Dawn over Kunming. Light seeps between the tower blocks but in the still-dark streets I trudge north: seeking the Golden Arches. It’s the 6th of January and my visa expires today. I’m off to Hong Kong to get a new one.

I had been apprehensive about catching the overnight train from Lijiang, regaled with stories in the ‘hard sleeper’ of drunken Russians and ferocious snoring. These horror stories confirmed my fears that I would not get any sleep at all, despite reassurances from others that they are lulled into blissful dreams by the gentle rocking motion.

The taxi draws up outside the parking barrier of Lijiang train station – some 8 minutes and 30 RMB from Rhizome.  It is an austere landscape, reminiscent of war movies: thousands of people pouring through one small security entrance; an endless flight of stairs; a plethora of impeccably uniformed officials without a hint of a smile; and the platform, mysteriously empty… A vast concrete expanse abruptly halts at a rising grey wall of train: two stories high, faceless and flat.

The platform

The compartments are compact, but only four-berth: this is a modern sleeper. On other routes the bunk beds are three-deep. The entrance to each compartment is open – only “soft sleepers” have doors for privacy. There is a wide bay for ablutions and the toilets are, well, OK at the moment – at least they’re close-by. After three days of an upset stomach I had been dreading this journey for more reasons than simply lack of sleep…

The train is full of nice, quiet, young people, not drunken Russians, and I pull the cotton-padded quilt over my head hoping for those blissful dreams. What I actually get is a very disturbed night: the sometimes-violent, sideways, rocking motion creates nausea; insomniacs keep the smoking area outside the cabin in constant use, and the term ‘hard sleeper’ is exactly that. With my back in its current status – badly out of sorts after a rather physical massage some weeks ago – there is no comfortable position. Then the lights come on at 6:15am with gentle but insistent music: some 45 minutes shy of the station.

There’s a general scrum along the platform, down the stairs and into a vast reception hall where we all squeeze out of three pinch-points where our tickets are checked. I can’t imagine what would happen if someone couldn’t find theirs – the building pressure behind would probably just force them through.

Then it’s out into the bustle and my search for a haven and a cup of coffee – hence the Golden Arches. Which is quite extraordinary, as I never normally go there. But the sense of relief I feel when I see the familiar sign is palpable – and quite bewildering.

The coffee is good. Outside two women bat shuttle-cocks with some precision – exercise restricted primarily to the right arm, and obviously well practiced. I remember my first attempts at badminton – I was exhausted within minutes, running backwards and forwards, while my opponent remained quite stationary.

Another ‘sportsman’ in a suit exercises a ball on a rubber string with his tennis racket.

More people arrive at McDonalds – some on their way to work, some obviously on their way elsewhere after a good night out.

I make my way to the airport – sadly not being able to see Matthias who is also in Kunming, but working at the Institute to wrap up his China part of the MSc before he returns to Germany in a couple of weeks.

Suddenly I get a call from Shirley from the HorsePen, Shaxi. She’s in Lijiang to meet me for breakfast. Yikes! I don’t remember that arrangement… But no, she’s teasing. She’s at Cloudland hostel in Kunming, hoping we can get together there – she and Matthias were quite surprised to meet each other in the washroom at 7am, neither having told the other their arrangements. But it’s now 9am, and I’m about to check in for my flight to Hong Kong and I can’t see how it can happen.


Departure lounge – 10:45. Only an hour and a half to take-off. Hazy outside, thin sunlight splashing through. It was colder this morning than I thought, but it might have warmed up. It’ll certainly be more pleasant in Hong Kong: double figures, some higher than low. I’ve brought my cossie just in case there’s a chance over the weekend to go to one of the islands – and just remembered that where I’m staying there’s a pool.

I’ve got all my papers for my Business Visa – which is a bit of an anomaly as it doesn’t entitle you to work, but act as a consultant through invitation by a business. And I’ve set up a chiropractic appointment which is gaspingly costly – but now an absolute necessity. I didn’t make time when I was in HK in October, and it seemed to settle, there were bouts of discomfort lasting weeks. I’m only hopeful that it can be sorted in one go – and if not, there’s only time for two. Back on the mainland, there’s no chance of finding a chiropractor who uses the same Sacro Occipital Technique as Giles. There it will have to be acupuncture.

More waiting...

Later. It’s now nearly 3pm and I’m getting a little sick of the repeated announcements: “Ladies and Gentlemen. May I have your attention. We regret to announce that flight number (various and numerous) to (wherever) cannot leave as scheduled. Would you please stay in the waiting area and wait for further information.”

Some flights are leaving, but mine is not even on the board, and the flights are being scheduling up to 16:45. That’s a delay, so far, of nearly five hours. At least they fed us lunch…

I’m exhausted, too tired to sleep, to work on the computer, and I’ve nothing to read. Just wait. Lots of that in China.

I try to get onto another flight to Shenzhen, but there are no seats available. I ask about transferring to Guangzhou and there’s a possibility I can get on a flight at 6.30pm, and agree to meet the China Southern rep closer to the time.

Everyone’s trying to contact with people who are expecting them: their business, relatives or friends. There’s a relay on charging mobile phones…

Charging phones...

Dusk over Kunming – There’s a fracas in the corner – the China Eastern rep has just

announced that we can board the plane soon. It’s nearly 7pm. He told me just before he made his official announcement and I gave him a spontaneous hug. I was simply so pleased that the mechanical problem had been fixed and that we were actually leaving. I hadn’t wanted to fly to Guangzhou – the airport is 173k outside the city, and a hell of a trek over to Shenzhen and the border crossing. I’d probably arrive at midnight, in unfamiliar territory.

The fracas

The fracas has turned mean. Frustrated passengers are furious that China Southern is only offering 100 Yuan compensation. Frankly, I was glad to accept it and get on the plane – I’d rather they took their time fixing the mechanical problem than not…

More people are now joining in the lively discussion, but since it’s all in Chinese, not much point in my involvement.

Keep my energy for the long journey still ahead of me: 3hrs to Shenzhen with a short stopover somewhere, 45 minutes to the border, then another 40 to Helens. All being well.

Later – All is not well.

Angry passengers refuse to board the plane until the compensation is increased – and Police assistance has been called. Two of us have now been sitting on the aircraft for over half an hour while negotiations proceed. We finally depart just after 8pm with double the compensation: 200 RMB, the equivalent of £20. We’re now some eight hours late. I’m still worried about getting to the border before midnight, when my visa expires, but there’s nothing I can about that.

We finally disembark at Shenzhen airport at 11:20pm and I catch a taxi to the border crossing. The taxi driver doesn’t speak English, and I’m bewildered by the dark, empty building. It’s supposed to be a busy train station and customs post. The concierge at the nearby Sheraton, who does speak English, explains that it’s now closed. We can drive to another, 24-hour, border crossing or wait for this one to open at 6am. We drive.

165 RMB lighter, I finally haul myself up to the customs window at about 12:20am. The official checks my passport, studies me closely, and calls over a colleague. There’s a bit of a discussion which I studiously ignore. The look on my exhausted face convinces them to overlook the fact that my visa has technically expired. They stamp my passport and I’m in.

There are no trains at this border crossing. I wander through the desolate area and, pointing at my map, find a bus that will take me somewhere near where I want to go. I’m so glad I held onto my HK dollars from my trip here last October…

Shortly after I settle down for a 40 minute ride, bus stops and everyone disappears down a walkway and into another building. I’m very confused – I thought I was going to the HK suburbs and the comfort of a waiting bed.

I slowly realise that when I thought I was “in”, I was actually just “out”. I now have to enter Hong Kong. I chase after the crowd and end up at another customs window. Finally I have my entry to Hong Kong.

I wait for another bus on the Hong Kong side in a large, dark, deserted terminal. It’s bitterly cold. Thirty minutes later I’m deposited somewhere near where I want to be. I fork out yet another fare, stumble out of the taxi and I’m punching the access code into the security gate. It’s 2am, it’s been one hell of a journey, and the compensation for one mode of travel has been immediately absorbed by others.

The live-in has waited up and dishes up hot beef soup. I’m almost too tired to eat. But there’s a hot-water bottle in my bed. Bliss. Tomorrow should be easy. Just go to the visa office and apply for my 3-month business visa. Piece of cake…