We had about two weeks after I got back from my late December getaway to Yunnan province for finals, after which we had about 6 weeks of freedom from the -20 C prison known as Beijing. Despite any rumors to the contrary, I didnít go to Thailand or Vietnam. At first a couple of friends and I wanted to head down to the beaches of southern Thailand; that got nixed because we didnít have enough money to fly out to Bangkok and crossing by land would have involved too much time and bothering going through Vietnam or Laos. So then we decided we should try to go to some of the beaches of southern Vietnam. (Minor deviation: When we applied for a re-entry visa to get back into China, I was with a couple of UK buddies. Itís a well-known fact that the prices of visas and such are a fairly good indicator of diplomatic relations between the country you're from and the country you want to get into. Well, these Brits were harassing me about how I'll have to pay out of my ass since we bombed their embassy last summer; as it turned out I paid Y100 less than they did. Probably has to do with the whole Opium War, holding Hong Kong thing.) We took a train down to Nanning and just assumed we could get a visa there. The train ride was pretty miserable since we had the top sleepers, which are right next to these speakers. At precisely 7 AM, they cranked the latest propaganda about agricultural outputs out of these speakers. At about 8 AM, the speakers started playing some sort of infomercial for cologne. I was half-awake, but I distinctly remember this guy going on and on about how the French use cologne and how using it shows off how developed the economy is. After the hour long spiel was over, attendants began walking up and down the aisles selling bottles of the cheapest, shittiest smelling cologne ever made. Of course, everyone else was impressed by the novelty of it all and bought some and tried applying it. Needless to say, the train stunk of that crap for the next day.
When we arrived in Nanning, we looked into getting the Vietnam visa down there; they told us a minimum of two weeks and $US 85. Reluctantly, we gave up our dreams of a tropical beach for the break. We even spent a fruitless day going down to the border and trying to bribe our way across, which I doubt would have ever succeeded considering how weíve heard stories about how people who have their paperwork all straightened out still have to bribe about $US 20 to get across. We were all surprised by how pleasant Nanning was, though. I think those southern Cantonese types know so much more about how to live than those Beijingers. At night people set up all of these tables along the street where you can walk up, point to some random meats (the Cantonese eat anything that moves, especially animals western civilization would consider pets like cats, dogs, and rabbits) and veggies. The chefs fry it right there in front of you and it was fucking excellent food. It was so relaxing to be able to just leisurely sit outside in a T-shirt with a big bottle of Chinese beer and fried noodles in the middle of January.
Perhaps the only advantage to Beijing is that the average laowai can walk down the street unbothered while even in a city of 2 million like Nanning, I attract the 'Hello!' and the crowds of bored Chinese men with whom time weighs a bit heavily. For instance, we were walking through a park one night when we saw this whole line of old men sitting around with Chinese chess boards, challenging all comers. I squared up the opposition and challenged the most befuddled looking one of them all to a game of Chinese chess. There was a crowd literally five people deep surrounding me, intently watching my every move. I think he lost face a couple of times when I unexpectedly took his cannons. But in the end, much like how Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, my inexperience (having played Chinese chess twice before) and the psychological stress factor of 50 people laughing at you when your rook is taken, contributed to my loss.
From Nanning, we decided to go to Beihai, China's attempt at a beach. This town has the most uncooperative taxi drivers I've ever met. After we got off the train, we tried to get a taxi to this one particular hotel vaguely close to the beach. Our driver insisted that it was closed and refused to go anywhere but this one luxury hotel that he knew (and which he just happened to get a commission from). After going up and down the main strip for a while, he finally dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, so we took another cab back into town to try to find a hotel there. He (surprise, surprise) wanted to take us to this other luxury hotel which he claimed was the only one in town that was open. We got off in the middle of town, and tried walking into random guesthouses along the way. We were denied from three of them because we were foreigners. Finally found one that would take us, spent about a half-hour slowly but forcefully bargaining the price down until the boss shows up and refuses to give us a discount. Anton went hysterical and screamed, "OK, China! You win! I give up! Take all of my money!" We took the room for the price they told us.
After such a large hassle, we had no alternative but to have an absolutely orgiastic baijiu session that night. At about 11:30, when our blood alcohol levels had reached sufficient heights, we headed for the karaoke bar and lost our karaoke virginities. Now, karaoke gets a bad rap for being a form of entertainment for obnoxious drunks. Let me tell you that that accusation is very true. We went to this fancy place where we got a private room with carpets and a big TV at our disposal and for the next two hours proceeded to tear apart our vocal chords. The perfect antidote to a day with dealing with trying to be ripped off is drunkenly wailing out Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting" while alternately bashing each other with the sofa pillows and pissing in the corner.
The next day we headed to the beach, where it was warm enough to idle around in shorts and toss a frisbee around. The Chinese tourists, according to ancient Chinese custom, were walking around the beach in full business suits, wondering how sand and water could possibly be fun. It looked like most of them there were just there to show off that they have enough disposable income to go on vacation.
After that, we spent a wretched day getting off and on minibuses in order to get to Wuzhou. We were stuck for hours in one random industrial town where I got into this one conversation with this PSB officer who had recently seen a two hour movie on American history and thus seemed to know more about the subject that three quarters of all American high school students. Ended up having to take a sleeper bus that night.
Arriving in Wuzhou at 6:30 AM with about a half-hour of sleep, we had to go to four more hotels before finding a place that would take foreigners. Napped until the afternoon, when we went to the supposed largest snake repository in China. It was this drafty room attached to a hotel lobby with a bunch of depressed looking cobras. Our guide would take a cobra out and bang it with a metal rod until it flared up. We then watched a 30-minute "nature" video on snakes; being China, of course 10 minutes were devoted to how snakes live in the wild and the other 20 minutes were devoted to how snakes are processed into those fine-looking handbags. There was an adjacent gift shop with all of the snake by-products you could possibly imagine, like wallets, boots, wine made from their venom, etc. The next night we went to the most bizarre theme restaurant I have ever seen in my life. It was done to be this sort of 50's motorcycle, soda shop type place. It was full of indifferent waitresses in tight jeans and frat boy posters on the wall. The menu was a hybrid of such Cantonese favorites as snail hot plate and stuffed pigeon along with poorly executed attempts at Western dishes. For instance, one dish was this lemon beefsteak, where the chef essentially took a piece of beef, pan-fried it, and poured lemon meringue sauce (of lemon meringue pies) all over it. By chance, the owner of the place was there and we had a little chat with him. His American accent was so strong that we nearly took him for a huayi (Chinese-American), but we could tell he was a native because he was a Titanic of a fashion disaster. After a few minutes, it was clear that this guy's entrepreneurial skill outweighed his culinary skill, as evidenced by the fact that every upwardly mobile 20-something in Wuzhou was there.
Besides that, the lone internet cafe in town had a sign in Chinese listing the price at Y4 per hour and directly underneath it (on the same freaking' sign!) it said in English that their price was Y15 per hour for 'foreign friends.' I ended up arguing with the woman for about 20 minutes, telling her that I was certainly no foreign friend of hers, but in the end I needed to check my email so I gave in.