By Bus and Train in Southeast and Northeast Asia

Part One — Leaving Thailand

I decided in February of 2008 to leave my tribe of Burmese refugees in a village near the Moei River and return to China for more nomadic experiences. After two years of helping them gain a toe-hold in Thailand, I felt they could be trusted to care for themselves, with a little help from myself, friends, their church, its missionaries, and the continued visits of volunteers. My kids had already seen so many people come and go that they were adjusted to making friends with visitors arriving from all over the world. In the final analysis (at least, I was thinking so at the time), I was just another volunteer who happened to be able to stay far longer than anyone else. I would continue to maintain contact through a friend living in the area who has become our local volunteer liaison. Little did I know how wrong I would be proven to have been. Anyway, at the time, all that was needed was to pack my bags and creep out of the house one morning before the kids were awake. In my final week at home, we had one surprise to send me off with. While watching t.v. one evening we all heard a loud crash and bang outside our front gate. What was it — a bomb? It turned out to be a proto-typical Thai taxi truck passing our house that, in that very moment, lost its truck bed, depositing its passenger compartment at our front gate. It had slid off the back of the truck and banged down on the pavement, sliding up against our wall. The truck ended up with its bonnet plowed into a neighbor’s fence across the road and its windshield shattered. With typical ‘Keystone Cops’ fanfare, most of the village turned out to see what had happened. By the time all the broken glass had been swept away and the truck towed away, our kids were left with a new form of jungle gym on the front yard to play on. It was a lucky thing that no one had been riding in the back of this truck.

March 1st, a Saturday, saw me traveling across the width of Thailand to Nong Khai, through Tak, Phitsanulok, Sukkothai and other towns on the way to the banks of the Mekong River. From the banks of the Moei River to the Mut Mee Guest House in Nong Khai was a long 12-hour day on a series of minivans and ever larger buses until the one we were on decided to die just five minutes from the last bus station. What else would go wrong on this trip to Kunming through Laos? Thankfully, the worst was over as the crashed truck in front of our house was a forewarning of the unexpected that can always happen on any highway. Another crashed car — tumbled off the highway and totaled — was a reminder of what can happen. I’m not superstitious but since both my father and grandfather perished from the mistakes of reckless drivers, it’s a constant signpost in my thoughts when I’m traveling. Perhaps, it explains why I’ve slowed down to the speed of a mountain bicycle.

When I awoke Sunday morning at the Mut Mee Guest House with its garden that overlooks the Mekong, I was struck by the sight of several house boats permanently moored on the bank. I speculated on whether such a boat could be moored in the middle of the river. If I lived there, would I be in Laos or Thailand or in ‘no-man’s land’? I had just traveled from one Friendship Bridge on the western border of Thailand to another Friendship Bridge on the eastern border of Thailand. I remembered reading about local violence in Mae Sot that also seemed to mark my departure — a Karen leader had been assassinated in the middle of town in his own home (Valentine’s Day, 2008) and ‘something’ had exploded at the local dump injuring a number of Burmese refugees. I and my kids had cycled there on several occasions. Perhaps a week later, a bomb exploded near the Friendship Bridge over the Moei River, fatally injuring a Burmese man. For two years, I had lived in a virtual ‘bubble out of time’. Had the local reality ‘snapped’ back into the typical expectations of the people living there? I had heard stories from Thai friends about similar incidents in the past but they were only ‘stories’ until Little Burma in Mae Sot reverted to its frontier town background. Maybe I was leaving at just the right time. At least, I knew my own tribe was safe and remembered the recent Valentine’s Day Party the Thai Army had hosted at our kids’ school and the kind donations of food and clothing we received that day. I can only hope our shelter is finally safe between the two armies of Burma and Thailand in a recognized ‘no-man’s land’. Allow me to digress. I am not superstitious but Valentine’s Day in 2006, 2007, and 2008 seemed to have brought ‘bad luck’ to Mae Sot. In 2006, we had our Valentine’s Day party at Pattaravitaya School. A dead body turned up the next morning, floating in the stream behind the school. In 2007, our own shelter kid, A-ah, had his accident with the bicycle and lost his toes. In 2008, it was a Karen general assassinated in Mae Sot. Is this coincidence or am I just superstitious? I don’t know the answer.

Part Two — Flights in China

Finally, March 10th, I arrived early at the Kunming airport after arriving from Laos a few days earlier, checked in and waited for my prepaid flight to Beijing. I had time on my hands and started counting the different Chinese airlines I could see through the waiting hall windows. There were more than ten and competitition between them seemed totally capitalist. Why is it in China that each leg of a domestic journey by airplane involves separate tickets and baggage check? When one flies, a traveler usually checks in baggage and it is shuttled from one airline to another during one’s journey. This is apparently not so in China. I don’t know why my tickets were only able to be collected at each individual airport along the way and only at ticket counters located in either this or that terminal. To add to my misery, the flight arriving from Chengdu — my onward flight from Kunming to Beijing — was canceled due to fog in Chengdu. The plane couldn’t take off and thus couldn’t arrive here. I don’t know why fog should prevent an airplane from taking off. Perhaps that was only the story. I had just seen the same airlines hand out box lunches to its transit passengers. Were they too cheap to serve them on the airplane? I wouldn’t hazard a guess except to surmise that Sichuan Airlines must be a ‘newbie’ to the Chinese domestic air carrier scene. I had to return to the ticketing counter, cancel my baggage claim ticket, recollect my baggage, and return to the ticket counter, picking up a new airplane ticket. I was now flying with China Eastern and checked in all over again. I won’t comment on the herd of disgruntled customers who collected in front of Sichuan Airlines counter and the gesticulating that went on with mad abandon — a scene probably the same the world over. I was only glad I hadn’t been in a Chinese airport during the recent snowstorm when so many flights had been canceled. Another story to add to my collection — that happened to Pat and his family on their way to visit us at the shelter from Suzhou. The good news is that everything went OK at the Beijing airport, and my layover there had been originally scheduled to be long enough so that my change of flights to a later time had not prevented me from making my connection with China Southern to fly on to Yanji. I ended up another 12-hour day, finally arriving where I was supposed to be going and without losing any of my baggage enroute. It was a strange day — reminescent of my 12-hour day traveling across the width of Thailand.

Part Three — Chinese Trains I began my love affair with train trips as a very young child. I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and lived most of the first three years of my life there. However, my father, who was only in New Orleans to complete Baptist seminary school, soon returned to his home in Virginia and took his young family with him. His father, my grandfather, was a train engineer born in Charleston, West Virginia and he spent most of his life aboard locomotives pulling trains across the state of Virginia. My grandfather in New Orleans, on the other hand, was a lifelong bus driver. I reserve Part Four of this story to be dedicated to him — my favorite person when I was a small child.

After my family moved to Virginia, I would travel by train to and from New Orleans each summer with my mother. It still amazes me that American trains have not become more developed. Of course, locomotive technology has changed little over the years. I remember seeing many American locomotives when I was growing up that are almost the same as China uses today. There are few American super trains like there are in China, Japan, or Europe. Americans continue to travel by car and pay higher and higher prices for their gasoline. A train trip across China, however has become a convenient form of travel — cheaper than flying and, at least in theory, more comfortable than being crammed into a cylinder that speeds through the air. Returning to Thailand, I decided to try the train trip and compare it with the flights I took when coming to China.

I left Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province, on Friday, April 25th — bound for Beijing. My train left at 1245 and arrived the next day in Beijing central railway station at 1130 for a trip of almost 24 hours. As I waited for the train to arrive in Yanji with other passengers I looked out of the train station window at the main road running through the city. I couldn’t say I was going to miss the ‘browns’ and ‘grays’ of the city — a mixture of ground colors not yet become ‘green’ with spring and a sooty, overcast sky. Yanji is not a big city by Chinese standards with a population of around 350,000.

Traveling by train in China could be a comfortable way to travel. I had bought what is called a ‘hard sleeper’ ticket. This means each compartment of a train car has six beds — three each to a side. The beds come provided with a pillow and cotton quilt so sleeping on one was comfortable enough for a good night’s rest. The only difficulty is in getting up into that top berth. Yes, there are hand-holds and foot rests built into the compartment but you can’t avoid stepping on someone else’s bed to get to your own. Once you have managed to squirm your way like an eel into that sleeping space, it is ‘comfy’ indeed. Just, don’t plan to climb up and down too many times during the night to visit the car’s toilet. Yes, it is a typical Chinese ‘squat’ toilet, and, no, toilet paper is not provided. You must furnish your own supply. Toilets are only allowed to be flushed between stations because the excreta ends up on the railway bed between the rails. I don’t want to imagine the train tracks across China — an ever-lengthening brown trail of residue. It does make one wonder if any poor farmers collect it for use on their fields. It is, after all, the most common human resource that goes neglected around most of the world. So much for social taboos! The next experience on the train trip not to be avoided nor forgotten is feeding oneself. Most Chinese travelers who know about the food cooked on the train and its cost opt out for bringing their own food. Each rail car has its own constant supply of hot water so many people bring along their container of instant noodles and soup. It is a constant ‘slurping’ of noodles with chopsticks that one hears as the traveler makes his or her way through the car. There is at least one dining car on most trains that have sleeper cars. Eating there is more expensive than taking a meal from the cart that winds its way through the cars — selling a meal of rice, several vegetable and meat dishes, and an assortment of drinks. Most simple meals sell for 15 Yuan, or about $2. I ate once in the dining car, ordering from the Chinese menu without knowing what I was going to get. I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, figuring it would be good food. I ended up with a gigantic baked fish — head attached — that could have fed three people. I was able to pick at it and I must compliment the cook. It wasn’t that bad if you like sweet sauces. However, if you are a smoker, you are allowed to smoke in the dining car. Unfortunately, for me, this was my biggest complaint of the whole trip.

The kitchen in the dining car is a good example of an economy of work among the railway staff, cooking food for hundreds of people, and loading it up on carts for delivery throughout the train. At least, the food beats most airline industry food — unless you fly Business or First Class. You can drink yourself to death on a Chinese train, too, if you want to. And, I noticed not a few Chinese passengers working on that goal. The other — not a few — Chinese seemed hell-bent on smoking themselves to death. Yes, there is a no-smoking sign in the railway cars. Smokers must go to the end of each railway car — hypothetically in the closed-off area around the toilets and between the cars. The problem is that this area is hypothetically closed-off. The doors between the railway cars’ interior sleeping compartments and these areas around the toilets stay open. There is a constant stream of passengers going back and forth between cars — some to the toilets, some to other cars or the dining car — and the doors never stay closed. They have open ventilation grates in them anyway! All of the windows and doors are constantly locked and can not be opened for any fresh air. This is to prevent littering of the countryside through windows and, hopefully, to prevent travelers from jumping off the train. However, the result is that second-hand smoke soon makes its way throughout most of the compartments and there is no respite from having to share the ‘dirty air’, so to speak. Yes, I know that smoking bans have been recently enforced in public spaces in and around Beijing to create a favorable impression for the Olympics. I heard that reported on C.N.N. when I was back in Thailand — nice news but not true! This ban doesn’t seem to apply to trains across China, though.

On the good side of this report is the behavior and work attitudes of the railway staff. There are at least two staff for each car, including a conductor. He or she collects everyone’s tickets and provides each traveler with a plastic card for their berth. Your ticket is returned at the end of the journey to be collected at your destination. The train staff were polite, helpful, and very patient with an assortment of impatient or rude passengers that I saw. They periodically clean the cars, sweeping and mopping the floors, and probably spend most of the nights awake in their tiny cubicles where they can sit but never sleep. They were awake at all hours of the night, locking the toilet doors as the train stopped at each local station, unlocking the doors for boarding or departing passengers, and generally being very efficient at their work. I don’t envy them their job. I can imagine the scenes at local railway stations this past winter when many people were traveling through the Chinese New Year’s holiday. Trains have to run on schedule and on time. Many trains traveling in opposite directions have to use the same stretch of track between destinations. A lot of the larger stations closer to Beijing had many parallel tracks in stations and some stretches of track had more than one set of parallel rails. I understand the closed doors and windows policy. For any passenger brave enough to stick an arm or head out of the window, a train passing in the opposite direction through a station could easily snatch off a human appendage. What a messy situation that could become! So, passengers are stuck with breathing the dirty air from smokers — probably as a safety issue, an irony in itself considering what second-hand tobacco smoke can do to a set of healthy lungs. I only recovered from a rough smoker’s cough after being in Thailand for a couple of days.

In Beijing, I got a break from the closed compartment of the Yanji train and its slow haul into the capital city. The train arrived at Beijing’s central railway station. From there, it was a forty-five minute taxi ride through big city traffic to Beijing’s western railway station, the city’s largest. I was impressed by the greenery of Beijing and welcomed it as a sight for sore eyes — literally. Mine were bloodshot from cigarette smoke. I hung my head out of the taxi window and took pictures of the passing scenery. I had read stories of illegal taxi drivers on the internet and was ‘on my guard’ for the trip across Beijing. It was OK. I joined the taxi queu, checked out the driver’s identification on the dashboard, his computerized meter and receipt print out — everything was hunky dory! The taxi fare was reasonable compared to Western prices. And, at last after waiting in a train station hall for a few hours, there was my train on platform 7, ready to begin the trip to Kunming.

I could write more about the details of that train ride. It was just a repetition of the previous journey from Yanji to Beijing. Only this time, the train had an electric locomotive instead of a diesel, and the countryside passing by outside the window was greener. The window was dirtier, though, and I couldn’t get many clear photos. I was also ready to spend more time in my sleeper berth, reading, nodding off for short naps, and talking with a few passengers who could chat in English. My compartment had children and even though the cries of this one little boy kept me awake, I will miss him. I had to remonstrate with his mother for smacking him on the face to keep him quiet — he was only two and didn’t know how to behave on a train. My Chinese companion with a little English explained to his mother that I had been a kindergarten teacher in Chengdu and couldn’t stand to watch her slapping her son. Smiles and laughs all around — I don’t know if they were making fun of the foreigner’s strange beliefs or what they were thinking. The boy’s father just drank some more harsh Chinese liquor and went back to sleep. I gave the little boy a deck of playing cards I had bought in Beijing and he was happy for hours playing with them. Peace and quiet reigned for a little while longer. I was reminded again of the harsh life that faces most Chinese poor people who can’t afford to fly. Only their children seemed to smile. It reminded me of the gentle nature of my Chinese kindergarten students. I also remembered with fondness the kindness of my own grandfather. Perhaps I never forgave my father for taking me away from New Orleans and sticking me up in the hills of Virginia. Memories are a strange thing. This was one train trip that refreshed mine of when I was a little boy. If only I could have been that little Chinese boy’s grandfather — what a strange thing to take home with me as an impression of a country!


Part Four — International Bus from Kunming to Vientiane

As I mentioned in Part Three of this story, my favorite grandfather — when I was a little child — was a bus driver all his life in New Orleans, Louisiana. I will always remember him, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a beer can in one hand, and the other picking over boiled crabs and shrimps in the back garden of his home. That home of such fond memories was destroyed when Hurricane Katrina passed through New Orleans, along with my aunt’s home across the back garden fence. That is all ‘well and truly’ in the past — water long since passed under the bridge. Any resemblance between my grandfather as a bus driver and the Chinese bus driver of the service between Kunming and Vientiane is cursory in the extreme. They both smoked — I’ll leave it at that! One I could love — the other I came to pity by the time the bus had finished the journey. I can’t imagine a harder life for a driver than this bus trip — repeated over and over again like a broken record.

The journey from Kunming begins at the city’s south bus station, situated alongside the Kunming train station. So, I arrived in Kunming early in the morning of April 28th and took a short taxi ride to the Cloudland Hostel. I had previously stayed here on the journey north — it’s a decent and popular place to stay among the backpacking crow. You can find them online here. As Chinese cities go, Kunming is not a bad place to be at all. It’s a bit run down around the edges but there are places in some American cities you couldn’t pay me enough to visit, much less walk through. Yunnan Province is in the south of China and shares a border with Myanmar, Laos, and, I believe, Vietnam. Because of this, of course, most of the bus passengers are Chinese. I had taken the bus north on my way into China in March and shared that ride with five other foreigners. On this trip, I was the only foreign white face among the crowd. I was able to refresh myself after two nights on the train from Beijing at the Cloudland Hostel where there is always hot water for a shower. Not a bad deal at 5 Yuan for a shower. After booking my ticket, I had the rest of the day to kill before the bus departed at 5 p.m.

I eventually took another taxi to the bus station — only 15 Yuan, about $2 for the ride across town. There, I set my bag down in the long distance coach station’s express bus waiting room. I plopped down on a chair in front of the big screen t.v. and started aimlessly watching a program about bad drivers in China. It was not exactly the best way to still my mind for the upcoming journey. After watching several examples of reckless drivers running over hapless pedestrians, bike riders, and scooter passengers in the middle of busy Chinese intersections, I was in no mood to get on a bus. Both my father and grandfather were killed by reckless drivers. I have always wondered if I am number three in the unlucky string of family deaths. The story on t.v. was a heart-wrenching depiction of the life of an adorable looking Chinese boy — about five — who now ekes out a living as a street beggar. He has no legs — he obviously lost them one day when bicycling in the street and he met one of those ruthless drivers the show was about. I had had enough of looking at dead bodies on the roadside and pictures of mangled cars and wrecks. My memory flashed back to the beginning of my journey to China in Thailand. I remembered the pickup truck that lost its backside right outside the front gate of my home near Mae Sot. I’m not superstitious but I do want to live to become a grandfather myself some day. The program finally ended and I wandered to another seat in the waiting room.

A kind-hearted Chinese grandmother with her grandson sat down beside me. The boy was completely adorable. His face was a ‘spitting’ image of one of my students at the kindergarten in Chengdu. His name was Oliver — one of two of them in my class. He also had the same thin body structure and delicate features. He helped me remember the finer days I had spent in China and the innocence we are all born with.

The bus finally pulled up into the loading bay about half an hour before its scheduled departure time. As the other passengers and I crawled on board, I discovered that my berth was at the extreme rear of the bus. My head rested upon a pillow leaning against the back window. From my perch at the rear, I took this photo of the inside of the bus. I was sleeping cheek to cheek with four other men at the back of the bus. In such intimate enclosures, the small niceties of travel disappear. One is left with the bare facts of bus transport — only very poor people travel this way. I didn’t mind joining them although after two days in the bus, one discovers that the olfactory sense is something that can be turned on and off at will. Only so much odor of dirty socks and unwashed bodies can assault the nose before it becomes deadened to further stimulation! If you are considering this bus trip as a cheap option to flying, I would recommend you think seriously. The traveler on this bus faces a ‘torture rack’ of the most intricate design. Imagine trying to sleep on a bed that may turn you over and lift you in the air at any moment to crash your forehead into the bus roof. The Chinese side of the trip is manageable — just. The roads on the Laos side of the trip will especially try your patience.

I met another adorable little baby on this trip. He forms an important part of this story as we traveled south through Yunnan Province in China and up into the mountains to Mengla, the town closest to the border. This baby was very quiet and with his mother who was traveling with a group of about four or five friends. As we boarded the bus, she was very busy directing her traveling companions to their berths scattered about the bus. We had stopped for a rest about an hour short of the border when I took this picture of the baby. His mother had temporarily left him alone. As the picture shows clearly, he can’t be more than a year old and like all children of that age, is a perfectly innocent bystander to life. Children that age can not yet participate to a great deal in the goings on around them but they soak up events like a wet sponge. This chain of children popping up throughout my story and this trip are like ‘sign posts’ along the road. They all point in the direction of the ‘Heart of Asia’ — or anywhere, for that matter. It is in an individual’s outlook upon life that one’s ‘heart’ can be found. Some people are truly at home in their heart and small children more so than any other humans among us. They are the best teachers on our ‘road trip’ through life’s hardships and unexpected events.

We reached the Chinese-Laos border about 8 a.m. in the morning of April 29th — half an hour before the Chinese immigration post opened. We witnessed the immigration staff raising the Chinese flag and then they were open for the day’s business. Several buses of travelers waited patiently in line to be stamped through the post as having departed China. At last, we were outside the bus, breathing pure air — not the polluted stuff that passes for air in most Chinese cities. I was still recovering from my deadly exposure to second-hand smoke on board the trains and had developed a nasty smoker’s cough as well as a scratchy throat and a touch of laryngitis. People looked at me strangely as I tried to talk but only ‘squawking’ sounds issued from my mouth. I felt like a zillion frogs were caught in my throat and I had returned to fasting to help get over the foul food I had eaten on the train. I had also fasted for five days in Yanji and visited many a steam room in the bath houses in an effort to clean out my lungs from all the coal soot in the air there. It looked like I was going to have to start all over again. I had been reading about the side effects of M.S.G. used in so much of Chinese cooking and I finally had a clean body to test my reaction to it. I have sworn off eating anything containing the stuff for the rest of my life. Most people don’t know about M.S.G. or its addictive properties — just like a drug. However, this is a supposedly ‘legal’ food additive that the international food industry has used to get its customers hooked on ‘junk’ food. It is a serious health issue that never gets the attention it deserves!

Instead of supposedly ‘legal’ drugs added to our food, we continue our story of the bus trip. Anyone traveling through Laos and at least a little familiar with recent history will remember what this area was once famous for — those ‘illegal’ drugs that have been legislated against by most governments. We had crossed the border into Laos and spent the next four hours clearing customs. Our bus driver was determined to have his ‘brunch’ break no matter how long it took. We passengers at his mercy quietly gathered in the local shops and little roadside restaurants to wait for him to finish his game of cards and meal with friends. The customs officials and he were apparently old buddies of one sort or another. Finally, it appeared we could board the bus and continue with our journey towards Laos. We had another night on board the bus to look forward to. I, for one, didn’t anticipate an easy night’s sleep as the road only gets worse on the Laos side of the border. At least, a few passengers had disembarked from the bus at the border and my perch at the back of the bus wasn’t so crowded anymore. About an hour down the road from the customs checkpoint, we were unexpectedly stopped by yet another customs official. This one boarded the bus and carefully searched all the passengers’ bags. He found something he didn’t like under the driver’s seat, confiscated that, and his co-worker confiscated other smuggled goods from a Chinese passenger’s bags. Then, the lady with that adorable baby had her bags pulled off the bus. As you can tell from the picture, the customs officer wasn’t happy with what he found in the lady’s bags. So, off she went in the custom officer’s truck with her baby and bags to ‘God knows where’! The rest of us got back on the bus and gratefully headed for Vientiane. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief at what we imagined could have been placed in our bags or found by customs officials. For myself, I wondered at what that baby ‘has soaked up’ from this experience. What’s in his future?

The next morning, we arrived in Vientiane and the bus trip was over. As I got off the bus and into a tuk-tuk for the city center, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a repeat of my arrival in Kunming, I visited a local guest house briefly for a shower and a change of clothes. Refreshed and reclothed for a suddenly warmer climate, I hopped on the bus to the border of Thailand. Soon, I was through the immigration posts on both sides of the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River and back in the ‘Land of Smiles’. The clear, blue sky over Nong Khai was a welcome relief from the gray, overcast dome above most of China. I felt like I was entering through the gates of Heaven. Many people have surmised that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is all around us on Earth but we don’t have the ‘eyes’ to see it. I would only add that people usually make their own ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ on Earth through their own actions. I had finished my six day journey out of China — from April 25th to 30th — overland and through all the ups and downs of the journey. It is only now, on May Day, 2008, that I can speak again in a normal tone of voice. My back still aches from the bus ride but I imagine a Thai massage will soon take care of that. I must now return for a visit to Mae Sot, in Tak Province, before beginning life anew as a teacher in Thailand. Now, at the end of 2008, I have left Thailand again — this time returning to Chengdu and a mystery there that beckons me on. Only time will tell what truths I discover.

May 2008, Thailand

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