. 

Stay tuned for next week's Travel Story Tuesday, hosted by Jacqueline of French Press Mondays! 
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