Day 1,230: On The Road Again

Mon 14.05.12:

Apart from that brief unpleasantness in Australia, travelling up and down to Townsville on one of those wretched overpriced Aussie coaches, this ‘phase’ of The Odyssey Expedition has seen little land travel. Much of the past eight months have been spent at sea and I had almost forgotten what it was like to have to hold in a poo for days until a decent karzee presented itself. I would quickly have to relearn that lesson if I was to press on with this insane little quest. Last night, again intending to go to sleep before the dawn chorus for once in my life, I found myself quite embroiled in the football. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not the biggest of sports fans, but I do like to take a passing interest – and big important matches are always of interest to me.

Yesterday was the end of the English Football Season, and with a ton of games being played all over the country (including Everton and Liverpool, though sadly not against each other) there was only one match that everybody in their right mind should have been watching: Man City vs QPR. The reason was clear. If Man City won this match, they would win the league for the first time in 44 years. If they lost or drew, then Man United, that team of manky automatons so adored by glory-hunting f—wits the world over, would win. Again. For the twentieth time. YAWN.

You see there is no joy in doing something for the twentieth time, unless maybe there’s been a big gap since you last did it. If Man United won the league again, everybody, including their biggest fans, would have just shrugged their shoulders and said ‘oh’. It’s boring watching Michael Schumacher win every Grand Prix (that’s why they now make him drive whilst wearing boxing gloves and one big shoe), it’s boring seeing Australia win the Ashes, it’s boring seeing Ian Thorpe win every single swimming event at the Olympics – as Mohammed Ali knew, you had to lose once in a while to keep things interesting. And explosion of delight when the underdog wins is something that Man United fans will never really understand.

I was living in Manchester in 1998 when Man City were relegated to what was then the second division – the third tier of professional football. They won the last match of the season in magnificent fashion – 5-2 away from home, but in order for Man City to stay up, one of the other three teams in the relegation zone had to lose their final match. The jubilation at the win was soon replaced by despair as the news of the other results filtered through. All the other teams in the relegation zone had won their matches. Man City would be going down. I’ve never seen so many grown men cry in pub before, with perhaps the exception of when Jemini scored nil points at Eurovision. Although that was a very different pub.

To go from that to being a gnat’s pube away from winning the Premiership in just over 10 years is epic, and by God I wanted them to win, just to wipe that smug look of those Man United fan’s faces. So by 89 minutes when City were 2-1 down, with a draw not good enough, my nails were bitten down just as much as if I’d been a City fan all my life (which of course I haven’t, being a scouser, that would just be weird).

And, like the end of a great film, it all turned around in the last few minutes, despair turned to hope and hope turned into jubilation. They won 3-2 and in doing so won the top league of English football for the first time since the 60s. Well done, Man City, you entertained the pants off me for 95 minutes, and for that I salute you.

And you know what was also great? The fact they were given so much injury time – a Man United trick if ever there was one. Well I get the gloves on the other foot now eh, United? One less minute and they wouldn’t have scored the third and final goal. DO YOU SEE THE IRONY, MAN U? DO YA?!!

All this deviation from the narrative – HOW ON EARTH DO YOU VISIT EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WITHOUT FLYING? – is probably irksome to most, not least if you’re not English, couldn’t give a toss about football or a girl. But one more thing, my team, Everton, won their last match. Liverpool lost theirs, so Everton finished higher than them in the table. Again. BRING IT!!

Er… so where was I?

Ah yes: travel.

It was therefore another late night/early morning combo for this hapless backpacker. The train for Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province and gateway to Laos, was due to depart at 7am. So all packed and fully recharged, I set off at 6am to begin the race down to Singapore. Boarding the marvellous Guangzhou underground with my magic plastic token, I headed over to Guangzhou East station (Kunming is in the west, but never mind) for the train.

But it was not to be! First up, there was no train running at 7am. THE INTERNET LIED! Second, the afternoon train, due to depart at 3pm, was full. My only option was the night train, which left at 7pm. I should have left yesterday. But there is always an alternative to the train and it’s called the bus. So I raced over to Guangzhou main station to find out who/why/what/when/where is going on with regards to buses to Kunming. There was a bus leaving at 11.30am which would (if I was understanding this correctly (which I wasn’t)) get into Kunming at 8am tomorrow. Fantastic! That would be way quicker than train, and, since it was a sleeping bus, infinitely more comfortable than a hard seat: I’d get a bed.

But it was only a bit past seven, so I set off to do some internettage before I left. I was holding out hope that Mr. Gaby Sharef of Gold Star Line Shipping would get back to me about a ship that may be leaving Kuala Lumpur for Sri Lanka this week. I walked and I walked and I walked. With all my bags. In the scorching hot morning sun of Southern China. Looking for a café with wifi, a Starbucks, a McDonalds, anything… but no. Everywhere I went I was confronted with splash screens in Chinese asking me for my local mobile number, something I didn’t have. This was turning into a nightmare.

In the end, I jumped back on the underground and headed back to Chris and Debbie’s flat, well, not to the flat proper as I had locked myself out when I left, but to the café around the corner that I knew had free internet (I had used it the day before). Only problem: the café didn’t open until 10am. So I sat and waited. As soon as they opened, I went inside and logged on. Gaby had indeed written back. There was a ship leaving Kuala Lumpur on FRIDAY EVENING! If I could make it, I could be on.

I did some mental calculations. I arrive Kunming tomorrow at 7am. Bus to border with Laos, 12 hours, bus from border to Vientiane, maybe 24 hours. I could be in Thailand on Wednesday evening. It’s 11 hours from the Laos border to Bangkok, 14 hours to the Malaysian border at Hat Yai, and then a further eight or so hours from there to Kuala Lumpur. All thing being equal, I could *maybe* make it for Friday morning. It would mean 4 straight nights sleeping on buses, but it could be – theoretically – done.

And so I charged back to Guangzhou main station determined to make the connection. This time next week, I could be in Sri Lanka. Ah, but only if it were so…

The bus was a typical Chinese sleeper, a marvellous way to travel in which everybody gets a flat bunkbed to themselves, the air-con is turbo-charged, but that’s okay, because they give you a nice heavy blanket. I spoke about the joys of Chinese long-distance coaches last time I was here in September 2010, and my point still stands: compared to the crappy, dirty, seat-only-reclines-10° coached of the UK, the US and Australia, this is head, shoulders and balls above rest. If there’s one thing that depresses me more than anything while travelling around the world on public transport, it’s how dreadfully wretched my country is when it comes to the form of transport that it pretty much invented.

So I jumped up onto my bunk and before I knew it we were off through the paddy fields and jasmine vales of Southern China. We raced through the night and I steeled myself for an early start tomorrow. As things transpired, I needn’t have bothered…

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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