Day 6: Tangshan to Manzhouli , Just add friends

The four of us toast our tea cups.
Enjoying a cup of tea with my new friends.

I wake up at 4am, and my back is killing me.

My bunk is a hard sleeper, but the real problem is that I’m a side sleeper. There’s little room for favourites, when you’re wedged in between a tent bag and your bunk’s safety rail.

I get down to get up, and do some stretches. In the toilet I notice a flush lever and wonder if this explains where all the toilet paper is going.

I resume my seated position, in the hall. K1301 is passing by what looks like a power plant. There’s a big chimney, a bit of a town and, in the distance, neon outlined buildings. Perhaps it’s a casino for the workers to spend their new found wealth in. It doesn’t look like there’s much else going on here.

I hear giggling from the adjacent bunks. It is coming from a younger, slimmer lady, who looks like an old flatmate from Inner Mongolia. And it is also coming from an older, larger, lady, whose is possibly her mum or aunty. The older lady looks more ‘Chinese’, although to be fair the train is full of supposedly ‘Chinese’ people, many of whom look quite different from the others.

Their giggling continues, but it doesn’t bother me. After Beijing, it’s nice to see people loosening up a little. I’ve even caught the train guards play fighting.

At breakfast time, I can’t contain my curiosity any longer and crack open the Space Age packaging on my Compressed Mince Biscuits.

My anticipation builds, as stale carriage air floods into the hollow void exposed by the torn wrapper. But shortly thereafter, disappointment sets in. There’s no space shuttle meat here, only a slab of regular shortbread. But it tastes okay, and I’m also quite relieved that I don’t have to find a way to cook it.

The music is similarly palatable, the gently falling keys replaced with breakbeat pop and catchy vocals. But I checked our progress earlier. We’re not where my China Highlights schedule says we should be. Perhaps we’re now on China time.

After lunch, I make friends with my bunk mates.

There’s Chinese Aunty (38), her daughter or niece (13), a clothing salesman or trader (mid 20s), and his female companion, age unknown and possibly a designer or a model.

The designer has a really interesting face, with wide, high cheekbones, plump lips, long hair and a straight fringe. She looks like some kind of dance music star, maybe even the covergirl from Technotronic.

The niece also has long hair and loves tossing this around like a horse’s mane. For a 13 year old, she seems really on to it, and I wonder if I’ve got my ages muddled up.

They’re a friendly bunch and I’d love to take a picture of them, but my phone battery is dangerously low and I’m saving it for way finding in Manzhouli.

I ask them where they’re going. It sounds like Aunty and Niece are heading past Manzhouli, to Yakeshi, for volunteer health education work. The clothing salesman and designer are probably hopping off at Manzhouli, with me.

They ask me what I am doing and I try to explain that I am heading north, then south. Winter is coming and I need to get through Mongolia before it gets really cold. I speak terrible Chinese but I think they understand.

Having broken the ice with me, the four of them are now best friends, and snuggled up on a bunk together. Niece has handed Designer Lady some tubes of gynaecological creme and is educating her on the finer points of personal health.

Noting my success with the others, an elderly lady tries to strike up a conversation.

Unfortunately it consists of a single question, repeated over and over. Eventually one of our carriage mates translates it to “What do you do?” When I reply “IT”, my listeners are universally unimpressed.

But then Aunty takes me to one side and tells me that she is from Kyrgyzstan. She writes down her contact details and hands these to me, with a wink and a promise not to tell the others. Perhaps I’ve still got that IT charm, after all.

Distracted by my socialising, I’ve been ignoring the landscape.

But apparently I haven’t been missing much. The land is just grass, and shrubs. But a tidy asphalt road runs parallel to the train tracks and I wonder if, one day, this token greenery will also be gone.

The soda man comes past again. Yesterday I was too slow to catch him, but I won’t make the same mistake again. I request a ¥5 Fanta, but after rummaging through the cans he proudly presents me with a can of Future Cola, instead. My new friends say that it’s the closest thing they have – for some reason they think that I’m a Coke drinker from New York..

A train of train staff make their way down the aisle, with their wheeled baggage in tow.

They’ve done this before, every few hours. But they only ever seem to go in one direction, and I wonder if it signals an upcoming stop and a change of crew.

Sure enough, we reach Yakeshi just after 4pm, and Aunty and Niece tap my foot to wake me up and say “bye bye”.

I’m a bit sad, because I thought we were all going to Manzhouli first, but at least I know where we are now, and that we’re only 23 minutes behind schedule.

I guess travelling is like this. You make some friends for a few days, or a few hours, then there’s a long friend famine. Perhaps it’s not too different to being at home, except there you have a few long term friends to fall back on.

As we continue on, I’m excited to see the landscape change to something more in steppe with Mongolia.

The plains are dotted with black and white cattle and it’s good to see some life thriving out there.

The trader below is checking his messages. I hear faint voices and I get the impression that everything is voice mail here. If you have a SIM card.

We pull into Manzhouli just before 8pm.

The city is decked out like it’s Christmas. In the darkness, the huge neon lights are both awesome and unsettling.

I’d planned to walk to my hostel, but an enthusiastic taxi driver persuades me that it’s safer to drive. I can’t be bothered arguing with him, so I jump in. He wanders off, possibly in search of another passenger, then returns a few minutes later.

I know the name of my hostel, Angala, but not where it is.

I figure that the taxi driver should know that part. But when my driver pulls up halfway down a darkened street, I can’t see my hostel anywhere. He insists that we’re at the right place but I feel like he owes me more than this for ¥10.

I refuse to get out, so he drives on and sees a woman waiting for a ride. He stops to pick her up, and, while driving her to her destination, asks if she knows where ‘Angala’ is. She points to the place that we’ve just come from. These people must think I’m a sucker! As this woman is obviously in on the scam, I decline his offer to go back to the place that we just came from and tell him to take me to ‘Angala’.

We drive on a little further. We come across another taxi. My driver toots and winds down his window, to talk to the other driver. He asks him where ‘Angala’ is, but, after looking at me, the other driver still has no idea.

We drive on and come to a taxi rank. Surely somebody here knows their way around this town? But no-one can help and his difficult situation only serves to amuse the other drivers. I’m not sure what to do, it’s cold outside and after all the turns and u-turns I’m seriously doubtful that I could find the hostel now, on my own.

With no other option, the driver takes me back to the first stop. The street is still dark, and the place he is pointing out doesn’t look like the daytime photo from I should be seeing gold letters on a red background, but perhaps their hues have been swallowed by the night.

As we awkwardly wait there, there is some movement in the foyer and a door opens. We both get out. The driver asks a helpful young lady about the hostel. She tells him that it’s the right place, and confirms to me that it is indeed the Angala International Youth Hostel.

Apparently ‘Angala’ means ‘England’ and the Chinese pronunciation is actually ‘Angha’. I unload my bags and sheepishly thank the driver. For some reason he doesn’t try to recover the full ¥19 fare. Perhaps he is just glad to see the back of me.

As I check in, I thank the lady, who introduces herself as Mandy.

Apparently she was just waiting to check out. I feel very lucky to have caught her in the nick of time.

Mandy invites me upstairs to meet her friends. They are a nice couple of guys, one a bit older than the other. They invite me to have tea with them.

The self-contained tea set includes portable elements for the tea pots and a slatted wooden stand for the small ceramic bowls. The younger man quickly pours the tea. I wait to see who drinks first, but he explains that this is a traditional ceremony. He carefully empties the tea into the slatted box, then serves more. When this tea is also poured out, I see that it’s all just payback, for giving the taxi driver such a hard time.

Eventually, though, we are allowed to drink the tea. My friends explain that they are going camping tomorrow and that I’m welcome to join them. I explain that my camping gear is with my bike, somewhere, but they say that I can sleep with them.

It seems very accommodating considering that we’ve only just met. But maybe they’re just seasoned travellers, happy to spice up their adventures with a new friend.