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11/16 11:15am, HeKou, just over the Vietnam border, China
Sigh. A curse on- no, no, I'd better not.
It's raining, raining so much that I could not leave this little town yesterday. My departure from Sapa had been uneventful. The morning was dead quiet and none of the women were out, and not a shop open: so for better or for worse, I didn't have a chance to buy any gifts. I climbed on the bus with a few others, a mix of foreigners and Vietmanese and I was gone.
Even finding the border was not problematic. The bus trundled into Lao Cai and let me off after we'd crossed a big metal bridge. The driver pointed me in the right direction, told me there was a train at twelve to Kunming, and we headed in opposite directions.
The border was a couple of kilometers down a paved road. Lots of newer looking buildings stood on either side of the street, a fe people walking about or sitting in their doorways. The border crossing itself was over an old railway bridge. I went up to the gates and the guards pointed me over towards an old French colonial building. A number of people were milling about, but everyone seemed to be just be waiting.
One counter handled the visa and another did the inspection. The visa had no problems, but there was a little charge. He told me one dollar, so I pulled out the nearest equivelant in Dong, 10,000. He waved it away and said "One dollar!" again. I open my wallet and show him that I have no dollar bills. My own mistake- he reaches over and begins picking through the bills. He stops on a 20,000 bill and rips it out before I can react and tucks it behind the counter. My mouth hangs open, not quite believing his gall. I start to protest, but he just pretends he doesn't understand, and I decide it's not worth the anguish
A Japanese guy, coming into Vietnam tries to negotiate his fee. He came into the country in a different place then stated on his visa, and they wanted to charge him 40 dollars. I don't think he got anywhere.
They didn't seem to get many foreigners crossing there. When I signed in the customs book, I saw only about one person per day.
I had to unpack for customs, but there was no problem, one might have even said it was pleasant- the woman seemed more amused than anything else by the contents: besides my clothes (dirty and clean), there is a player flute(unplayed), a bag of laundry detergent (I was hoping they wouldn't mistake it for drugs or something), various odds and ends for my camera, books, and notebooks.
Plus there is the fact that she had no qualms in accepting 10,000 Dong for a dollar.
The guards on the bridge almost did not let me go across because the customs guy had taken my visa. They needed it or something and deliberated a moment or two before letting me go. Come to think of it I was a bit dissappointed I didn't get to keep it. It was by far the neatest looking one I had (it was on a separate sheet of paper- the stamp was kind of lame).
The bridge wasn't very long and I crossed with a few other Vietmanese women carrying goods. The river that ran under the bridge, flowed fast and strong. A few hundred yards later it flowed into another river; hence the Chinese town's name- Hekou or "River Mouth."
I was greeted courteously on the other side by a uniformed Chinese guard. I sighed in happiness: to be understood and to understand! He complimented me on my accent and sat me down in a little waiting room and bringing me a customs form to fill out. With his accent- nice and crisp- it sounded like he was from the North. This is probably where he'd been sent after he graduated from whatever. He asked me a few formal questions and then sent me on my way, directing me to the train station.
It was quite close, but much of the road was flooded with huge pools of water. next to the bridge there was man taking photographs of people who had just crossed the border, with the bridge in the background. Business was slow.
There weren't many people on their way to the train station either and I soon found out why: no trains. Rain, rain and flooding. I asked about tomorrow and she shrugged, "don't know, come back tomorrow."
I found a little Bank of China branch and changed some money. My fee for the exchange was an English lesson. The girl at the counter was reading a manual on her portable cell phone: translating for her boss maybe, but there were quite a few terms she wasn't finding in her dictionary. She came out from behind the counter and sat me down to ask the questions. Most amusing.
I was a little bit of a loss what to do next, but I soon found the bus station. But the news was no less promising. There was still a chance that the bus would run that day, but I'd have to wait until twelve.
And so I did, picking a seat in a restaurant and eating some not very good, but very hot noodles. Just about killed my appetite.
I checked back with bus station a little late- at one (not realizing that I had gained an hour by crossing- all of China goes by one time zone, that of Beijings), but it didn't matter. No buses were running.
In the restaurant, a women started talking to me. We talked about my travels mainly, she was a little envious and there was nothing I could say to that. I said "One day." "Way way in the future," she replied. She eventually convinced me to stay in her hotel next door. It was a little expensive, but I didn't feel like hunting around anymore. There was nothing about this town in my guidebook, this border crossing had only recently been reopened. Besides that China has all sorts of wierd rules about what hotels can allow foreigners to stay in them.
It was a fairly nice hotel, but there was no electricity for most of the time that I was there. No doubt the rains fault again. The whole place had a damp feel to it, and my mood started to crash.
After a nap, I wandered around the town but there didn't seem to be terribly much to it. At one point I stood by the river looking back into Vietnam. The Chinese ground in front of me had been scraped down to the dirt and there was a heap of garbage. Vietnam was all green and wrapped in clouds, and I wish I hadn't been in such a hurry to get out.
I sighed and kept walking. The town seemed to be in the midst of a booom with lots of new stuff being built. I bought a coke to drink, but it took me half the day to drink it. It had been packed in ice and was almost frozen solid.
I passed a little rec center (lots of pool and snooker tables) that advertised a Hong Kong movie that night, so I decided I'd go. I ate dinner in the little night market- in a little shack basically. The place was crowded and I had to kind of point at what I wanted. Aside from the border guard everyone here normally spoke a "dialect" (meaning, in China, a separate language more or less: some of which are as distant from Mandarin, as English is from French or Italian), and so Mandarin wasn't very practised. People were curious, and I got the usual questions. Sat with a couple at a small table, everyone sitting on low stools. I had an awful tasting bottle of local beer, and was dying for a piece of bread, but the food was passable.
The movie was more amusing. It was shown in a narrow but longish shack, with a low ceiling and a big video projector set up in front of a slide screen. The audience a few dozen of us, sat in what seemed like church pews; as uncomfortable at least. The movie was a romantic comedy and the subtitles were so blurred that I could barely follow the story. It was dubbed in Mandarin, but they often speak to fast in dubbed movies as to be mostly incomprehensible.
A guy sat down next to me and we shared some smokes (I've been carrying a couple packs for just the occassion). He asked the usual questions, but then asked me to teach him how to box. He was convinced, because I was American, that I knew how. He wanted to become my "follower", my "student," as if I were some sort of boxing guru. No amount of explaining seemed to convince him otherwise. But he did give up eventually, only to go one about how I could come and start a factory here, since I was no doubt rich!
I went back to the hotel in a somewhat better mood and slept.
Now, today, there is still no train- I walked down to the station in the morning, past huge trucks full of bananas. Traffic was busier this morning, and I even saw another foreigner who must have just crossed. But there was no train.
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