Welcome to China…Now Learn Mandrin! (Chinese Border)

I woke up as my bus reached the outskirts of Nanning in southern China.  My first impressions of China: characterless apartment buildings, shiny offices and bright blue road signs.  Construction was everywhere – cranes were erecting new buildings despite the economic crisis.  Everything was new.  The bus pulled off the newly paved highway onto a newly constructed road and followed the newly painted signs to the new bus station which lay beneath a new shopping mall.

We pulled into the subterranean station and found a parking space amongst the other hundred or so buses.  The bus stewardess blasted me with a mouthful of directions in Mandarin, and I followed the other passengers off the bus.  The Chinese passengers unloaded their bags, found their waiting relatives, loaded their bags into cars and quickly departed.  Only five other foreigners remained next to the bus, confused, disoriented and abandoned in the middle of a parking lot in Nanning. The bus driver yelled at us in Mandarin, then hopped on the bus and drove away.  Welcome to China.

I speak for the other five tourists when I say that none of us have ever felt so completely lost in our lives.  There weren’t even any touts or tuk-tuk drivers yelling at us in pidgin English and trying to pull us into their cousin’s crappy guesthouse.  Nothing.  Just Mandarin, masses and madness.  China just moved right along, taking no notice of the clueless foreigners lost in her midst.

China caught all of us off guard.  It began at the border when we had to fill out arrival cards in Mandarin.  No English, just Mandarin – a shocking taste of the future.  I struggled through the form as the Chinese border officials looked over my passport suspiciously.  They didn’t recognize me with my beard (my picture is from when I was 15).  My bus waited for me, idling outside of customs while they passed my passport around to their superiors (three in total).

And now this.  Completely abandoned, totally lost, entirely unprepared for what lay before me – the most ancient continuous civilization in the world, the most populous nation on earth, with the most spoken language on the planet.  Undoubtedly one of the most important civilizations known to man.  And yet somehow, in my half-year of globetrotting, I had somehow neglected this one.  I hadn’t even bought a guidebook until yesterday.

The guidebook was worthless.  The five of us experimented with the Mandarin Phrasebook in the back of our Lonely Planets – total failure.  No comprehension, only confused faces.  We floated around the bus terminal and tried to get our bearings.  It was like landing on an alien planet.

We were drifting; we needed decisive action.  First step: ATM machine for Chinese Yuan.  Secondly, we figure out where to go.  Only then can we attempt communication with the Chinese people.  Ready team?  GO!

I pulled out my ATM card and tried to signal to people that I needed an ATM machine.  I felt like a moron.  All those years I had spent passing notes to girls in Latin class and learning slang words in Spanish…why wasn’t I studying Mandarin instead???

Finally we got some cash and made our way to the ticket office.  I spied a white man speaking to someone in Mandarin and I jumped at the opportunity – a translator!  He helped book me a ticket to Hong Kong, then handed me a bill.

30 dollars.  Ahh, I’m not in SE Asia anymore; no more ten hour bus rides for $3.  No, China seems completely developed.  Everything is new, everything is huge, and – despite their currency devaluation – everything is comparatively expensive to the rest of Asia.

I parted ways with the other tourists, leaving them confused in the middle of the busy bus station.  I felt bad for the poor souls, but its sink or swim in this ocean of Mandarin.  I hope they made it to Beijing.

The bus was unlike any other I had ever seen.  I got yelled at immediately upon entering the bus – the stewardess blasted me with a mouthful of Mandarin and pointed at my feet. She made me remove my shoes, put them in a plastic bag, and carry them with me to my seat.

My “seat” was actually a bunk bed.  The entire bus was jammed full of two-level bunk beds, three abreast and all facing forward.  They looked comfortable enough, but unfortunately they are designed for the miniature Chinese body.  At five-foot-eight I am no Yao Ming, but ever since that first day in China I have been cramming my body into these tiny beds and trying to go to sleep despite the tears of pain.  It is like trying to sleep in one of those wooden Dutch shoes.  Just yesterday, I met a girl who had been in an accident while riding in one of these contraptions, and the force of the collision had pushed her feet through the shoddily made bed (made in China) and almost tore her foot off.  Her trip was cancelled just two weeks before she was going to ride the Trans-Siberian back to England.  I really hope that doesn’t happen to me.

As the bus lurched from the station and drifted onto the highway, I sat in my little baby crib and cursed myself for coming to China so unprepared.  I knew I had to go to Hong Kong first to secure a visa into Russia…but what would I do after that?  Where would I go?  I had no plans, and I didn’t even know where the attractions were in China.

I knew too little about China, like too many other Americans.  What I did know was that this ignorance would hurt me unless I caught up to speed immediately. I pulled out my Lonely Planet and started reading the Chinese history section – the history section alone was thicker than my entire guide to Laos.  There was a lot for me to learn, but it’s better late than never.

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