So after two days of travels I’ve come up against my first problem (remarkable that I made it so far considering I can’t speak to anyone). Trapped in China ‘s equivalent of the US mid-west until tomorrow morning, some e-mail sending will allow me to pass a long hot afternoon. Panzhihua is the name of the city I’m in. If you think of films where people get stuck in a hot and dusty town in the middle of nowhere, you’ll have a fair idea of Panzhihua. Except there are no rattlesnakes in the street, although I wish there were to provide a bit of interest. Everywhere I walk people stare at me, and if it’s a group of more than 3 at least one will shout hello and then start laughing. Fortunately the bus tomorrow morning will take me to Lijiang, a haven up in the mountains, and apparently one of the nicest cities in China .

A lot seems to have happened since yesterday morning. Things went slightly wrong from the moment I left the flat, as looking at the map and pointing at the first bus station I saw was not an effective method of getting the taxi driver to the right place. Fortunately the error was soon solved, with much pointing at buses and saying ‘ Chengdu ‘ (my eventual destination) in as many different vaguely Chinese accents as possible.

The coach journey itself was not very interesting, particularly as all the double glazing in the bus had punctured, leaving the windows full of muck that meant I couldn’t see outside. We only saw two overturned vehicles on the 5 hour drive, so it must have been a fairly safe day on the Chinese roads.
On arrival in Chengdu confusion reigned as a Chinese guy came and started chatting to me. He spoke excellent English, but apparently no Chinese. When I asked where he was going he showed me his guidebook, which was in Chinese. After about 10 minutes I found out he was Japanese, and things made a little more sense. Having been driven round in circles and on a detour to the petrol station by the cab driver, who didn’t even bother to hide that he was doing this, we eventually made it to Chengdu , where I headed off to the train station.

Pleased to see a foreign visitors ticket office, I approached and started talking English. Unfortunately they didn’t speak English, their qualification for working in this particular ticket office seemed to be a knowledge of advanced charades and good drawing skills. Safely armed with my ticket and a three hour wait, I set off for some dinner. As usual ordering involved seeing what looked good on other peoples plates and asking for the same. Fortunately this doesn’t seem to cause quite the same level of annoyance it would in England , I’ve even been offered drinks by diners as I curiously peer at their food. I’ve not yet sunk as low as sniffing anyone’s food to check it’s OK.

Having eaten dinner and walked around the vicinity of the station, I was left with an hour in which I wish I smoked. Unfortunately experiments with Chinese cigarettes early in the summer mean that I am currently an avowed non-smoker, so I had to sit and do nothing. It’s surprising how much more quickly inhaling a burning plant into you rungs allows time to pass.

As departure time drew near I headed into the station, to be met by a seething mass of staring, smoking and spitting people. Avoiding the chair that was filled with urine, I settled down until a rapid decrease in the number of people signalled the arrival of my train, and provided a warning of what was to come.

Actually the train wasn’t that bad. I’d gone for hard sleeper class, which meant a bad to myself and my rucksack, which unexpectedly insisted on pinching all the covers in the night. The people around me seemed amused to have a laowai (foreigner) in their compartment, but were pretty friendly sharing drinks etc. with me. After staring into the blackness outside the window for a while, I settled down for a fitful nights sleep.

There were several things that prevented me falling into a deep sleep. Firstly my rucksack was lying by my side, partly for security reasons, but largely because the luggage rack didn’t look like it would take the weight. Unfortunately this meant that my feet spent the whole night being pushed towards the unguarded fan that hung from the ceiling, and about 2 inches from the edge of the bed. At the other end a broken toilet meant that occasionally I would be jolted awake by the smell of stale urine, leaving me to nestle my head into my armpit for a smell that was only more pleasant because it was my stench rather than someone else’s.

On arrival in Panzhihua I picked up a friendly local who would help me get the right bus onwards. While I have no doubt about the kindness of his intentions, I would have been quite happy to take my chances with the minibus (closer to a bread van) that was heading to Lijiang, but dismissed by him as too dangerous. The proper buses were all full, and the cheap hotels here can’t take foreigners, so I’m now staying in a three star hotel, as I didn’t really feel that having been shown around for an hour and a half by the guy that I could turn it down after he’d walked half way around the town with me looking for a hotel. The numerous building sites look comfy enough to me!

I know that all sounds really miserable, but I’m having a wicked time. It’s so much fun having the freedom to go wherever I want, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve not had a native English speaker to share my problems with for the last two days I think this message would have been far more upbeat.

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