How many borders have I crossed on this trip? Growing up in an island country (Japan) and living in another (Australia), crossing borders on land is still an exhotic, exciting event for me. I love traveling by train. It is slow and it is open. People are stuck with each other for hours so we tend to talk more, and to me, that is one of the best ways to learn about the places I am traveling in.

When I bought the train ticket at the hotel reception, the deal was they are going to include the transport to the station. Little did I think that the ‘transportation’ was hanging onto the back of a motorcycle with a big backpack behind me. But after a few minutes I got used to the motor cycle. I have a habit of taking whatever with engine and trying to go through the corners as fast as possible, so I have never operated a motor cycle in my life, for fear of killing myself. The last time I was in the back of a motor cycle was either when I hired a bike-taxi in Cambodia or here in Hanoi in my last visit. The bike dropped me off at the Ga Gia Lam (Gia Lam station). I walked in to the main waiting room. The female station officer who was sitting behind a table on the side of the entrance looked at me with my two bags, and said something in Vietnamese. In the end, I found out she was saying I was in a wrong place. She looked almost upset and I felt like being kicked out. The small station had 2 separate waiting rooms. I stepped outside and walked into the smaller room next door, and found a group of migrant workers and people who seem to be holding bags of gifts for family in China. They were speaking in Mandarin, that much I understood. Yes, I was in the right place, one gentleman who spoke very good English told me. He was not traveling by train; he was just seeing off his business associates. Well, this is going to be interesting – train into China! There is obviously a passport check before boarding the train.

Ga Gia Lam train station, Hanoi, Vietnam

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

The first thing that happened after getting on the train was swapping the ticket to a plastic docket. I vaguely remember reading about this, so I was not so surprised. Basically, the conductor gives you a docket with the seat/bed number on it, so they can ensure they hold on to your ticket and not bother you with repeated checks, but also avoid losses, I suppose.
alternative ticket, train from Hanoi, Vietnam to Nanning, Chia

alternative ticket, train from Hanoi, Vietnam to Nanning, Chia

My bed was on lower berth of the 11th row.

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

There were 3 of us in the 4-bed compartment. The gentleman standing in the aisle was on the lower berth opposite me, and the young man sticking his head out of our door was above him. The glassed gentleman in blue shirt and red tie in the background is the conductor in charge of our carriage, who is taking down ID details onto his log.

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

The border crossing happened in the middle of the night around 2pm. First, a stop at the Vietnamese border station. We picked up all our bags and belongings, to put them through security X-ray scan, while waiting for the passport control by the officers. It was a rather lengthy wait, considering there were only 30 or so people needing to clear the immigration (it must have been a low season).

Leaving Vietnam Vietnam-China border crossing

Leaving Vietnam Vietnam-China border crossing

Once the Vietnamese immigration finished looking through the passports, they’d call each owner by name one by one. Some people are called into the small room in the back. They must have had some visa issue. I was nervous about visa on arrival for China, when travelling on land, but my Japanese passport came back to me, without any issue. I just left Vietnam.

We were back on the train, Chinese immigration officer came on board to collect passports. It felt like the train was stationary for forever. It was probably almost 2 hours later, around 4 or 4:30am, when we got off at another station – Chinese border. This one was a much larger, modern and very bright (blindingly so) station.

Entering China - Vietnam-China border crossing

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

Back in our compartment, the young man (in blue) is complaining about something, clearly upset. As it turned out, he had a single entry visa to Vietnam, but he visited more than once and even over-stayed the valid period of the visa. Vietnamese government charged him with a penalty of US$10 for 10-day over stay. I don’t know how much the rate is for a migrant worker, but I imagine $10 is not a small sum he can just laugh about. In the end, though, our roommate and a few others who came by to throw in their opinions about the matter, all seem to say it was his fault to push the limit of the visa.
hot water server train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

The morning comes, and I realise the best way to save money on food on board is to bring in instant noodle. There is a hot water server! I should also bring in a thermo bottle and tea bag, saving on buying all these bottles of water – I was the only one carrying big bottle of water; everyone was making tea.

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

The concept of non-smoking is not an easy one to enforce. I was struggling for a fresh air, but I also did not want to make big fuss about it. So he smoked while looking outside of the window, I’m lying against my wall on the other side.

The area along the way was actually quite beautiful. It was a cold morning and looked pretty foggy, but that added to the charm. The fog faded a bit as the sun got higher.

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

train from Hanoi Vietnam to Nanning China

On the train, I was still not decided on where to go and what to do. I just knew I had 2 weeks to my return flight out of Shanghai, and I would be spending the last week working in our office there. That worked out to about a week, aiming at arriving in Shanghai on the weekend. Flipping through Lonely Planet for ideas – should I go south coast and pass through Macau, Hong Kong and other places and head up the eastern seaboard to get to Shanghai? Or should I cut a direct line from Nanning to Shanghai, stopping at Guilin, a place of traditional paintings. But Guilin, according to Lonely Planet, was a very touristy, expensive place these days. Macau was a modern casino town now, with so many tourists making it impossible to feel in touch with the traditional, authentic life there. I looked inland and there was the SanXia, Three Gorges cruise. It was transformed into something very different from what used to be one of the most popular destinations after the massive hydro-power dam was built. But the river cruise was still happening and maybe it was worth a visit and see the dam with my own eyes. The river cruise starts from the city of ChongQin, and there seems to be a direct train line from Nanning. Sounds like a plan…

10am, the 2nd of December: the train arrived at Nanning. It was my younger brother’s birthday. But I still had a long way to go. I went from arrival hall to departures, found the ATM for some Chinese cash, and then headed for a ticket office and joined the queue for ‘today departures’.

Nanning train station, China

Nanning, China

Nanning train station, China

I got my next ticket. I sat down in one of the cheapest dining hall and got a couple of items with rice. When I asked people around what time it was, the departure was actually not long to go. I washed down the food, grabbed the bags and headed for security scan at the departure hall.

Visa

Most recent stamp page on my passport – stamps from the left: Osaka entry (from a trip earlier in 2013), Laos entry/exit, Thailand entry/exit, and Vietnam entry/exist on the right page.

Visa

Flipping back and I found China immigration did stamp my entry (2 December). The 2 characters under the date is the name of border town I was processed at, with the character for “Enter” in bracket. In China, it helps when you can read/write some characters – see my notebook above… More on that later.

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