The night I left Shanghai, I had a hundred thoughts go through my mind. Why was I leaving was one of them. I was torn between excitement and fear. I walked through the underground facing a surge of people going in the opposite direction, with a strong sense that I’d forgotten something. Earlier in the day I’d packed up everything in my apartment, boxed up all my winter clothes and sent them to England, and passed the keys onto my colleague who was taking over the place after I left. I managed to pack everything I’d accumulated over a year into one backpack, something I’ve learnt to be quite good at over the years.
Even though it didn’t feel like it, I was ready to leave. I was craving an adventure after so many days of solid routine. I was also craving fresh air after so many days cycling in toxic smog which was 100x worse in the winter. I had been wanting to get out and see some of the ‘real China’ that lay far beyond Shanghai, but I’d never had the chance until now because I was busy working. I had a few days left on my visa, so I decided to get a 48-hour train to Yunnan in the Southwest, just so I could spent one day in the countryside. The place had always attracted me because of its food, mountains and proximity to SE Asia; just a border crossing away from Laos and Vietnam.
Clambering onto the 19:35 sleeper, I had the ticket clutched tightly in my hand, all my belongings strapped to my back, and the realization hit me that I was leaving Shanghai for good.
The carriage I was in was empty until a drunk old guy got on the train. He had a bottle of rice wine which he proceeded to swig from, and laugh in-between sips. In his hand, he held a bag of sunflower seeds which he shelled noisily with his teeth, spitting the striped shells across the floor. The ticket inspector came round and the drunk man began gesturing to the top bunk (there were six beds in each carriage, three-on-three). The guy’s expression was one of pain and he asked if he could swap and take the lower bunk in drunken sign language. The guard refused and kept jabbing his finger at the rice wine in disapproval. The beds may be empty now, but they’d be full later. I didn’t actually know at this point quite how long a journey I was in for, but I didn’t mind. It felt good to be on the move again.
The train crept out Shanghai South Railway Station in darkness. The guards came round and pulled across the curtains and soon after, the lights switched off. I could just see the old man’s swaying profile and the number “13” lit up in the aisle. I fell asleep and was woken a number of times in the night by people getting on the train and finding their beds as loud as they could in the darkness. And then there were the jolts, the lurches, and seesaw movements that felt like we were running over livestock.
I woke some point next day and spent the entire day in bed watching the incessant eating of the Chinese around me. Beers were cracked open from morning til night. Drunk guy was sober and perched on the end of my bed looking meek and trying to win the attention of the other guys, hoping to be included in their card game or conversation. The men phlegmed, whistled, and smoked while the woman fussed around tying knots on plastic bags, playing with the grandchildren, clearing the men’s rubbish and passing them beers from a dustbin liner on request.
36 hours later, we pulled into Kunming.
It was a slate grey morning, drizzling. The outskirts of Kunming were a barren land of factories and industrial chimneys, that were piping jet black smog into a stormy sky. It made the train feel cozy all of a sudden, although I was dying to get off. I ran to catch the Dali train, stopping to pick up two boxes of chicken nuggets from a fast food chain called Dicos.
On the train, I managed to get an aisle seat by the window. This train was packed. The journey was long, but the scenery never got boring. As we rolled out of Kunming, the industrial landscapes morphed into yellow fields and rice paddies, where people worked with woven baskets on their backs. I saw tombs scattered over hillsides, a valley full of watermelons that had cannon-balled down the hill, and loads of old Chinese houses with their distinctive ‘pirate hat’ roofs.
Then the vendors passed through the carriage. Unbreakable socks, hand towels that doubled up as hair turbans, and milk pastels were all brought round, and handed to literally everyone in the whole train to sample. Each vendor meant a performance. I had no idea what they were saying, but it was pretty amusing to watch. One salesman asked for a volunteer and he got them to stretch a sock, while he stabbed it over and over with a chopstick yelling something excitedly in Chinese to show they were truly unbreakable. Everybody in the carriage poked their heads round doors, and I didn’t see anybody without a glimmer of a smile on their face as the train shook and bounced through the countryside with this mad salesman performing his pitch.
The train finally arrived at 4pm. My phone battery had died and as all the details of my hostel were on it, I was left asking everyone if they knew where the street was. But nobody was going out of their way to help me. I then noticed a silver airbus with the Yunnan Police crest on the side.
There was a huge policeman inside and he let me use the electricity. Shortly after, three other police turned up and squeezed into the airbus, handing me pastries that I ate like a starving person, because I hadn’t eaten anything apart from rubbery chicken on the train. They fired a string of questions at me, questions I’d become accustomed to answering, like: How old are you? What do you do? Why don’t you get married? Do you have a boyfriend back home? As always, I shocked them with my answers: 24 and unmarried, alone in Asia – bu hao (not good).
While I waited for my phone to charge, I told the warden I was planning to go Burma and his face turned grave. “Dangerous,” he said. Another policeman flicked the gun on his waist strap: “wars all the time”. The large policeman said in a tone of finality: “I think it is best you don’t go”. I replied it was too late, I had a flight booked for the day after tomorrow.
I was chatting with them in that airbus in bad Chinese for almost half-an-hour before I suddenly wondered why the hell I was still there. I rung the hostel and got the address, and the big policeman gave me his number should I ever get into any trouble within Chinese borders. I think he sensed I was someone who is used to getting into trouble. He passed me a 2 yuan bill and he and his three men led me over to the No. 8 bus and wished me good luck.
The bus was full of hill tribe women headed for the ancient town. They carried woven baskets on their backs and smelled strongly of fish, woodsmoke, damp, and garlic – smells I remember clearly from Sapa. We sped down a wide open road with traditional white houses on either side reached by single dust paths. I stayed on until the end of the line, then I rang the hostel and a hippy guy with long blond hair and harem pants came and picked me up on the street corner on his motorbike.
I’d finally arrived in DALI.