Travel Memories

Here’s some short travel memories from my Twitter account…

Travel diaries, 1991. In Xian’s mosque I again meet the old man. He’s 82, worked for British in the 1930s. He delights in showing me around.

Travel diaries, 1993. Wake up at 3am, sleeper train to Kunming. The steam engine on the next track hisses and breaths like an angry dragon.

Travel diaries, 1991. While biking through a narrow alley in Beijing, I encounter a small monkey on a bike going the other way. We both nod.

Travel diaries, 1989. I’m floating on my back in the Mississippi river, far from the bank. As I turn, I see a paddle steamer heading for me.

Travel diaries, 1989. Shanghai. All around me thousands watch the students march. A young couple turns to me. “Are you VOA? Are you BBC?”


Smart Phones Killed The Suspense

It’s fairly certain that I’m not the first person to point this out or to even notice this, but there has been a distinct lack of compelling suspense novels written in the second decade of the 21st century.

And it’s not just suspense. Crime fiction, adventure novels and near-future science fiction seem all to go through a crisis and it’s pretty obvious what did them in – the smart phone.

I have some fairly personal experience with this phenomenon from when I wrote Shanghai Gold in the mid-Oughties or whatever we are now calling the last decade. Shanghai Gold is conveniently set at a time when it was still just barely possible to pretend that the Internet had not just replaced nearly all communication devices and offline knowledge repositories of the 20th century – just a few years before the iPhone radically changed our idea of what a phone can do.

But that is now seven, eight years ago – which, as it turns out, is a lifetime in Internet years. What has changed? Everybody has an all-knowing near-magical device in their pockets. Try and write a plot around that!

Most writers of suspense/crime/adventure novels have always spent a lot of time trying to get their heroes into impossible situations and then – to the delight of their readers – have the character work their way out of that mess with a combination of wit and luck.

Many of these basic story concepts of the typical 20th century plot are now defunct: Running to get to a phone. Not knowing how to reach somebody. Getting basic information about a person. Finding a place. Not knowing what somebody or a place looks like. Losing important documents. Making something public. Staying in contact. Waiting for a letter. Waiting for the news to come out. Stopping the news from coming out. Getting lost. Getting found.

All of these basic concepts were the staple of a suspenseful story line and they can now all be reduced to a sentence like “She took out her phone and…”

Once you’ve spent a little time thinking about this it is quite strange to go back and read older novels or watch older movies and to realize that many of the stories would literally end after one or two chapters or after the first 20 minutes of the film if all the problems facing the main characters could be solved with a sentence like the one above.

I guess most older readers are willing to accept these limitations of incomplete access to information in novels specifically set in older times, but digitally-native generations may have less of a tolerance for these hurdles, since seen from the perspective of somebody who grew up with always-on Internet the frantic race to a phone booth may sound as interesting as a step-by-step description of how to skin a deer with flint stone.

It is even worse for science fiction, especially near-future SF, where we would all assume that our near-magical access to information will be preserved or even enhanced. Near-future SF written in the late 20th century is now often unreadable since – quite naturally – the authors have for the most part not anticipated the Web or the dramatic effects of smart phones on society.

New novels set in the near future are the hardest hit. There is pretty much no tolerance and the story falls apart completely if our heroes – let’s say a group of astronauts in fictional 2030 – don’t habitually use the Internet for everything.

For the reader it is catastrophic to hold a brand new novel in their hands where the author has neglected to even acknowledge the presence of the Internet. One is damned – after a baffled look at the copyright date – to silently scream at the main characters to just go and look it up!

Ioyama In The Clouds

As the bus winds its way up the mountain towards Ebino Kogen, I am starting to question my decision to come here at all. From one moment to the next, we are entering dense fog and all around us the world of the Kirishima National Park dissolves into vague grey shapes.

I had probably not spent enough time planning this day and the complexities dawn on me on the way – first a local train from Kagoshima to Kirishima, followed by a public bus to Takachiho-gawara, and then this smaller national park shuttle to Ebino Kogen, rising ever higher along the flanks of the various volcanoes in the park. The public bus was sparsely populated and now I’m the only passenger on this shuttle – late October on a weekday is obviously not peak travel season.

I had been looking forward to see the volcanoes in this park and the drive up the mountain had been promising, but it had become more and more overcast and now the bus has entered the clouds. The landscape has disappeared. All that is left is me, a lone foreigner with no Japanese skills, in an empty bus on top of a volcano that I can’t actually see.

We arrive at the stop and I get off, sending a last wistful look after the bus as it vanishes in the fog. There is no bus stop shelter, just a sign with departure times and a little container with folded maps of the area. The map is just a single sheet with a photocopied overview of the local hiking paths, but it’s much better than nothing. Before I leave, I take a look at the departure times and realize with some shock that the bus that brought me here was the last of two buses that would make it up here today.

I stare at the schedule for quite a while but there isn’t much else I can get out of it. It’s around 11 o’clock in the morning, and there is a bus at 9 and one at 11 and that’s it. I scan the area. There is a large parking lot, mostly empty with two tour buses parked next to a building that may or may not be a hotel or spa, and a few private cars of hardy souls that came up here today for hiking.

The fog drifts in dense clouds across the hillside with its sparse forest. It’s cold but there is not much wind. Very quiet, with only the odd call from a crow echoing across the parking lot. The road is deserted.

I could probably stay in the hotel – which might be quite expensive – or maybe I can hitchhike down the mountain to the train station later today. No matter. Now I’m here, might as well spend some time.

The small map is completely in Japanese, but there is a small lake nearby with promising clusters of Japanese characters around it signifying little shrines or points of interest. Doesn’t look too far.

I walk along a winding country road up towards the lake – assuming I’m not holding the map upside down, that is. To my right the mountainside spews steam and smells of sulphur, this should be the slope of Ioyama, one of the volcanoes around here. There are trails going up the slope, something to investigate later.

After about half an hour walking up the hill – and not seeing anybody at all along the way – I reach the little lake in a flat hollow surrounded by trees. The lake is almost circular and very small, maybe 200 meters across. Steam is rising in lazy swirls from the surface of the water, fusing with the fog into a white, wavy curtain. I walk down a small path that should take me around the lake, hemmed in by dense, gnarly trees and spiky undergrowth.

The trees have already lost most of their foliage and dark twisted branches rise in stark contrast against the fog. All I can hear is the calls of the crows up in the trees and the crunch of the rocks under my feet. The path is well prepared and easy to walk, winding its way through the forest with little gaps where it is possible to view the lake.

In a clearing I find a small shrine, overgrown with moss. The walls and roof look ancient with much of the grey wood the consistency of wet cardboard. The area around the shrine is swampy and waterlogged but I can’t tell if water is running into or out of the lake here.

I sit down on a little stone bench next to the shrine, in front of me the glassy surface of the lake barely visible in the thick fog. I had brought some lunch, sweet baked goods from a 7-11 in Kagoshima, a box of Pocky and a bottle of water.

After lunch I continue my little hike circling the lake. As the path rises back to the country road, there would probably be a very nice view of the lake behind me, but today there is a complete absence of substance. My universe has shrunk to a bubble of maybe 30 meters across.

As I get back to the road I see another one of those hiking paths leading up the slope towards the volcano on the other side. The difference in terrain is striking. Behind me the area around the lake has trees and grass, across the street the hillside is bare rock and rubble. It is not a steep mountain and the hiking paths look like they were prepared with excessive caution to prevent hikers from wandering astray.

I contemplate the path for a little while and I’m pretty sure it matches the path I see on the photocopied map. It leads up for a few hundred meters and then turns in an arc around the top of the mountain – I assume that would be the crater – and then back to the windy road I’m currently on.

I cross the street and ascend Ioyama.

The fog can’t very well get any denser, but there is now also live steam escaping from vents all around me. The smell of sulphur is getting stronger as I climb the path to the crater. Many of the rocks look like volcanic ejecta and they are very colorful – their strong reds, greens and yellows washed out into pastel hues by the ever-thickening atmosphere.

The path is marked on both sides by unbroken lines of little rocks and while I can’t see far it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. Many of the steam vents near the path look like serious death traps and I’m making sure to stay away from them. The vents sit in open pits and craters with jagged rocks covered in yellow sulphur deposited there by the steam. The air is now full of the hissing sound of steam escaping under pressure, superheated water surging up and away from the magma below.

As the path starts to descend I stop for a moment and turn in a circle, taking in the desolate moonscape around me. The sky is white, the rocks everywhere covered by light grey ash. Pure white steam escaping in dense jets here and there, surrounded by yellow rings of sulphur.

This is the crater of Ioyama.

Ioyama in the clouds.

I continue downhill and after a few hundred meters the path brings me back to the country road and I follow it down to the parking lot where my hike started. The bushes and grass near the road look now much more friendly and inviting after spending an hour in Ioyama’s death zone.

One of the tour buses is preparing to leave and a small number of elderly Japanese tourists are boarding. I approach the driver and ask where he is going. He doesn’t speak English, but after a few moments of my wild gesturing and broken Japanese phrases he understands.


More wild gestures. It’s now mid-afternoon and I really don’t want to get stuck up here – a direct bus to Kagoshima would be absolutely perfect.

Several thousand Yen change hands and I’m rolling down the mountain together with a group of extremely hardy octogenarians. Barely ten minutes later we break out of the clouds.

This is a little scrap of my travel memories of a trip to Japan in 1997. The little lake, the windy road and indeed all of the area around the crater of Ioyama is currently a no-entry zone due to heightened volcanic activity of Ioyama.


The Teahouse

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

Chengdu, Summer of 1993

The cup is handleless, rather tall and slim, with a gorgeous blue glazed dragon curling around a pearl at the bottom. There’s now a small heap of tea leaves lying on the dragon, the outer edges slowly swirling with the current of the hot water.

The hot water had been provided from a giant thermos by a frail old lady. She is shuffling around with small feet that were probably bound in the years before Mao and she makes sure that no cup stays empty for long.

I’m in one of the larger teahouses in Chengdu, three open courtyards with curved roofs, small fountains and wooden partitions. There are red lanterns dangling from the intricate woodwork of the roof and beneath it are low tables and wooden benches, some with upright backrests, a bit inconvenient but good enough for a couple of hours.

There’s a special, closed section to one side, where there are cloths on the tables and the chairs are padded. Foreign tour groups are steered to that area to mingle with wealthy businessmen and their attractive female companions, drinking tea at double or triple the price of the local’s section where I’m sitting now.

When people walk in from the street they visibly slow down, relaxing, leaving the hustle and bustle of Chinese street life behind. They order their cup of tea from a small table in the dark entrance hall where it is almost impossible to read the price tags next to the bowls with brands of tea from all over China.

Then they walk through the rows of tables looking for a convenient spot, a teenage girl with a very serious look on her face following them with their ordered cup on a tray.

Next to the entrance stands a sign in Chinese with an English headline announcing ‘Sichuan OPRa PeRfoRmance’. There are also a couple of photos depicting colorful masks and wild dancing scenes, but I can’t make out where this performance would take place.

People come here to discuss business or to meet with friends. Some are reading newspapers or books. A few just sit there and watch the world go by, sipping their tea from time to time.

A group of older men in blue, baggy Mao clothes are playing Chinese Chess in one corner. Most of them huddle around the boards and watch every single move of the players, discussing the game in low voices. It has all the attributes of a World Championship in progress.

Heavy rain is setting in amidst rumbling thunder. Luckily my bench is far enough under the roof but some of the guests develop a here seldom witnessed speed to secure a dry spot.

It’s still very hot and humid and now there is steam rising after the first drops hit the ground. The courtyards get a soft, dreamlike appearance, further heightened by the sound of the rain as it blots out the little street noise that made it into the teahouse.

A girl, almost a baby, is watching me intently over the backrest of the next bench in front of me, enjoying her first chance to study a foreigner out in the wild. Suddenly there’s another head bobbing up behind the backrest – her proud grandfather who took his dressed-up grandchild on a stroll through town.

He’s a bit surprised at the sight of me, but then he’s giving me his widest grin. I show him my camera and ask if I can take a picture of the child. He holds her up even more so that she can stand on the backrest and I take a picture of her cute face.

The grandfather is now prouder than ever and starts a conversation, hitting the limits of my Chinese in mere seconds. But it’s still one of those joyful moments with both of us working to understand each other, happy about every tiny success.

All around us, the world is reduced to a teahouse adrift in the clouds.

Under Yellow Tile Roofs

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

It was the last day of a long summer of travelling through China. I had now been back in Beijing for a few days, buying souvenirs for the family, enjoying a couple more lazy bike rides through the hutongs and dinners with travel acquaintances at the hotel.

This was late in September of 1991 and the days were still hot, but the sun was setting earlier in the evening and the nights were already much cooler. The air was crisp and the smog over the city was less of a problem than in summer.

I’d spent the afternoon on Coal Hill to the north of the Forbidden City, sitting near the walls of the pavillion at the top of the hill, with a view of the graceful roofs of the palace below me.

I’d brought some moon cakes and a can of JianLiBao – my favorite local soft drink – and I enjoyed a late lunch surrounded by local and international tourists as they ascended and descended the hill in a constant stream.

Finally I packed up my snacks, walked around the pavillion one last time, looking out to the west over Beihai Park with its lake and paddle boats, the Drum Tower in the distance to the north, the shopping area to the east and then south again.

Beijing stretched to the horizon in all directions, a neverending sea of low-slung apartment blocks interspersed with old, dense hutongs with their courtyards and narrow alleyways and here and there high-rises foretelling the future of the capital of China.

I walked down through the low forest that had been growing on Coal Hill since ancient times, the winding path still busy with more tourists huffing and puffing on their way up.

I unlocked my bike from the lot in front of the entrance of Coal Hill Park and slowly cycled to the east along busy Jingshan Lu with its never-ending stream of city buses and construction trucks, turning south once I had passed the end of the palace moat.

The road south along the palace moat was covered by trees that gave soothing shade and the street scene was at a much more human scale. A wide stretch of grass and dirt under the trees along the road was busy with typical Chinese city life.

There were some older men with bird cages airing out their songbirds. Further down under the trees a hairdresser was doing good open-air business with a mobile chair and some scissors. A group of women had come together for a late session of Tai Chi. Some children were kicking a ball around. On the sidewalk were vendors with small carts, offering freshly made food. Bikes dominated the two-lane road and I simply followed the flow without much of any thought. This was biking in China at its best.

It was a long, slow ride along the alley, a gliding cruise at the same speed as all the other bikers around me, before I had passed the palace area and made it to Beijing’s main street – Chang’an Avenue. Here I got off my bike, since crossing the epically wide street made no sense – my destination was only a short walk to the west – one of the giant bike parking lots in front of the Forbidden City.

Since it was after three o’clock, there was no line at the ticket window and it felt very strange to just walk up to the window, get a ticket and stroll into the Forbidden City without the usual crowds.

I had already spent several days exploring the palace at previous visits, but it still came as a shock to walk into the wide expanse of the inner courtyards of the palace. I skipped the main throne rooms and central buildings and ducked through a smaller door into one of the long walkways that pass by the central area into the northern part of the Forbidden City.

Here were the many buildings that made up the life support system of the imperial household – living quarters for servants, kitchens, storage and supply buildings, all built in a very similar style with red painted walls and yellow glazed roofs, connected with walled-off walkways with doorways and yards in between. Walking around here was like navigating a large maze, and even on crowded days it was possible to be suddenly very alone in one of the many courtyards.

The few tourists I encountered in these more remote areas were all heading in the opposite direction, to the main exit in the south. Most of them looked tired after spending many hours hiking through the labyrinthine paths and across the wide expanses of sun-heated brick pavement.

The sun was low in the sky now and the eaves of the dormant buildings traced long shadows across the red walls. Roof tiles glittered against the angled light. Silence descended on the historic center of the Chinese universe.

I aimlessly meandered along the many walkways, finally emerging in a large courtyard just north of the building that housed the main throne room. I walked across that empty space to the eastern wall, its red paint glowing radiantly with the low, orange rays of the evening sun.

I sat down on an angled ramp leading up to a doorway in the wall, still barely in the sun, unpacking the last of my moon cakes, settling in to wait for the sunset over the western walls of the Forbidden City.

It had become quiet. The main entrance was now long closed and the few tourists and guards left in the palace were easily lost in the hundreds of buildings, courtyards and pathways all around me.

Swallows were swooping down from their nests under the yellow-glazed eaves, gliding low across a moat that cut across the courtyard, catching mosquitoes with sudden changes in their paths. Their piercing cries the only thing disturbing the silence.

All around me the stone tiles, bricks and mortar were radiating the heat of the day and only a very light wind promised a cooler night later.

The sun in front of me had become a red ball, filling the ever-present haze over the city with an orange glow fading into dark blue at the zenith. The upturned eaves of the ancient buildings of the Forbidden City were black outlines etched into the evening sky.

It was time to go home.

Long Way To China

Before I start maybe a small historical note:

Late in 1988 – while I was in the military service in Germany – I had read in a newspaper that it had become possible to book a passsage on the Trans-Siberian Railway as an individual traveller. I knew that I would have some time to waste after my tour of duty ended, and so I decided to go to Beijing via Moscow on a train.

And so I ended up travelling through the USSR in early 1989 – Gorbachev was still the Communist leader of the Soviet Union and those were the final days of the Cold War.

All of that is now ancient history.

This is more-or-less a direct translation from my diary that I kept during this trip, with a few explanatory notes thrown in later.


Thursday, 20th of April 1989

It’s ten minutes to three on a dark, overcast afternoon as the train stops in Moscow. As I step out of the train I realize that I’m cutting my life-line to the west – there’s no fast and easy way out of here.

I’d spent the last two days travelling from Munich via Berlin and Warsaw to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Empire. The train ride had felt like a trip back in time, with Berlin solidly in the 1980s, Warsaw still showing damage from the 1940s and the fields of Belarus and the Ukraine full of horse-drawn carriages from the late 1800s.

I say goodbye to my travel companion since Berlin – Ella, a Russian translator for English who is on her way back home. It’s time to take out the mimeographed sheet with instructions I had received back in Munich and to find my contact in Moscow.

The train station smells of disinfectant and looks very clean. Grey and clean. I look for the Intourist bureau, and find it soon enough near the end of the platform where I had arrived. It’s a big, grey room inside the hall of the station and it’s empty apart from a cluttered desk with a young man behind it.

I tell him in English that I’d been sent to him by my travel agent in Munich and I show him the pack of receipts and papers that I got with my train ticket to Moscow.

The man takes his time while checking my name in a long list. Without looking up he pushes the pack of papers in my direction and grabs the telephone. Harsh Russian words bring back where I am. He talks for a while and I can’t help but imagine that he’s talking to the KGB: ‘Yes, we’ve caught the spy now. Where shall we bring him, comrade?’…

Another man enters the office and gestures me to follow. We walk across the train station and leave through a side door. The man opens the trunk of a black car and helps to heave my backpack inside. He starts to laugh and says something in Russian. He seems to ask what on earth is so heavy in the pack. It’s the first time I see somebody laughing in the Soviet Union.

He ushers me into the back seat and starts the engine. It’s a bit surprising that my first impression of Moscow is the bourgeois view from a chauffeured limousine.

When I booked the ticket for the Transsib, Intourist required that I had to book a night in a hotel in Moscow, the minimum being US$80 for a single room in the Hotel Belgrade. That’s where we are going now, along huge streets with four or six lanes, filled with trucks, buses and taxis. There seem to be only very few private cars.

The Hotel Belgrade is a semi-clean, dusty place. My room is small, just big enough for the bed and a chair. The steam heater is making quiet ticking noises and the thick windows dimensioned for Russian winters block all outside noise. Since the room is on the 12th floor, there is at least a good view of Moscow.

I’m hungry from the train ride so I skip a first trip into town. I take the elevator down to the dining room ‘for individual travelers’ just to find out that the man at the door doesn’t have me on his list. He sends me up to the dining room ‘for group travelers’. There I get told that from now on I’m part of a tour group – the ‘group of individual travelers’…

The food is fairly good, just those strange sausages without any taste are a bit of a mystery to us. Us – that’s fourteen travelers from six countries. We all came to Moscow as individual travelers and it seems that Intourist decided that we are a lot easier to handle as a newly-formed tour group with an actual guide.


Friday, 21st of April

The breakfast at nine o’clock is basic, to say the least. Valentin, our guide, announces a bus tour through the city and a guided tour of the Kremlin at no extra cost. It certainly helps us to accustom ourselves to the fact that we’re now a tour group.

The bus tour is brief, basically only a trip around the perimeter of the inner city of Moscow. We get a rundown of some of the ministries of the Soviet government and then we stop in front of one of the entrances to the Kremlin.

We walk through a big gate and enter the heart of the Soviet Empire. Strangely enough, we are facing some office blocks that one just doesn’t expect in here. But there are also well-preserved old buildings and a beautiful old church with intricate orthodox Christian artwork lining the walls.

Valentin does a good job explaining the various sights we are allowed to see inside of the Kremlin Walls and he shows obvious pride in the fact that he is guiding us through the seat of government of the Soviet Union.

The place is big enough for days of exploration, but here the tour group is kept under tight surveilance by the Intourist guide and after half an hour, we are again in our bus heading back to the hotel.

Overall the visit to the Kremlin was a mind-bending experience. Only months before I had been a conscript in the German Air Force and had spent my days in an underground air surveillance installation keeping a sharp eye on flight patterns of Warsaw Pact forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And now I was strolling through the very heart of the Soviet Union, only a few hundred meters from Gorbachev’s office. It was utterly bizarre.

There’s another Intourist tour in the afternoon, but somehow Valentin just can’t explain what’s so special about our destination outside of Moscow.

Together with another Thomas and Andreas from Germany and Marie from Canada, we decide to do Moscow our way. We organize a map and start hiking along the big Prospekts, wide streets with six or eight lanes cutting through the city.

We visit a supermarket on Kalinin Prospekt, not too far away of the Red Square. It’s empty. Not that there are no people, no – there’s a good crowd walking among the shelves… the empty shelves. We can’t figure out what hundreds of people buy in an empty food store, but maybe they are waiting for the next truckload of meat from somewhere. It explains our meager breakfast – and the grey sausages from last evening…

The Red Square is breathtaking. It’s not as big as I thought – don’t know how someone can land a Cessna in here. But the buildings that surround the square are gorgeous. The intimidating Kremlin Wall on one side – I still can’t believe we had just been in there – the classic Gum Department Store on the other. The wonderful Basilius cathedral at one end of the square with its colorful – and freshly renovated – towers.

On the way back we take Moscow’s Metro. This is fun. The subway stations are beautiful, some of them look like huge ball rooms or underground cathedrals. We miss our stop, but since we have some time left and it is a circle route, we just stay on for another round.

Our second – and last – dinner in the Hotel Belgrade. This time the food is better and there’s folk dancing and loud music after dinner. But most of us start dreaming while we listen to the music, another couple of hours and we are on our way…

Valentin calls for his group. We all jump up and almost run for the door. It’s now 10.30pm and our bus is waiting. We all get our backpacks from our rooms, jamming into the elevator until the warning light starts buzzing nervously.

The bus takes us to the Jaroslawskij train station where we have to wait for another half hour, the train is not ready. It’s almost midnight, but there are thousands of people at the station. Some seem to travel with all their possesions, while others seem to have nothing left but their patched clothes.

Valentin calls again for us, inducing much excitement within his group. This is it – we are walking up to the platform where we see, feel and smell our train.

The Trans-Siberian Railway!


Saturday, 22nd of April

It’s 1.20am as we leave Moscow’s Jaroslawskij Station. All in our group have been assigned their quarters, sorted out by nationalities. I’m sharing a four-bed cabin with Thomas, Andreas and Maja, a girl from Hamburg. I have one of the lower beds.

We try to open the window, but it’s locked – it’s still winter time in Siberia and Valentin tells us that our window is ‘officially locked’. It’s also unofficially dirty, but we avoid pointing that out to our guide…

3.30am. We sit on the lower beds, talking. We’re too excited to sleep and as we can hear through the thin wooden walls, our Dutch neighbours are also awake.

Much later, somebody is knocking at the door. It’s 8.30am and our faithful guide reminds us that our breakfast time is 9 o’clock sharp. Andreas slept in one of the upper beds, as he finds out the hard way. We, the two Thomases in the lower beds have it a bit easier, but only a little bit after the very short night.

On the way to the restaurant car we get our first glimpse of the countryside. There are small villages connected by dirt tracks and there’s still a good amount of snow everywhere. The thawing snow and the heavy trucks convert the dirt roads into muddy creeks, almost unnavigable for even the heaviest trucks.

The food is not too good and the two waiters seem to be trained prison personnel. They basically throw the plates with the food at us and just barely manage to hit the table instead.

Grey seems to be the favourite color in Soviet cuisine. We have two kinds of stale bread, light grey and dark grey, grey sausages again, and even the yolk of the egg is greyish yellow. And the overall taste can only be described as… grey.

As we leave the restaurant car, we realize that the train personal had all the Soviet passengers cleaned out of the restaurant for us. As we walk out, embarrassed that we had kept everybody else from eating, they push in to get their share of the grey breakfast.


Sunday, 23rd of April

What was only a suspicion yesterday becomes a fact today. There are no showers on the train for second class passengers. Valentin apologizes in four different languages, but there’s not really a lot he can do about it once the train is rolling. Our showers are in a different carriage that had been left behind in Moscow for repairs.

Instead we build a small apparatus out of a plastic mineral water bottle and string in one of the toilets of our carriage. Not great, but better than nothing. The conductor in our carriage is a bit concerned at the beginning, but then helps us out with the string for our self-made shower. There is a drain in the floor under the sink, so we won’t be flooding the whole car with our apparatus.

There is a conductor in every single one of the carriages on the train. They assign cabins and beds to new passengers, clean the corridor from time to time, and are responsible for the Samovar, the water boiler in each carriage that supplies us with endless amounts of hot water for tea and instant coffee.

But their most important task is to check that all the passengers are back on the train after the frequent stops. We all use those stops to take walks on the platform or run over to the station to buy snacks. We’ve also started an ongoing international snowball match. It’s still freezing cold here in Siberia.


Monday, 24th of April

1am. We’re going through Novosibirsk. We are all still awake since we are experiencing 23 hour-days at the moment. Through our continuing movement eastward we’re loosing one hour per day.

Novosibirsk seems to be one big industrial site. Coal dust is penetrating our cabin through the cracks around the window. There is a sulphuric smell in the air. Metallic smokestacks reach into a neon-yellow sky, lit up by the lights from very large factory buildings lining the rail line.

And then as sudden as it began, we leave Novosibirsk behind and we are again surrounded by the pitch black Siberian night.

In the morning Valentin knocks on the doors of the compartments, tells us that breakfast is in 30 minutes and also what the local time is. The shortened days are very disorienting and our appetite is meager.

After lunch we cross the Jenissei. It’s a huge, muddy river, maybe a hundred meters wide, that is running north to the Polar Sea. We are crossing the river on an ancient iron bridge that clangs heavily under the wheels of the train.

Shortly afterwards we are back in the Taiga, an endless forest of birch and pine trees, interrupted by meadows of tall, rough grass growing on permafrost.

Valentin pinned a map of the world to the corridor wall on the first day of our trip. He’s charting our course every couple of hours with a thick red marker and there’s now a neat red line across half of the Soviet Union. After three days of continuous travel we’ve done almost half of the complete distance between Moscow and Beijing.


Tuesday, 25th of April

The food in the restaurant is getting worse. It seems that they stocked up in Moscow and they don’t get anything fresh on the road. One could drive nails into wood with the bread from today’s breakfast.

All morning we travel through the sheer never-ending Taiga. Birch forests that withstand any attempt to describe their vastness. An ocean of birch trees. The Taiga has engulfed us and the swampy permafrost is doing it’s very best to never let us leave again.

It’s on this fourth day of continuous movement that it finally starts to really sink in how incredibly big Siberia is.

We arrive in Irkutsk in the afternoon. Valentin is leaving us here. He goes back to Moscow to guide the next group around. Before he leaves, he gives our papers to one of the Swedish travellers as the new “head” of our group.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at Lake Baikal. The train takes a long, slow curve around the southern end of the lake. One reason for the slow progress is that the train track looks severely damaged by the harsh conditions during the winter. The carriages swing wildly to the left and right and the wheels shriek metallically as they grind against the uneven rails.

The lake is more than 600 kilometers long and still covered with ice which is criss-crossed by the tracks of heavy trucks and cars that have been traveling on the ice all winter. My guide book says that early in this century the Russians even built rail tracks across the ice in winter time. The lake stretches to the northern horizon, disappearing in a faint haze under the blue sky. It looks like a frozen ocean from here.

The ice gleams bright red in the evening sun as we reach the eastern shoreline. Our train turns due east again and the lake disappears behind us.

In these few short hours Lake Baikal had impressed us with its natural beauty. It feels very much like a place I would like to come back to some time in the future.


Wednesday, 26th of April

The landscape has changed during the night. The hills are arid, brown and dusty. There are gun nests and bomb shelters dug into the bare hills, the remnants of the fighting between China and the Soviet Union.

The train seems to have slowed down and there is very little to break the monotony of hill after dusty hill.

In the afternoon we arrive in Zabaikalsk, the town on the Soviet side of the border. We have to get off the train, because the wheels of the carriages have to be changed from the Soviet wide gauge to the standard gauge used by the Chinese.

One carriage after another is lifted up by a big metal frame that straddles the two overlapping sets of rails, the old wheel assemblies are rolled out and the new assemblies rolled in. It takes more than two hours for the whole train.

After changing our Rubles back to US Dollars in the little train station, we have some time for a stroll around town. There’s a playground next to the train station with a huge, rusty tank on a concrete foundation.

Back on the train the customs officers are very relaxed. There is no real inspection, just a casual walk-through. The Swedish holder-of-our-papers is relieved of his duties and we are again individual travelers.

It’s getting dark as we pass the border. On the Chinese side the border looks more active, more militaristic and there are soldiers standing along the rail tracks up to the station of Manzhouli, the town on the Chinese side of the border.

Suddenly everything changes. The station is brightly lit, there’s loud music out of the station’s PA system. The platform is filled with people, most of them trying to sell their goods to the travellers.

And what goods they have! There are all kinds of fruits, soft drinks and snacks that were unseen in the Soviet Union. The merchants use a melodic sing-song to entice customers. Within the last few kilometers we went from one world to another.

We all go into the station to change money and the noise and lively, colorful confusion around us is like a fever dream after the sensory deprivation of the last few days.


Thursday, 27th of April

It’s still very early in the morning as I take my first peek of China in daylight. There are farmers out in the fields, bikers on a dirt road that follows the rail track. Small villages with dark ponds and thatched roofs. Rickety, old trucks wait at the rail crossings.

There are a lot more people about as in Siberia, even out here in the countryside one can sense the huge numbers that dominate China.

Before lunch I see my first real steam train. I’ve seen museum pieces before, even under steam, but this is the real thing. It’s a very long coal train that is pulled by two big steam engines in tandem.

Around noon we have a brief stop in Harbin, a large provincial capital. It’s a huge city, much bigger than anything we’d seen up to now. The rail yard around the main station is spread out over dozens of tracks and there are giant steam engines moving about everywhere.

Marie asks on the way to the restaurant car if I’ve noticed that the Russian train personnel is suddenly smiling. I hadn’t, but it’s true. Since we’ve entered China they are suddenly outgoing, friendly, even cheerful.

We’ve also got a new restaurant car, in place of the Soviet one is now a Chinese restaurant. The food is not only fresh, but also very well made and quite tasty. The restaurant is also full of Russians and Chinese, nobody here would dream of closing it down so that the western tourists can eat alone…


Friday, 28th of April

6.45am. The train stops in Beijing Station with less than a quarter of an hour delay on more than 9000 kilometers, not bad at all.

The large open square in front of the station is a delirious experience for us. Since we are all backpackers, we’re all heading for the same, cheap hotel. But it’s not so easy to find the bus stop or even to read the signs with the destinations of the busses.

There are people everywhere. The busses we see are crowded beyond belief. Cyclists move through the mass of people waiting for the busses, using their bells constantly, shouting at the people to get out of the way.

Finally we find a bus that seems to go in the right direction and fourteen tired, sweating foreigners with huge backpacks push into the already crowded bus. We’re on our way…

Memories: The Peak That Flew From Afar

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s. Here is an excerpt from my travel diary of a trip to Hangzhou in eastern China in 1993.

The bus stops abruptly and the doors open with a metallic snap. All the passengers try to leave the bus at once, pushing and shoving to get out and into the pouring rain. I’m being dragged along, my only effort is to stay on my feet.

There’s a small ticket office next to the entrance, the price for foreigners is a moderate one yuan.

After entering the temple grounds I face a long row of booths that sell everything from multicolored plastic toys to intricate Jade carvings, from freshly made noodles to Coca Cola. One booth has Sony Walkmans and Kodak Film, the next one offers one-minute shoe repair.

The lane is crowded with Chinese tourists clad in their colorful raincoats, all of them cheerful despite the heavy downpour that went into high gear a minute ago.

All along the lane narrow paths lead off into the forest to the left, across a small creek and then up and along the steep hill. To the right the entrance to the Lingyin Temple itself comes up. I walk into the heavily scented temple and out of the rain.

The first temple hall is filled with two sorts of people, one being the worshippers who burn huge amounts of incense, insert small banknotes into a transparent plastic box and then kneel down in front of the Buddha for prayer. They are usually either very old or in their teens or early twenties.

The other kind of visitors are the children of the Cultural Revolution, either in age or in spirit, who basically enjoy a day off, wherever that is. They are easy to recognize in the crowd by their manners, talking loud, taking pictures where it is forbidden, oddly resembling the package tour groups seen in European Cathedrals.

The second temple hall is huge, with a 60 feet high sitting statue of Siddharta Gautama, made out of camphorwood, as my guide book tells me. The hall is spacious, with large, red columns supporting the wooden roof more than 90 feet above. I wonder if the smoothly lacquered columns are made out of single trees – it looks impossible to move tree trunks of such size.

I stroll through the hall, walking around the statue and the wide wall behind it. There is only a narrow gap between the wall behind the statue and the sides of the temple hall. After passing through the gap, I turn around and for a few seconds just can’t comprehend what I see there.

The backside of the screen is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture of hundreds of figures. There are musicians on an outcrop far up near the roof, playing all different kinds of instruments, in a niche I see meditating monks, next to them a sculpted waterfall comes out of the wall. To the far left there is a caravan of animals, some elephants, camels, horses, that seemingly is edging along a precipitous mountain pass.

Down near the foot of the wall the waterfall floods the landscape, there is a small hut with a man rescuing a child on his shoulders, next to them is a boat in rough sea with the fishermen praying. Behind them a ghost breaks the surface, with his two-pointed harpoon not unlike Neptune.

Up front on a huge wave there are Buddhist monks… surfing! They stand on the backs of dolphins and ride the wave. There is also a huge whale that feels almost life sized, about 15 feet long.

I stand there spellbound for more than half an hour, discovering new details, new groups of figures up at the wall.

Finally I leave the wall, forcing my eyes back down to take in the real world.

I walk back out to the lane with its ear-shattering music and the shouting crowds of one-day tourists in a shopping craze. The rain has traded place with a light drizzle, steam rises out of the heavily wooded hill across the small creek.

I cross the creek on a narrow bridge made out of a single rock that got slippery from the rain. Small paths with stone steps crisscross the lower part of the hill, passing hundreds of sculptures that got chiselled out of the rock almost a thousand years ago.

The hill is named the ‘Peak That Flew From Afar’, because there is – or was – supposedly a very similiar hill in India. Chinese tourists crawl all over the lower paths to get their picture taken in front of the sculptures or a specific piece of calligraphy overgrown with the moss of a millenium.

I head up through the forest. Big, cold drops fall from the trees, some of them managing to hit my neck and then working their way down my back.

The sounds of the drops take over, slowly blotting out the din of the lane below. The forest is misty, a composition of grey and green that could be right out of a chinese painting.

I reach the rounded top of the hill, a small stony clearing. The high trees and the fog make it impossible to see the West Lake or Hangzhou. I sit down on a convenient boulder, enjoying the silence all around me.

I realize that, for the first time in weeks, I am alone.

Between Two Storms

In early June of 1989 I had made my way through China to Guangzhou in southern China near the mouth of the Pearl River and only a day’s worth of travel from Hong Kong. The weather was humid and hot and it rained daily, a first glimpse of the tropical summer heat that descends on southern China every year.

I was thinking of this as the end of my trip through China – I had already spent way more time in the country than I had ever imagined and it was time to move on to either Japan or the US if I ever wanted to make it around the globe. China had been much more interesting and complex and much, much larger than anticipated, but it was time to move on.

My original plan at this point was to exit from here to Hong Kong via boat or train, but I had the luxury of a wide-open backpacking schedule and over the last two months I had met many other travelers in China, some of whom were now again staying in the same hostel. We were all exchanging travel plans and home addresses and on the spur of the moment I teamed up with another German backpacker, Hiltrud, who had been planning to go Hainan island.

It was very easy for Hiltrud to convince me to come along. Hainan is a large Chinese island in the South China Sea, not much smaller than Taiwan and along its western shore generally less than two hundred kilometers from the Vietnamese coast. It sounded like a tropical paradise, untouched by tourism, with empty beaches – a perfect break from the urban, gritty reality of China’s cities.

So I found myself on June 4th very early in the morning on a rickety – and very overcrowded – boat that would take us over the next 30 hours down the Pearl River and across the sea to Haikou, the main city at the northern tip of Hainan.

It was a grey day with low clouds and frequent rain and the ship was jostled around by heavy seas once we left the river delta. I don’t remember much about this day other than spending much time in my bunk reading and sleeping, just hoping for a few nice days on the island.

Haikou was a bit of a disappointment, a rough industrial harbor town that offered little for tourists at the time and only gave a very vague glimpse of how beautiful this island could be. There were construction sites everywhere and the streets were dusty and crowded with trucks. We immediately decided to move on to southern Hainan by overnight bus and spent most of our short stay in Haikou eating and snoozing under a tree in a small park.

We were on a bus by four o’clock in the afternoon on June the 5th, never having read a newspaper or listened to a short wave radio during the day. That was a crucial point, as we should discover shortly.

The bus ride lasted late into the night, a dreamlike never-ending dodge through dark villages along country roads populated by buses and trucks that mostly were driving without their headlights, only vaguely illuminated by the moon. We had two hair-raising encounters, one with an oncoming bus that was overtaking a truck while we were ourselves overtaking a slow-moving tractor, and at one point we encountered a huge pile of gravel in the middle of the road that our bus driver only saw at the very last second in the dim moonlight.

On the bus were several other backpackers – one Swiss, one Yugoslavian, a young Japanese couple, another German girl, and since we were all using the “Blue Book” – in 1989 there really was no other guide book for backpackers in China other than the Lonely Planet – we were all planning to stay at the same hotel on Dadonghai beach near Sanya, only a few kilometers from the southern tip of Hainan. The “How to get there” section rather hilariously instructed us to “look for a large tree growing in the middle of the main road and tell the driver to stop.”

The bus arrived late in the evening – yes, there really was a large tree – and we all trudged to the hotel, checked in and went to bed exhausted. It had been 72 hours since any of us had any contact with the rest of the world.

The guest house we were staying at was a very basic outfit, with several small bamboo bungalows clustered in a palm-tree shaded garden along a low-slung one-story concrete building that had a row of rooms with bunk beds, adjoined by the small lobby and a dining room with a very basic menu mostly consisting of fried rice with egg.

The hotel was directly next to the beach and one could hear the surf rumbling against the steep sandy dunes from the bungalows. A short walk along a dirt path brought you back to the main street of Dadonghai where several small buildings made of corrugated sheet metal and bare concrete had become small cafes and convenience stores to cater to the few tourists who made it down here.

Many of these businesses were obviously very new and had been started on shoestring budgets by local families. There had only been a trickle of foreigners – all backpackers – at Dadonghai beach and so only a few of the cafes had the Rosetta Stone of international dining: A bilingual Chinese/English menu handwritten by a kind traveler that contained all the usual staples for a backpacking hangout, from banana pancakes and french toast to fried rice with eggs and various vegetables. There was almost no English spoken anywhere in town, but most of us had picked up some rudimentary Chinese in the past months and the menus allowed for smooth transactions in the cafes.

The number of backpackers in China at the time was still very small and one effect of everybody using the same guide book with limited accommodation options was that one met the same people over and over wherever one went. In this small beach hotel literally at the very southern end of China I ran into two Germans I had already met twice before who had actually biked across most of the country, and who also knew Hiltrud from somewhere else in China.

The first day on the beach went by very quickly, with a leisurely breakfast of banana pancakes at one of the small street-side cafe followed by a long nap on the beautiful and empty beach and a quick dip in the South China Sea. The water was warm and the surf was easy for swimming. This was exactly what I had been hoping for. Paradise!

Coming back to the hotel, I decided to see what was going on in the world. I happened to have a small short wave radio on this trip and I had made a habit out of checking the news on VOA or the BBC every now and then. And so in late afternoon of June 6th 1989 I had gone back to the little bamboo bungalow I was sharing with Jaques, the Swiss backpacker, and tuned into the BBC for some entertainment.

As my little radio picked up the BBC they seemed to be in the middle of a some rather exciting news development.

“…and as there are more reports appearing about mass executions and arrests in many Chinese cities, the UK embassy is calling on all British citizens to leave the country immediately.. ”

“…we have reports from Xi’an, Chengdu and Wuhan of violent street protests…”

“…other embassies have also called on their citizens to evacuate…”

I had looked up in horror at Jaques, who gave me a similar wide-eyed stare. We had just spent three days traveling to a very remote spot in a country that had in the meantime descended into the throes of a civil war.

We walked out into the garden and quickly found some of the other travelers to discuss the developments on the mainland. It was news to all of them and it didn’t take long to come up with a very short list of options.

One, we could try and take the bus back north and attempt to get a boat from Haikou back to mainland China or Hong Kong, but Haikou was the main city on the island and if there was any trouble on Hainan it would be most likely there.

Or, option two, we could check when the next boat went from Sanya directly to Hong Kong. This was by far easier and would actually get us out of the country immediately. An easy choice. Somebody had a schedule for the boats and the next boat would be in a few days, so it looked like a good idea to organize tickets now.

By the next morning all travelers that currently were staying in the hotel had heard the news and we packed into two little three-wheeled taxis and sped down the road towards downtown Sanya and the local CITS office.

The news was not good. The boat had only one scheduled run a week, the next one being a few days out, but the CITS staff made it clear to us that the next boat may be delayed due to an incoming Typhoon that was plowing through the sea around Manila right now and could veer north into the South China Sea over the next few days. We all bought tickets on the next trip out and went back to our hotel.

Things were tense. Most of that afternoon was spent huddled around the short wave radio, listening with growing horror to the reports of tanks on Tiananmen Square, executions, pitched street battles between students and soldiers in various cities across the country. There was indeed one report mentioning trouble in Haikou. It was quiet and peaceful here on the beach, but we couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening on the mainland. And what could we do? We’d have to wait for the next boat, no matter what.

The one piece of news of that day that we had completely forgotten about by nighttime was the Typhoon out there somewhere…

The next morning brought more bad news from the rest of China. All embassies were actively evacuating foreigners all across the country with announcements on short wave stations to gather at the airports of larger cities like Xi’an and Chengdu for specially chartered flights to Hong Kong. Nothing we would be able to take advantage of.

Otherwise life on the beach was as close to paradise as could be imagined. The food at the little road side restaurants was extremely cheap and tasty and the beach was a stretch of several kilometers of white sand with barely another person in sight. The water was warm and the surf was calm. It was strange to sit on the beach with the news in mind, but there was literally nothing else to do.

Most of the next day – the 9th of June – I spent in the lobby of the hotel as I had been ramping up efforts to call my parents back in Germany. Phone connections out of Sanya were probably bad on a good day, but with the political upheaval in China it seemed to be near impossible to get a stable line out of the country. It took hours for the hotel staff to get the connection for me, only to have it descend into white noise and crackling chaos within seconds.

In the evening of that day our hotel staff came over and told us to get out of the beautiful and airy bamboo bungalows and to move into the concrete building, since the storm was coming. What storm? We had completely forgotten about the Typhoon and at this time the sky was clear and at sunset the horizon exploded in shades of purple. There was not even a slight breeze to cool the air. We ignored the warning and went back to listening to the news.

The next morning was humid and overcast, but there was very little wind and it looked like if it would clear up it could be another beautiful day. A false promise, as the sky rapidly became darker during breakfast and the air suddenly smelled of ozone. Now there was gusty wind shaking the palm trees, and after a few minutes of rapidly deteriorating weather we all gathered our backpacks and dragged them over to the concrete dormitory.

By nine o’clock in the morning the sky turned black and the wind went from gusty to howling storm strength. It was astonishing how fast the weather had turned and it became apparent that the Typhoon was about to get close to the island. Much closer than anybody, including the locals, had anticipated.

By ten o’clock it was nearly as dark outside as it would have been at night and the power went out as the storm gathered strength. The Typhoon delivered a direct hit to Hainan island and the chaos and civil war on the mainland was forgotten as we all stared in shock out from the dining room of the hotel as in the garden the palm trees were uprooted and literally took flight.

There were no lights anywhere in the small beach community and it was pitch black outside with shrieking wind and horizontal rain. Unidentified chunks of buildings and landscaping flew past, occasionally banging into the thankfully very sturdy building we had fled to. The South China Sea – so very welcoming and glassy only the day before – was a thundering, furious presence only a sand dune away from the hotel and the sound of the waves had turned into the roar of a never-ending freight train that literally shook the building.

The eye of the Typhoon passed during that day, but the extreme wind conditions lasted all afternoon and into the evening and the sky grew only a little bit brighter before night set in, leaving us in complete and utter darkness. The staff of the hotel made several attempts to get the hotel’s generator to work, but every time the power cut out again after a few minutes, leaving us to rely on candles and flashlights.

Just before the power had gone out somebody had been playing a Tracy Chapman bootleg cassette on the stereo in the dining room. Whenever the emergency generator came on, the tape slowly spun up for a few minutes, with Tracy Chapman’s sad voice echoing off the bare concrete walls of the hotel dining room – “Talking ’bout a revolution…” – only to be replaced again by darkness and the howling of the storm outside.

The next morning the winds had died down and patchy clouds dotted the blue sky, the air was pleasantly cool. But the tropical paradise around us had been transformed into a disaster zone with uprooted trees, partially destroyed buildings and still no power or telephone. Two of the bamboo huts in the garden of the hotel were severely damaged and two were completely gone – they literally must have taken flight. For the rest of our time at Dadonghai we’d be staying in the bare little rooms in the concrete building.

We had bottled drinks in the hotel restaurant and whatever crackers and cookies we had in our backpacks. The stores and restaurants along the street where closed or in heavy cleanup mode and since there was no power there was nothing they could prepare for us anyway.

Typhoon Dot over Hainan Island, June 10th, 1989 (courtesy NOAA & Wikimedia)

At the time there was no way to get any information about the impact of the Typhoon, but nowadays it is easy to check online: Six people died in the area around Sanya that day and more than 1500 houses were destroyed by Typhoon “Dot” in southern Hainan. The center of the massive storm had passed exactly over Dadonghai beach. We, the few backpackers directly in the path of a major tropical storm that day, had been very lucky.

That evening the power came back and by the next morning we were able to again go out to the Main Street for some food at the restaurants, although with a very limited menu for a little while.

This left us healthy, fed, and stuck in a country that had just undergone a major political upheaval with violent fights in many major cities. We had not seen any direct evidence of the dramatic events in the rest of China until two days after the Typhoon, when while we were sitting at the usual street-side cafe for breakfast, a row of police vehicles drove past with an open flatbed truck in their midst. On the back of the truck stood several young men with their arms tied behind their backs and a number of soldiers with their rifles in hand.

I was looking after the truck with a puzzled expression on my face which was quickly removed when I turned back to Peter, the Yugoslavian backpacker – 20 years older than me and having seen many of the trouble spots of the world – and all he did was to draw an index finger across his throat with a sad smile on his face.

At this point all of us would have much rather been somewhere else, but we had not even received word yet when there would be another boat leaving Hainan island at all. We all held tickets for the next boat out, but for now we had to while away long, quiet days in a beach resort, which sounds easy enough, but since the Typhoon the food options had been limited and we had all run out of reading material and patience a long time ago. My little short wave radio was literally our only connection to the outside world and it went daily from hand to hand for a few hours of listening time.

One special memory of these slow days is of going swimming late at night. The weather had become humid and heavy in the days after the storm and it became increasingly harder to fall asleep at night. The concrete building had no air conditioning and the windows were tiny – the airy bamboo huts were missed dearly. So some of us had started to go swimming late at night in the dark.

The ocean was calm, the water as warm as in a bathtub. The air was incredibly clear and I have fond memories of floating in the warm, dark ocean on my back, looking up at the Milky Way arcing across the night sky. Looking down, every movement caused microorganisms in the water to fluoresce, creating long swaths of glowing water behind us, mirroring the Milky Way above.

It would take four more days before we finally got word from the hotel staff that the next day there would indeed be a boat from Hong Kong, to return on the same day. We all started packing in a rather festive mood.

The next day in the morning we commandeered a fleet of the three-wheeled taxis to take us with our luggage down to the harbor in Sanya. The customs procedure to leave the country was very brief and mostly punctuated by the extreme surprise of the local officials who clearly had not been expecting to process any exiting foreigners that morning.

We all had a similar mental image of the small rickety boats that had taken us to Haikou, which might explain our astonishment at the size of the ship that had come to bring us to Hong Kong. Apparently the Hong Kong – Sanya tourism trade was expected to undergo a rapid expansion in the near future, as this relatively sleek ship had a capacity of over four hundred passengers. There were ten of us on the gangway that day.

We would arrive in Hong Kong a full fourteen days after the Tian An Men massacre, to the general astonishment of the other backpackers in the hostel in Kowloon where we all ended up staying.

We had been caught between two storms, and survived both unscathed. We were the lucky ones.


Memories: Long Distance Buses

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

Long-distance buses were probably my least favorite mode of transportation in China. It is safe to assume that if you saw me on a bus in the middle of nowhere, I was officially desperate to get from point A to point B.

China is large – improbably large – and even with a relatively dense network of trains there are many places that are only reachable by long-distance bus. The services tend to be in private hands and vary from sleek hourly coaches with all amenities to little irregular operated minivans that are at least 100.000 kilometers beyond the last recommended maintenance cycle.

A small bus service was often the very first private business for enterprising families and I frequently encountered buses where the family literally lived on the bus. Dad drove the bus, mom sold the tickets and stowed luggage on the roof, grandma managed the money and the kids did their homework on rickety little seats next to the driver’s seat.

Some of the buses operate through the night on long hauls across provinces and these typically have beds instead of seats. Sleeping on the narrow cots while the bus bounces across unlit, winding country roads with heavy truck traffic was an impossibility and led me several times to question my vacation choices.

On the positive side, bus travel allowed me to see parts of the country that would have been impossible to visit otherwise, and the remote scenery along the way was often breathtaking and unanticipated.

Many of the memories of my bus trips are a haze of sleep deprived disorientation. Fragments that stand out…

…waking up on a sleeper bus somewhere in southern Guangxi  province. 2am, 3am, nobody knows. What woke me from my slumber was the sudden lurch of the bus towards my side. We were leaning heavily with my view out the window just water. A river. Very close. The driver was taking us down along the shore of a river to avoid a construction site and the bus was in serious danger of tipping over into the muddy stream. It took several tense minutes to get the bus back out of the soft dirt and onto what counted as a road in this area…

…running down a hot, humid country road on central Hainan island, late at night in near total darkness with only the moon as illumination as there were no lights. Many drivers on China’s roads try to conserve energy – or light bulbs, who knows – by turning the lights off whenever possible. I was sitting up front and couldn’t sleep, which means I got the full effect of what happened next. We overtook a slow tractor coming over a hill and a small movement on the road ahead prompted the driver to turn on the lights, only to be greeted by the exact same mirrored scenario ahead of us – a bus overtaking a truck coming straight at us with their lights suddenly on. The few of us awake to witness this had barely time to let out a gasp as the two busses swerved back into their respective lanes, with only a few centimeters to spare…

…somewhere near Nanjing, on a local country bus route with many, many stops. The bus was slowly filling up with farmers and their – living – wares for the local market. There were several crates with pigs on the roof, leading to a rain of panic-induced manure down the windows. More crates with chickens and ducks filled the corridor of the bus to the point where passengers had to climb over the seat backs to leave the bus, and my seat neighbor had a huge tank with fish on his lap that nearly didn’t even fit. With every major pothole along the way some of the water splashed over the side of the fish tank and onto my backpack and pant legs. The trip took about six hours, but it felt like the longest bus ride of my life…

…in a bus driving across rural Henan, not far from the Yellow River. There had been major floods in the area and reports of receding waters had been premature. All around the bus as far as the eye could see there was only muddy water with the odd tree or farm house sticking out. Heavy dark clouds were hiding the sun, promising more rain, grey sky over grey water. The road was a slightly elevated dam that at best was barely above the water and often was actually completely flooded. The driver took it slow as the tires only kept tenuous contact with the flooded tarmac. It was easy to imagine that I was on a boat as we floated across the flooded, desolate landscape like in a feverish dream. We passed a sunken truck that had gone off the road over night, the two drivers sitting on their cabin roof. A village on a slight hump appeared as a small island, with locals standing in front of their houses, listlessly gazing at the watery landscape…