I can now say that I?ve traveled by hard seat in China. Hard seat is basically the lowest class of travel by train. The seats aren?t terribly hard–they could be wood. But 7 hours sitting on a bench in-between two middle age Chinese men and across from a couple that fought the entire trip was something that I don?t feel the need to experience again. I didn?t want to call more attention to myself, I was the only foreigner as far as I could see, so I didn?t listen to my iPod of pull out my camera. At this point in my travels across China I?ve become so accustomed to long distance travel that I?ve been able to pass 6 or more hours with nothing to amuse myself. It?s almost as if you have to put yourself in a meditative state or you?ll go crazy. I know I was a constant source of entertainment for my seat mates–they watched intently as I ate my instant noodles and tried to engage me in conversation no matter how many times I told them I didn?t speak Chinese. After they seemed to accept that I didn?t speak Chinese they tried writing things out for me in Chinese characters. They were even more confused when I told them that I don?t understand Chinese writing. It?s just like all of the newspaper sellers and and people who hand me pamphlets–it doesn?t occur to them that I wouldn?t read Chinese.
Kunming is a big city where people go to get things done. You can get a Laos visa here or check up on the latest border openings to Myanmar. I went to Kunming to go to the post office. That may sound silly to most people but you really need to go to an international post office to mail anything bigger than a postcard and you might have to travel 25 hours by train to find one. I mailed postcards from the worst possible place, Xiahe, and a month has passed with no sign of them. I have intentionally avoided buying souvenirs because they take up space and usually aren?t something you?ll use or want when you get home. I once carried a saz (banjo-like instrument) all the way across Turkey and Greece for my brother and he never played it. This time I?ve been carrying two Mao propaganda posters around for a month and I was more than ready to get rid of them. Unfortunately, China has not yet discovered the practicality of mailing tubes so I was forced to carry around a water-damaged paintbrush box which became less sturdy with each bus or train I got on. By the time I got to Kunming its? sides no longer formed 90 degree angles. China Post does a great job by supplying boxes and thermal bands that seal them tight. The postal woman was annoyed with me for filling the empty space of my box with newspaper and even more so when she realized that I wrote the address upside down. It really shouldn?t have mattered that I wrote it upside down–besides, that?s the way she gave me the box–but she went around and scribbled everything out while giving me the evil eye. (She really resented the fact that I wrote ?up? on every side.) Hopefully my box full of posters, guide book, maps, Tibetan belt and so on will arrive at home in the next few months.
While I was spending a few days in the cleanest hostel in China I spent my time seeing King Arthur (in English!), eating sandwiches (with bread!), trying on more clothes (that don?t fit) and getting a blind massage. The traditional massage in China is done by blind people, as they are meant to have a better sense of touch. I?m not especially fond of strangers touching me but I decided to give it a chance and see what the fuss was about. You lay on a bed with all of your clothes and covered by a sheet or two. I?m not sure how much they can feel through so many layers but I was really happy to have it there when he proceeded to give both of my arms what felt a lot like Indian rug burns. I was in dire need of a back massage and although the elbows digging into my muscles hurt it did help to get some of the knots out. The worst part was when he massaged my face and temples, I would have told him to stop if I had thought of a nice way to say it in Chinese without offending him. At 20 yuan an hour ( a little over $2 U.S.) you can?t complain too much.
I decided to go straight to the Xishuangbanna region near the Myanmar and Laos borders instead of trying to visit the Western Dehong region as well. The main reason for this was the 40-hour bus ride between the two. The small gauge railway between Kunming and Vietnam is shut down for repairs and the roads in the region are mostly rock and mud, resulting in some really long bus rides. It seems as if anywhere off the main rail lines travel is slow and I need to figure out how I?m going to get from Jinghong (in Xishuangbanna) to the border crossing with Vietnam.