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Off To The Races

Giant Panda
Giant Panda

Curled around the densest part of Hong Kong city is a row of mountains topped with a walking trail called "The Dragon's Back". I mounted the dragon just before sunset and walked his entire spine without seeing a person. Only beaches and buildings. Then it was back to the center. Back to where my time in Hong Kong began and where most of it was spent: the horse track. Rather than running around in the middle I watched from the bleachers with hundreds of other people as horses galloped around the ring. Hardened gamblers, foreign tourists and prowling singles constituted a majority of the main attraction. I'd tell you the tale of my high-roller bets but it would just be a tale; I don't care for gambling.

When I entered the race track I was already a bit stressed out about my high-risk gamble that China would give me another visa and I'd be able to meet my friend who was flying into Beijing in less than two weeks. Luckily my bet paid off, so I waisted no time entering China as I knew I wouldn't have long to explore on my way to the countries capitol. My plan was to cross the border into the mainland and then take a train to the closest transport hub and overnight it to Chengdu. My train from the border was running twenty minutes late, so rather than having thirty minutes to make my connecting train, I'd have ten. I explained my situation to the conductor and he said to see him before we pulled into the station and he'd take care of things.

The Dragon's Back with Hong Kong behind it
The Dragon's Back with Hong Kong behind it

When we arrived, the conductor escorted me off the train and spoke to an attendant at the station. The attendant spoke into his walkie-talkie and then directed me to platform seven. Running with my pack I headed in the direction the man pointed. The first turn was a dead end. Then I followed the crowd to the arrival hall. At the far end of the corridor was a large sign with the number seven. I ran to it. There was nothing there. A man saw me in a flurry and motioned to look at my ticket and when I showed it to him, quickly hurried me to follow him. I did. A minute and a half later he had led me down an alley and was asking for money. I told him to go fuck himself and ran back to the station. That was the first time on the trip that I'd sworn in anger or done something intentionally offensive to a local.

The temperature in the station was high and the humidity even higher. I had broken into a sweat and my face was beginning to get red. I ran to the closest gate; they told me to go to the gate at the other end. I ran to the other end of the station; they told me to go upstairs. I ran upstairs, tripping on the escalator and giving myself several evenly spaced gashes; they told me to go downstairs. I asked the attendant who was standing around if he could show me to the gate and he said: "No way". I was getting flustered. None of the workers at the station were helping—in fact they were hurting by giving me Asian directions (which constitutes waiving your hand like the tail of a fish in a random direction when you actually have no idea where something is)—and rather than trying to aide me the locals were taking out their phones to record my panic. I flipped the crowd with phones the finger and then ran to the downstairs ticket office.

Crowds at the Happy Valley Racecourse
Crowds at the Happy Valley Racecourse

My whole body was now a color past red and my shirt had turned from light gray to a dark shade of old-concrete-chinese-building. I raced to the front of the line and showed the woman my ticket. She shook her head and pointed to the information board. The clock read three minutes past my departure time. I went to the back of the line and stood like a circus lion—tame with all eyes on me, but dying inside to rampage. I got to the front of the line and bought a new ticket for a train which was to depart in five hours and take 42hrs to reach Chengdu instead of the 33hrs of my original ticket. Ten miles behind and with a broken leg, how would I ever catch up with Achilles?

What do you take on a train ride that long? I had brought with me a carrot, cucumber, large mango, small watermelon, two bananas, two cup noodles and a few crackers. The bananas and crackers were badly damaged after my scramble through the train station. Those in the know bring "cup noodles" and tea on long train rides as there's always a free boiling water dispenser. Cup noodles are similar to what we in America call "ramen noodles" but come in a bowl so all you have to do is add hot water.

Famous graffiti wall in Hong Kong
Famous graffiti wall in Hong Kong

Cars in Asian sleeper trains are broken into sections of six beds, arranged in facing triple bunks. The bottom two bunks are generally taken to be communal, and apart from sleeping hours that's where most of the hex sit. The middle bunks are usually considered the best as they have slightly more vertical space and require less climbing than the top bunks. I was assigned the top bunk for that journey. It was hard to tell if many of the people on my car recognized me from my dreadful experience in the train station five hours earlier, or if they were just gathered around to stare at me in the usual Asian fashion. The staff, having apparently nothing better to do, seemed to be leading the gawking. When I was bent over from my bed and reaching into my pack on the luggage rack opposite, they all began to laugh at me. I soliloquized: "Why don't you come to my country and we'll have a good laugh about it." One of the stewardesses replied: "I'm sorry" to which I retorted: "You should be". I don't think she actually understood either of my quips, responding instinctively because she knew she was wrong and could tell from my aspect that I was displeased. The crowd disbanded.

It was pretty early in the evening but I was exhausted as if I'd just been crying for the last several hours, so I decided to get some rest. No sooner than I'd fallen asleep than I was woken by a tap on the arm. It was a boy with two stewardesses. I guess he was the best English speaker they could find on the train. They wanted me to switch to a different bunk because they said I was too tall. And of course pay more money. I told them that since they're all the same length and the top bunk has enough vertical space for me to roll over, I'll just stay where I am. The boy's English skills were very minimal so it took me a while to convince them of my decision, but eventually they left me alone.

One of the things that I think made that journey longer than the train I had originally booked is that it made more stops. People were constantly getting on an off and eventually two thirds of my hex had changed. I was relieved by this. I figured I'd have a clean start with the new people. A man and his baby took the bottom bunk on the triplet across from mine. I wasn't happy to have a baby so close but the kid was fairly well behaved. Both the man and his son were filthy. Permanently stained cloths and unwashed foreheads. The man wore dress pants, as even the poorest Asian people often do. The boy wore trousers that were split about the center seem, as most of the babies in Asia do. Diapers and underwear are disfavored to, anywhere, and a rip around the crotch area makes that extra convenient. Throughout the entire day they spent on the train the boys eyes were extra shiny, almost as if he'd just been crying or was about to, though he only actually did for a brief period. The man looked simple, genuine and full of love.

Karst mountains outside the train
Karst mountains outside the train

I spent much of the journey listening to A Bend in The River by V. S. Naipaul and staring out the window as kids played in actual bends in rivers which meandered around topography so karst it looked as though China had been impaled by mountains. My hex-mates rotated again. Two ladies and a flaming gay guy joined the group. Upon seeing me the gay guy began flapping the collar of his shirt as if to ventilate himself so he didn't pass out. With clenched knees and spread feet he gave me a great big "Hello". He was extremely jubilant and spoke a little bit of English. He told me he lived in Chengdu and when I asked him what he did there he misinterpreted the question and responded: "Thirty-one but my friends say I look more like I'm sixteen." As he spoke he would often flush, put his hand up to his mouth and look away while he searched for a word. Sometimes he would tell me to "please wait a moment" while he looked up a translation on his phone, as if I had anywhere else I could go. He gave responses to my questions that were animated as if he was a cheerleader with pom-poms.

That's when the messages started coming in. A 42hr train ride wouldn't be so unbearable for me if they had an outlet for my laptop, since I've got an endless supply of things to do and I can tether the data service from my phone and have internet for the entire journey. Unfortunately the trains don't have outlets (except the maglev train from Shanghai to Beijing, but that's so fast it's hard to dissipate a full charge) so I would get messages on my phone but have no convenient way to answer them—working on my small touch screen is a lesson in patience. In some parts of the world it was starting to be my birthday and people that I had met were beginning to send me wishes. Before I arrived in Chengdu I had received over sixty messages. Many of them were just: "Happy Birthday" but a lot of them included things along the lines of: "I hope you're doing something dangerous, I'm sure you are". It recalled to mind an image a fellow world traveler had described to me while we were waiting in the-middle-of-nowhere Indonesia for a vehicle to come by. He said he once saw a graphic that showed an adventurer hanging off a cliff with a subtitle that read: "This is how my friends and family think I spend most of my time" and an adjoining graphic showing the same adventurer sitting on a bench waiting for a train and text that read: "How I actually spend most of my time". If only they knew, I thought.

Giant panda cub in a tree
Giant panda cub in a tree

The subject of my age came up amongst my train-mates and it came out that it was my birthday. They insisted on staying up with me until midnight at which point it would be my birthday in China, though not in America for another thirteen hours. When I woke up the gay guy handed me a bag of eggs and told me that it's Chinese tradition to eat red eggs on your birthday. I'm not a big fan of hard-boiled eggs but I ate one anyway. I'm not really sure where he came up with red eggs on that train in the middle of the night. He also gave me a packaged chicken foot which I told him I'd save 'till later. Then he told me the bad news: our train was running five hours longer then expected. It turned out to be running six. I spent most of my birthday trapped on a train. While things had gotten better, a smile had returned to my face and I was taking things in stride again, it began to feel like I was in jail being held against my will. I just wanted to get off. After nearly forty-six hours I finally did. A friend I had made during my previous stop in Chengdu was at the station waiting for me and I just wanted to collapse into her arms.

Partially because I was embarrassed about the stench I picked up during my run in the train station and then two straight days in close confinement without bathing, and partially because I would have crushed her, I refrained from collapsing into my friends arms. That night we went to the hostel where my friend worked and had a small celebration for me and an eleven year old Israeli girl who's family was staying there and who happens to have the same birthday as me. It was short and sweet and had many types of cake. The next day my friend and I went to the panda sanctuary in Chengdu where I saw several giant and red pandas, both of which were amazingly adorable. I had figured that the lesser pandas would be more cute than the giant pandas but I was pleasantly surprised. The giant pandas with their nonchalant lethargy were approaching otter cuteness. That night we went out with my gay friend from the train. We went cloths shopping for me—which I desperately needed to do as the cloths I had brought with me were disintegrating—and then went to dinner. I was certainly making more of my time in Chengdu than I had the last time. I thought about taking a train from Chengdu to Beijing but due to my rush and my previous train journey I decided that my birthday present to myself would be a plane ticket.

Soundtrack: William Tell Overture (Rossini)

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