Friday, October 24: I have done a lot to prepare for my weekend trip to Ban Gioc – Detian Waterfall on the Sino-Vietnamese border. Many of my colleagues have warned me about the various challenges I’ll encounter: “It’s not like Yangshuo; no one will speak English!” “It was a nightmare! It took us 7 hours to get there, we had 50 minutes to see the waterfall, then we had to be back on the bus for another 7 hours!” (This was on a one-day tour). “It’s not easy, the roads are bad.” “Most of my friends take the one day tour.” “Don’t take the one-day tour!”
Of course, I’m not to be deterred. I spent last weekend making a list of all the places in the south of China and southeast Asia that I want to visit while I’m here, and as you can imagine, the list is extensive. I have to get busy! Plus it’s my birthday weekend, and I want an adventure to break up the drudgery of work. I know the waterfall is only 245 km from Nanning, which doesn’t seem that far. I think of how in Oman I’d drive 170 km from Nizwa to Muscat in a day, and sometimes even come back the same day. I really can’t imagine how it can be that bad. Of course, Oman is a country of only 2.7 million people whereas Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region alone has 46.8 million!
I have class until noon today, and my amazing student assistant Angela has secured a 2:00 bus ticket from Nanning’s Xi Xiang Coach Station to Daxin, a smallish town on the way to Detian. Angela also did the research and booked a room for me at the Elido Hotel. She wrote down in Chinese a lot of the information I would need along the way, such as the name of the bus station in Nanning (there are 3), the name of the bus station in Daxin, the name of the hotel, the onward ticket information from Daxin to Detian, etc. She’s also told me to call her any time I need for her to talk to someone in Chinese. Little does she know what she’s signing up for!
During the week, I also had some of my students write various places in Chinese in a little notebook, including the Langdong Bus Station on the east side of Nanning (where the one-day tour originates); Tongling Grand Canyon, 37 km from Detian, and Mingshi Scenic Area, also known as “Little Guilin,” which sits between Daxin and Detian. This is just in case I have time to see some other things.
Since my class ends at noon, I rush home, drop my books, pick up my already-packed bag, and walk to the front gate of the university, about 0.6 miles. There Angela has given me a list of buses to take to the bus station. I walk across the huge street to the side where buses go into the city center, but luckily I don’t just get on one of the buses she’s listed. I show random people the name of the bus station on my phone, and everyone points to the other side of the street, where buses head to the western outskirts of Nanning. That makes more sense. At the bus stop on the other side of the road, closest to the university, I ask around and people point out buses #76, #207 or #222. Those numbers don’t match with Angela’s numbers at all. I get on the #76 and arrive at the Xi Xiang Coach Station about 30 minutes later. By this time it’s about 1:15, so I have about 45 minutes to spare. Step one, done.
Since I don’t know the routine with the buses in China, and I’ve gotten mixed reviews, I have no idea if the bus will really take three hours, as scheduled, or if it will take longer, with numerous stops along the way. I also have no idea how often, if at all, the bus stops for bathroom breaks. As I tend to worry that I’ll have to go to the bathroom and won’t be able to, I don’t eat or drink anything for lunch today.
After we’re about an hour outside Nanning, the karst landscape magically appears. It seems the karsts are everywhere in Guangxi except in Nanning. In the Expressway median strip are tropical flowering bushes and trees in yellow, pink, and lavender. Spiked leafy green plants jut up like wild hairdos between the flowering trees. The scenery is beautiful, but being on a bus, I can’t take any pictures that will be worth looking at.
This karst landscape surrounds us all the way to Daxin. I imagine being on a bicycle here. It’s just as pretty as Yangshuo, but less touristy and less crowded. Fields of rice and sugar cane spread out in tidy patches around the towering limestone karsts.
When we leave the Expressway for two-lane rural roads, the flowering trees continue to line the roads all the way to Daxin. It’s such a welcoming sight, this landscape.
It turns out the bus ride is exactly three hours, as advertised. The bus makes no stops at any rest areas for general bathroom breaks. However, at one point during the drive, a mother drags her little girl to the front of the bus and the bus driver pulls over to let the little girl get out, squat in an open field, and pee into the grass in plain sight of everyone.
When I traveled by bus in South Korea, I finally figured out that bus drivers stopped every 2 hours for bathroom breaks. This seemed to be a predictable schedule. At this point in China, I still don’t know: Do the buses EVER stop for bathroom breaks? How much time has to pass before they do stop?
When I arrive at Daxin bus station, I’m surprised at how nice and clean it is. I was told Daxin is a small town, but somehow these towns in China don’t ever seem small. Compared to Nanning it certainly is small. But compared to what I think of a small town in America, like Bennington, Vermont for example, Daxin is not small.
Getting off the bus, I head to the ticket window to buy a ticket for Detian Waterfall tomorrow (Saturday) morning. I want to know the timetable and have my ticket so I can plan my morning. I have “Detian Waterfall” written in several places, which I show to the ticket person. She shoves my Chinese characters back at me and starts babbling in Chinese. I wonder why she thinks I can understand her when I just showed her what I wanted in writing and obviously can’t speak any Chinese? When I continue to stand at her window and point to my Chinese writing, she waves her hand as if to brush me away, and beckons to the person behind me to approach the window. I’m shoved aside just like that. There is no attempt to help me at all.
I don’t leave the window, so the people behind me crowd and slowly push me to the side. I’m frustrated and angry at the woman’s rudeness. I do what I had hoped not to do: I call Angela. At the next break in the tide of people, I push my phone at the woman and she and Angela have what turns out to be quite a long conversation.
Angela tells me that I don’t need to buy the ticket for Detian ahead of time. The buses leave starting at 7:15 in the morning, and every hour thereafter, so I just show up and buy the ticket then. Of course that means I’ll have to go through the same rigmarole in the morning.
I head outdoors to where the three-wheeled taxis are lined up. I still happen to have Angela on the phone, so she tells the driver the name of the hotel, and I sit in the back of an open-air canopied truck bed on a side bench, behind a driver sitting on what looks like a motorbike. I get dropped at my hotel for 5 yuan (less than a dollar). I pick up the business card at the reception desk so I’ll have it in Chinese. It says “Elido Hotles.”
I settle into my room, which isn’t too bad for 128 yuan a night, or less than $22.
The bathroom is simple and modern.
Since I haven’t eaten all day, I go out in search of a restaurant. This is not Yangshuo, or even Nanning. Yangshuo has most menus written in Chinese and English, with pictures as well. Nanning sometimes has pictures, and sometimes things are written in English. But here in Daxin, there are no pictures or English words. I have no idea what to order. It’s frustrating because I’m starving. Of course I could eat; I could just sit at a table and point to something and hope for the best. In China, that’s risky business. You don’t know what you’ll get. I try to ask one restaurant owner about a picture over her door that looks like it has vegetables and tofu. My Pleco translation dictionary says it’s “doufu” in Pinyin. I say the word, I show her the word. All I get is a string of incomprehensible Chinese words and then she turns her back and walks away.
Finally, I return in defeat to the hotel. There’s a restaurant on the second floor. It’s a huge banquet restaurant with round tables covered in gold tablecloths. The tables are huge, seating 10 people. The restaurant is empty except for me, and I ask the hostess if I can eat. She nods and shows me a menu. Using Pleco, I ask if I can have vegetables. She and another woman pull me back to the kitchen where all the vegetables are stored in refrigerators and plastic bins. They pull out various vegetables to show me. I point to some greens with tiny yellow flowers at the ends and some eggplant.
The ladies seat me at a huge banquet table all alone, bring a beer at my request, and then bring out the two cooked dishes. A small sinewy Chinese man in a chef’s hat plops down at my table. “Hello!” he says with a huge grin. I say, “Hello! You speak English?” “No, no,” he says, waving his hand back and forth. He just looks at me and smiles. I guess it’s like me when I say “Ni hao.” Because I say Hello in Chinese, people think I can speak Chinese, and start babbling away.
This meal is too much food for just me! I’m hungry, and I make a grand effort, but I can no way finish all that food on my own. In China, to not eat all my food always feels wasteful, and I hate leaving most of it behind.
After dinner, and before heading up to my room to relax, I try to ask the hotel receptionist if they have a hair dryer I can borrow. I make a gesture like I’m drying my hair, and the woman pulls me outside and points down the street. I say, “No, no, I don’t want to buy a hair dryer, I just want to borrow one,” but of course she can’t understand me. She continues to point down the street. Maybe she thinks I want to buy one, or maybe she’s pointing to a hair salon. Who knows? I should have thought to use my Pleco dictionary, but I didn’t. I just thought she should be able to understand my hair-drying gesture, but I’m obviously not very good at Charades!
I head up to my room to relax and read and check out the array of strange Chinese TV shows. There’s nothing on of any interest, so I drift off in the cloud-like bed. 🙂