Deepest Yunnan to downtown Hong Kong

Deepest Yunnan to downtown Hong Kong

…and back – by train

The prospect of spending 80 hours on six trains with only a solitary day of respite sandwiched in between didn’t fill me with joy.  Direct flights between Lijiang and Hong Kong are costly and only operate once a week.  I’d taken many a wearisome train journey in China but this trip promised to be at least as tiring.

The voyage began with me waving goodbye to my girlfriend from the window of a taxi that would take me from Heilongtan to the train station.  It was late in the evening and as we advanced through the barren streets of Lijiang, I felt quite excited.  Roving through China solo gave me a thorough sense of adventure.  I closed my eyes, lounged back in the cab and felt grateful for the refreshing Yunnan breeze even as it disarranged my delicately sculpted hair-do.

My journey would entail taking a train to Kunming that night.  I would arrive 10 hours later, at 6:00am the next morning.  Six hours after that, I would board a train to Guangzhou.  That segment of the jaunt would take 26 hours and from there I would take another train to Shenzhen, in readiness to cross the border into Hong Kong.

We arrived, I strode into the station and shortly thereafter I was on the train.  I took a ‘hard sleeper’ berth.  There was nothing hard about it – it’s quite a comfortable way to travel.  There are six bunks, three on each side of each individual compartment.  Mine was the middle bunk.  It was already pitch black outside, and not wanting to be engaged in conversation with anyone, I quietly drank the milkshake I had taken on board, poured hot water onto my convenient noodles and waited patiently for them to cool down. The noodles were lousy, but they did what was intended of them.

Before long the lights were turned out and I fell promptly to sleep.

The next morning I was woken by the exceptionally bright lights inside the train.  I wasn’t looking forward to waiting six hours in Kunming, but I had no choice.  I arrived in Kunming, a city that I don’t know well, despite having been there numerous times.   I traipsed the streets and observed as the city slowly came to life.  By the time I decided I should find an internet café to relax in, Kunming was in full swing.

At around 10:00am, whilst edging toward my second hour surfing the internet, I saw a confused looking foreigner fiddling with a keyboard.  He asked me if I knew how to log-on to his computer.  I asked him what his password was, and he didn’t realise he needed one.  I figured he hadn’t been in China very long.  I told him that he had to go to the front desk, present his passport, pay a 10rmb deposit, receive his password and then return to the computer.  He did so, and a minute later a woman came in who I presumed was his partner.

The three of us began to talk and it turned out that they were from Kenya.  They had just arrived in Kunming from Laos, from where they had taken a 40-hour bus journey.  They said they were going to Guangzhou by train that day to look for employment as English teachers.   They were taking the 11:55am train too so we decided that we would go to the station together.

At 11:00am we left the internet cafe.  They told me about the difficulties they had acquiring visas to almost everywhere they had wanted to go.  They said they had heard about opportunities to teach in China.  They seemed relieved to hear me back up what they had heard.

We were only one carriage apart when we took to the train, and since it was lunchtime, we decided to find the food carriage and eat together.  I ordered three dishes but the Kenyans ate hardly anything.  They couldn’t use chopsticks and besides, as they said, they were completely unprepared for Chinese cuisine.  They didn’t like the amount of oil or MSG used in lots of the food.  We had two beers each and returned to our beds.

I stared out of the window at the outskirts of Kunming as we slowly plodded east.  I willed the train on to move faster.  I knew that within an hour or two, the surroundings would be beautiful. They would be easily attractive enough to gaze at for a couple of hours.

The attention of the other passengers was firmly on me.  When my eyes met theirs, they invariably looked away.  All except one pair.  A short and stocky man, who appeared to be in his early fifties didn’t look away when I looked at him.  He smiled and clearly wanted to talk, but wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak Chinese.  That was one reason the beginning of our inevitable conversation was delayed, another was my reluctance to talk.  The first 20 minutes of 99% of conversations I have with Chinese strangers are carbon copies of each other.  They consist of me answering the same set of questions, usually in the same order.  Where are you from?  Oh, you can speak Chinese? How long have you been here?  What do you do here?  Did you learn Chinese in England?  How long did you study Chinese?  Will you stay here forever?  Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? How much do you earn?  Are you married? And then, even when those formalities have been completed, conversations with strangers usually take one of very few directions.

Eventually, the interrogation began.  I answered his questions and, though I might have expected it given current Sino-Japanese relations, he asked me a question which took me by surprise.

“What do you think of Japan?”  Since I have no particular views on Japan, its politics or the Diaoyu Island situation, I just said “I don’t know”.  He proceeded to talk at me at top-speed in a strong, almost incomprehensible Sichuan accent about his views on Japan.

He launched into a scathing verbal attack on everything Japanese.  He then started telling me everything about England, France, Germany, America, Korea and tens of other countries.  He truly believed that he knew everything about every place, having never even left his own country.

He got very boring very fast and I couldn’t stand his constant bad-mouthing of Japan.  Some of the things that Japanese soldiers did to Chinese soldiers and civilians alike in the past were awful.  The ‘rape of Nanjing’ was particularly harrowing and it’s impossible not to understand the ill-feeling when any thought or talk of that period arises.  However, this man was over the top.  People such as him, who preach on packed trains, are what influence the views of the next generation of Chinese before they can think independently. A 10 year-old ex-student of mine once told me that he hated Japan.  When I asked him why, his response was “because my dad hates them and he told me they are bad”.  Needless to say, I started to ignore him and pulled out my copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which I read for the next hour or so before falling to sleep.

I was woken by my Kenyan friends a few hours later.  It was around 7:00pm, and we decided to eat again.  That time all they ate was rice.  We had another couple of beers and discussed China, Kenya and England.  They complained of the racial discrimination they had felt from the Chinese, even before they arrived, and I told them to get used to it.  They told me that they had applied for jobs online and schools had responded asking for a passport photo.  When the majority of schools receive pictures of a black person, they automatically reject your application. That is exactly what they had experienced.  This was of no surprise to me, having been here a while, but they were understandably shocked and offended.

When I returned to my compartment, “Mr. I hate Japan” started rambling all sorts of “pro-China/ anti-Japan” garbage again so I told him that I was tired and wanted to sleep.  I reclined behind the pages of my book and drifted off to sleep.

At around 10:00am the next morning, I was woken by the staff as they announced – “Foshan Zhan dao le”.  We were now deep in Guangdong province and it wouldn’t be long before I was in Guangzhou.  A man who I hadn’t previously noticed was sitting in my compartment, and he explained that he had boarded the train in Xingyi, Guizhou province.  He said that upon arrival in Guangzhou, like me, he would buy a ticket on the high-speed railway bound for Shenzhen.  A couple of hours later we arrived in Guangzhou and without even having left the station my new friend and I had bought tickets and were on the way to Shenzhen.

I had taken that train once before, from Shenzhen to Guangzhou.  It’s very impressive.  It stops at four stations before terminating in Shenzhen and takes around 80 minutes at an average speed of 150 km/h.  At Shilong city, we said our goodbyes and I was roving solo once more.  When I arrived at Shenzhen Luohu station, the first thing that hit me was the intense humidity, which was stifling.  I stayed in the Loft Guesthouse, which I would recommend to anyone staying in Shenzhen.  Showered and re-clothed, I took the subway to ‘Coco Park’, a lively part of the city that teems with clubs, bars and restaurants.

After five consecutive months in rural North-west Yunnan province, the sight of a real Irish bar was one to behold. There was space to sit outside and I sat in awe of the energy the city emitted as I sipped my Kilkenny.  Soon I began talking to two American men, one who worked in the oil industry and had been in China for decades, the other an English teacher.  They were Vietnam War veterans and made very interesting conversation.  I asked them what they thought America’s stance would be if Japan and China went to war.  Their opinions differed drastically and that was very interesting to listen to.

They left the bar and I started chatting to a man and a woman, who turned out to be siblings, from Liverpool.  They were very down to earth and of similar age to me.  I felt like I was back in England and I enjoyed their company a lot.

On the taxi journey back to my Youth hostel, as I gazed at the endless skyscrapers, the neon lights et al, it sunk in that Shenzhen really is boom-town.  I always thought Beijing and Shanghai were streaks ahead in terms of all-round development.  I would say that Shenzhen is as developed as Beijing.   The city has certainly come a long way from the small fishing town that it was not so many years ago.

The next morning, I took the subway to Futian border crossing.  I felt a growing excitement as I cleared customs and went to buy an MTR ticket into the city.  I love the dynamism of Hong Kong, which when compared to any other city I’ve visited, is second to none.  Everything moves at a million miles per hour, including the Maseratis and Lamborghinis that whizz past you every other minute.  I wasn’t there to admire the harbour or stare at Italian craftsmanship though – I was there to get a visa.

I arrived at Tsimtsatsui  MTR station and it took just five minutes to arrive at the infamous Chungking mansion, where I go to extend my visa, eat and sleep when I’m in Hong Kong.  I’d done this before and again I fought my way past the tailors, the SIM-card sellers, the restaurants, the prostitutes and the drug dealers to B block, floor 10.

Chungking mansion is like an independent civilisation within another.  A vast, crumbling old building, it is situated on Nathan Rd, Kowloon’s main thoroughfare, amidst the endless Louis Vuitton and Gucci outlets.   When you step inside, the strong aroma of South Asian food overpowers your nostrils and music from the same region blares into your ears. Within ten steps inside you will have been offered everything under the sun and you’ll have seen someone from every corner of the globe. Local HK residents look decidedly like tourists on the rare occasions that they actually enter.

I entered the visa agency, B block, floor 10 (China Visa Service) and made my application.  Within five hours the visa would be ready to collect.  I took my receipt and headed to a seven eleven to buy something which I’d been longing for. Something I’ve never seen for sale in mainland China and something that I love about going to Hong Kong: Ribena.

A bottle of Ribena provided me with a welcome energy boost and with it I set off to do some clothes shopping.  I browsed various cosmetics outlets, too, to buy things which are scarce in these parts; such as anti-perspirant spray and non-skin-whitening face cream.

I wondered around in no real direction and appreciated being in a place where the road signs are in English, the cars are driven on the left of the road and the buses are red and double-decker.  To be able to drink Ribena whilst doing so was the icing on the cake.

I went back to Chungking mansions to collect my visa but stopped just before I did to eat some tandoori fish with pakora.  It was just like being back in Birmingham.

At 6:00pm, visa in hand, I headed directly to Tsimtsatsi MTR station and took a train bound for the Chinese mainland border.

Half way to the border, a clearly demented man boarded the train.  He was a strong man with a crazed yet vacant look in his eyes.  He sat on the floor, ten metres from where I sat.  He screamed and shouted at passengers which made me very nervous.  He yelled in Cantonese, which I don’t understand, which made me more nervous.  People slowly moved away from him at which point he started pacing the carriage menacingly, shouting louder and louder, all the time becoming more and more aggressive.

I envisaged him turning his madness to me, causing me to feel threatened physically, me lashing out and mayhem breaking loose.  I certainly didn’t want that to happen so I got off the train and waited five minutes for the next one.

I got to Shenzhen and made my way to the Loft Guesthouse.  A friendly group of travellers from Italy and Holland were there and we decided to go to Coco Park. This time we found a bar that pumped dubstep music from its speakers late into the night.  The atmosphere was great and I think it would have given most UK dubstep events a run for their money.

The next morning, I bought two train tickets.  The first was from Shenzhen – Guangzhou.  The second was from Guangzhou – Kunming.  Most of that day was spent in the hostel listening to podcasts on (football fans – must see!) as I felt no urge to go outside.  5:00pm rolled around and it was time for me to go to the station.

The train burst into life immediately and hurtled along the track to Guangzhou.  I arrived in Guangzhou 90 minutes before my train to Kunming was bound to depart.  As there would be no more western comforts for the next 40+ hours, I decided to grab a McDonalds.  When I stepped out onto the square directly outside the train station, what immediately struck me was the sheer number and diversity of people waiting for trains.  In this sprawling space, people of all kinds were up to all manner of things.  The night sky was illuminated, not by stars but by glowing, air-born, spinning- top like toys.  They were pretty although I didn’t know how they worked.  Their hawkers would launch them high into the air and they would parachute gracefully back down. It felt as if most people whose eyes I caught were sizing me up, pondering on how best to profit from me. Was it to sell something to me? to steal something from me? to beg something of me?  Most didn’t approach me, though.  I went to McDonalds, which was very close by, and returned with my food five minutes later.  I sat on my bag, planted my McDonalds on the ground and tried to take in all that was going on around me.

A particularly shady looking character spotted me and walked over.  He lingered next to me for around 15 seconds before making his attempt.  I was sitting on my bag so he couldn’t steal that, and he wasn’t going to be able to physically rob me. I wondered what he would do.

“Hello”…he muttered.

“Hello”, I replied.

“I’m hungry.  I’m hungry.  Friend…’’ he rubbed his belly and pointed at my McDonalds.

The man had two legs and two arms and was no older than 40.  He could walk, he could talk and he was not deformed.  When presented with this kind of beggar, I don’t feel at all inclined to give anything. I feel more inclined to tell them to find a job – any job.

“I’m hungry’’ he repeated.

‘’And what does that have to do with me’’ I asked.

Clearly taken aback as I spoke Chinese, he was initially hesitant, but repeated that he was hungry.  I told him there are 10,000 people at this station – go and bother someone else and he left.

There were people lying all across the square.  I heard many different accents.  Who knows where they were going.  I tried to put faces to places to kill the time, but it was futile.

A moment later, a tall, thin, dark-skinned and very weathered looking woman slowly made her way towards me.  She looked Tibetan, or maybe she was from Sichuan or Yunnan.  She had her hair in a long ponytail down do the small of her back.  She held herself in a lazy fashion and dragged her feet as she approached.

‘’Newspapers, one kuai! Do you want one?’’

She thrust the newspaper right under my nose.  Her intrusion into my personal space wasn’t welcome.

‘’No I don’t.  I can’t read Chinese anyway’’

‘’You can!  You’re using Chinese right now!’’ She shouted, angrily.

It struck me as odd that her sales technique seemed to be to make the potential customer as uptight and defensive as possible.

‘’No, I can’t read, why would I buy it?’’

‘’Just buy one!’’ she shouted.

I shook my head.  She stared at me momentarily then walked away.

Woah!!!  I put my hands up to defend my face.  A man who I had seen out of the periphery of my vision had been approaching and had taken what seemed like a swing at my face when he got close enough.  In actuality he was just catching one of the glowing toys he had for sale as it fell from the sky down in the direction of my head.  It wouldn’t have hurt, but I thanked him all the same.

It was time once again to board the train and by this point I was going slightly mad with all the getting on and off of subways, trains and taxis.

The travelling made me tired and as soon as the lights went out on my Kunming bound train, I fell asleep.  The lights came on in the morning but I slept for a couple more hours.  I was finally awoken by a train-worker parading down the aisles letting everybody know at the top of her voice that we had arrived in Nanning, capital of Guangxi province.

Going back to sleep wasn’t possible and I soon realised that I was once more in a confined space with lots of strangers for a long time.  The inevitable conversations would have to happen.  Or would they?  A woman from Guangdong asked me in English where I was from.  She then asked if I could speak Chinese.  I said “a little”, in English.

‘’I heard you say ‘Xiexie’ to the refreshments lady last night, you said it very well’’.

I chuckled…partly to return her compliment with a smile, but mostly for my own amusement.  How far can one possibly go wrong with ‘Xiexie’?

She had been convinced that I couldn’t speak Chinese.  Her English wasn’t great so the conversation didn’t go very far.  That was fine by me – I finished reading Dr Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.

Somewhere in North-West Guangxi province a little while later, the train rode alongside a small village.  There was a dirt track parallel to the train around 500m up a hill from the village below.  Riding along the path was a motorbike, on which four people sat.  One adult at the front, one adult at the back and two children in the middle.The motorbike was probably 20m from the train track at this point, and for 30 seconds or so before our paths took different routes forever, those two little boys and I shared a moment.  The motorbike was going at more or less the same speed as the train.  The children spotted me.  They stared and I stared back.  I can only imagine what they were thinking, and how different their lives had been and surely will be, to mine.  They were obviously very poor.  They lived in the middle of nowhere, their tiny faces were dirty and their clothes were too small.  What they wore was pink-coloured, probably hand-me-downs from an elder sister.  The 30 seconds seemed like a long time and I enjoyed it.  Suddenly, simultaneously, their dirt track veered to the right, my train track veered to the left and our time together was permanently up.

We arrived at a place called ‘’Rongbai’’.  There was only one platform and nothing else of note around for hundreds of kilometres.  The single entrance/exit to the station was a dirt-track that lead immediately out of the station and up a mountain.  Nobody got on the train there but I did see one person get off.  A very tiny, very old lady, with a bag the same size as her person, had carefully started making her way up the dirt path as the train pulled lethargically out of the station.

Time was a strange concept at this point.  Sometimes it seemed to pass quickly, others slowly.  Regardless, I had become numb to it all.  We breezed along past gorgeous mountains, glorious rivers and stunning waterfalls.

‘’Xingyi zhan dao le’’ announced the train worker.

We were at the station of the hometown of the man I met on the way to Guangzhou.  I thought of him and what he was doing in Guangdong province.  He told me Xingyi was a beautiful place and that I should come to visit him during the National Holiday. He is just one of the many kind strangers in China who I will probably never meet again.

We rolled out of the station and before long into Yunnan province.  We were only a couple of hours from Kunming.  I decided that I would have a glass of Whisky and watch as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.  I checked that the bottle in my bag was still intact and went to the food carriage to ask for a paper cup.  They said they didn’t have any, which I found hard to believe.  I walked away, and then decided to go back to buy a bottle of water instead.

‘’We’ve just found some actually, over there.’’  A man in uniform pointed to the end of the carriage.  I thanked him.

‘’Haha, you are our foreign friend, if we have them of course we’ll give them to you, that’s how it should be!’’

I passed another man in uniform on my way to the paper cups.

‘’As long as you’re not Japanese, that is!’’

I chuckled and shook my head.

I went back to my compartment and had two glasses of whisky.  Finally, we arrived in Kunming.

No sooner had I left the station than I was on the back of a motorbike careering through the city’s streets to the Hump Hostel, where I would rest for a night before making the trip to Lijiang the next morning.

When I arrived at something past 11:00pm, the hostel was alive with tourists and locals alike.  People were drinking, eating and playing pool.  I changed clothes with haste, bought a Coke and went out on the Hump’s rooftop terrace.   A group of young locals that consisted of two men and two women beckoned me to their table.  They were interested to talk, I was happy to be off the train and when they opened a couple of bottles of beer I was obliged to drink with them.  I met an old friend, Xiao mei, who now works in the Hump, which was pleasant.  I first met him when he working in Beijing’s Wangfujing youth hostel in 2008.

More bottles were opened and more beer was drunk.  They told me that if I came with them to the club next door, they’d be honoured.  Having spent the previous 26 hours on a train, I decided I would go with them and let my hair down.  Little did I know, they were to take me to a gay club and that they themselves were gay.  I’m not homophobic but it was a strange experience to say the least.  I went back to my dormitory bed after an hour or so.  I appreciated a “real” bed – the “beds” on the trains had grown tiresome.

Morning rose and I packed my bag for the last time.  Arriving in Kunming felt like I had completed the journey but I still had to get to the other side of the province.  The receptionist told me that they could book train and bus tickets to Lijiang and I decided that I would take the bus.  It would take eight hours.

At 12:50 that day I set off with eight or nine locals in a minibus.  The driver was a jolly man who kept us entertained all the way to Lijiang.  It took four hours to get Dali, slightly past half way.  The road from Kunming to Dali is one long highway.  The quality of the road is very good – after all – it’s a well-trodden route for international tourists.  Dali looked magnificent as we passed through.  Amazing rays of sun shone out from behind the famous Cang mountain down onto Er lake.  The road from Dali to LiJiang is different in a couple of ways.  Firstly, it isn’t a highway.  Lijiang sits at 3000m above sea level, whereas Dali rests at closer to 2000m.  The mountains in between are formidable, the road twists and turns around the endless peaks, and potentially deadly drops lie dauntingly in wait at every corner.  We passed through many villages on the way from Dali to Lijiang and I wondered what it would be like to live in one of them.  I came to the conclusion that the novelty value would wear off quite quickly.

It was only after the drive through the mountains that I realised, or at least remembered, how remote a place Lijiang is.  We pulled into Lijiang and the passengers disembarked at various points around the city.  The only ones remaining on the bus were now the driver and I.  For an extra 20rmb, he took me directly to where I wanted to go, which was Lijiang University of tourism, situated just outside the city.

I took my bag, he took my money and we parted ways.  I climbed the stairs of the teachers’ residence on campus to my girlfriend’s apartment.  I had returned. The mission was complete.







  1. It gives me great pleasure to be the first to say that this is a really tremendous read. Keep up the good work!

  2. WOW, it took me a long time to finish reading it,but I think it is very interesting and hope you keep on writing it. :-)

  3. Very good read, especially interesting to hear about the general hostility towards Japan. Whilst I have seen all the stories in the news it’s impossible to get a feel for what the average Chinese person thinks about it all.

  4. Though only traveled for a few times, which is very close to Beijing,I can understand, some of, the feelings of you in this travel,such as looking at the children on the motorbike.

    I think travel is some think that not that interesting or exciting at that moment, but leaves endless memories to recall or to think about.

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  1. Chinese Visa - Latest Updates - […] it seems the days of making the cheap and easy visa run to Hong Kong are over. Whether these …

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