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Vagabond Journey

By Train Across Southern China

Nanning, Guangxi Province, P.R. China6.2.2007“All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.”-V.S. NaipaulSantosh, In a Free State The “no-seat” area by the doors [...]

Nanning, Guangxi Province, P.R. China
6.2.2007

“All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.”
-V.S. Naipaul
Santosh, In a Free State

The “no-seat” area by the doors of the train where I rode out the ten hour journey to Hangzhou all wrapped up in a mass of Chinese. We were all uncomfortable, but there is an odd sort of solidarity that comes from simple discomfort.

Fisherman on a navigable raft in a river that runs through Nanning.
“They are dancing in the streets over here!” They really are.
River that runs through Nanning.

Naked man in the street. This is one of the odd joys of travelling- getting to observe the oddities of humanity first hand. Today I watched this naked man for a while, yesterday I watched three ladies and a man brawl in the streets- one lady was actually beating people with an umbrella. The simple amusements of travel.
My favorite meal; eggs and tomatoes with rice.

So I took leave of Lauren and returned to Tai Shan. The last time I was here it was with Mira and we had wanted to get her father a holy stone from the holiest mountain in all of China, but we had forgotten. Now I that I had the chance to do so again I did not want to let fatigue stop me. So I bought a “no seat” ticket on the evening train to Hangzhou and took off towards the foot of Tai Mountain. It was nearly an hour walk from the station, and I was really feeling the weight of three days of continuous travel. But I soon made it to the beautiful area leading up to the mountain, bought a one yuan ice cream, and began climbing up. I soon found myself on a little ledge where I dropped my pack, stripped off my sweat soaked shirt, and laid down on a large stone slab. I napped here in peaceful rest just listening to the birds and the silence for an hour or so. It felt really nice to be off of the highway and with the trees and rocks of a large mountain. But all too soon it was time to be moving again: so I scooped up a few quartzite stones that I thought that Mira’s father could weave into some form of jewelry and began tramping back to the train station.

I rushed in to the station and tried to get near the front of the line for my train, so that I would fare a little better in the battle royale for seats that I knew would ensue. When you get “no seat” tickets in China you have to do just this- fight. You just have to find yourself a seat- somehow- or stand for the entire journey. So I fought my way through the multitude of Chinese, who also obviously did not feel like standing for the next ten hours, to no avail. With all of my planning and assertion I could not outwit the Chinese. So I stood wedged into a crevasse near the carriage door for ten hours. I was not alone though, as the entire area where the rail cars meet was packed full of Chinese men and women. We all struggled and shifted throughout the night, ever trying to position ourselves in a way that would allow for a little sleep. But it was nearly hopeless. We were all tired, cramped, and miserable, and we knew that that was how we would stay until we reached our respective destinations. But there is a certain form of solidarity that comes from discomfort and misery, and I felt more in tuned with the Chinese men whose legs were wrapped around my own that I ever could have otherwise. I almost enjoyed this cramped up ride- mushed in like cattle, moving through the Eastern China night. All along I knew that Lauren was riding high in a posh little vehicle comfortable on a fast Chinese highway. Later on I found out that he was.
By morning we reached the terminus of our journey, and I again stepped out into Hangzhou. Andy the Hobotraveler.com just wrote about places in the world where he can “hang his hat,” and Hangzhou is defiantly one of these places for me. In Hangzhou I stayed with some dear friends for a couple of days then set out for Vietnam. I bought a third class train ticket to Nanning, which is in Guangxi Province and the last stop to get a Vietamese visa. It would be a 27 hour train ride in a hard seat of a cramped rail car that would be packed full of Chinese. I figured that after riding ten hours without a seat I could do 27 in one. Besides, it costs twice as much for a hard sleeper. I was right, I could do it fine…but it was still a bit of a test.
From my notebook:
27 hour third class rail journey. Legs crammed under me. Everybody’s legs are crammed under them. We would all love to stretch them but there is not room. Moving towards Vietnam. I hear that it is a beautiful country.
Asia is for the introverted.
Grimy men play cards.
Everybody strewn over everything.
Vendors shout to sell steaming food under dirty blanket.
Florescent lights that do not turn off.
Train guard walks by periodically shouting through a blow horn
so that nobody slips off to sleep.
27 hours.
Chinese train travel.

To get back to hat hanging, Andy the Hobotraveler.com wrote:

There is an end to all travels, there is an end to the road, and it is where a person hangs their hat. I personally believe that I will have about six ends of the road, those places I return so often it appears like I live there.”

I don’t know how many places that I will eventually have to “hang my hat” in, but Hangzhou is defiantly one of them. I have stayed there twice now, two years in a row for a total of around seven months. I have studied there, I have worked there, I have lived with two lovers there (and really feel in love with one of them), I was with friends there, I was also alone, I absconded, I raged, I laughed, I got angry, I relaxed. I know where to find cheap, good quality food, I know where to go to be alone. I know the mountain paths like the back of my hands, I know the city’s secret little nooks. I love that city, I am comfortable there. But every place reaches the end of its tether. Or I reach the end of my own. I do not think that there is any place on this planet that I can stay for over four months straight- or at least I do not know if it yet. My Grandfather use to call me his “rambler,” and I think that he was right. The road is my home, as it was for him.
This brings me to that fact that I was just accepted into a good Forestry school in the Adirondack Mountains of my home country. I get this nagging thought sometimes that it may be really nice to sit somewhere for a while in the mountains, to have a dog, a pickup truck, Carhartt overalls, a wife, and a garden. But I now think that these are just thoughts of fancy conjecture- thoughts that are nice in the thinking but lacking in practice. I know how I get when I stay someplace for a few months. I become neurotic. I think that my mind has gotten so use to the continuallity of new horizons that when I gaze upon the same one for too long I begin to introvert my wanderlust…..and this just manifests itself in neuroticism. I am calm when I am in motion, when I can be tried by new scenes and situations daily. The route of the word travel is “travail,” and I like the constant challenges that come with wandering. When I try to stay put my mind becomes too active, and does not blend in with the uniformity of my surroundings. I become overly particular about small matters and difficult to live with. When I am out on the Open Road I feel free and my mind is at ease. I am laid back and happy. Content. Now I have a nice little woman who is cut of the same stuff to tramp along with me, and everything seems complete. I do not need anything more. So I probably will not attend Forestry school in the Adirondack Mountains- as much as I would love to study forestry for a while- and instead I will stay put, like a happy rolling cowboy, in my waderjahr.
No, a regular schedule, a boss, a house, pickup truck, dog is not for me. I have travelled way too far to turn back now.
From V.S. Naipaul’s book, In a Free State:
The tramp, when he appeared on the quay, looked very English; but that might have been because we had no English people on board. From a distance he didn’t look like a tramp. The hat and the rucksack, the lovat tweed jacket, the grey flannels and the boots might have belonged to a romantic wanderer of an earlier generation; in that rucksack there might have been a book of verse, a journal, the beginnings of a novel.. . . when he came nearer we saw that all his clothes were in ruin, that the knot on his scarf was tight and grimy; that he was a tramp.
The tramp reappeared. He was without his hat and rucksack and looked less nervous. Hands in trouser-pockets already stuffed and bulging, legs apart, he stood on the narrow deck like an experienced sea-traveller exposing himself to the first sea breeze of a real cruise. He was also assessing the passengers; he was looking for company. He ignored people who stared at him; when others, responding to his one stare, turned to look at him he swivelled his head away.
In the end he went and stood beside a tall blond young man. His instinct had guided him well. The man he had chosen was a Yugoslav. . . the Yugoslav was willing to listen. . . and the tramp spoke on.
‘I’ve been to Egypt six or seven times. Gone around the world about a dozen times. Australia, Canada, all those countries. Geologist, or use to be. I’ve been travelling for thirty-eight years. . . But what’s my nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world.’
His speech was like this, full of dates, places and numbers, with sometimes a simple opinion drawn from another life. But it was mechanical, without conviction; even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant.
The Yugoslav smiled and made interjections. The tramp neither saw nor heard. He couldn’t manage a conversation; he wasn’t looking for conversation; he didn’t even require an audience. It was as though, over the years, he had developed this way of swiftly explaining himself to himself, reducing his life to names and numbers. When the names and numbers had been recited he had no more to say. Then he just stood beside the Yugoslav. Even before we had lost sight of Piraeus and the Leonardo da Vinci the tramp had exhausted that relationship. he hadn’t wanted company; he wanted only the camouflage and protection of company. The tramp knew he was odd.
Is this the way it will be? Well, I do have “Kosmopolites Eimi“- which is Greek for “Citizen of the World,” to quote Diogenes who coined the term- tattooed around the ebb of my palm (a kind of joke for the immigration inspectors to read when I hand them my passport). So it is, so it is.
I think that I may work on my hat a little tonight. I like to keep a little money stashed away in my cap for a rainy day. But when travelling you realize that when that rainy day comes you will not have any idea what currency you will need. So, therefore, I will make little duct clothe pockets on the inside of my hat for the multiple types of currency that I carry.

Filed under: China, Other Travelers, Tattoo, Train Travel, Travel Inspiration

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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