Sitting on a curb waiting for a bus to Kunming, immersed in my thoughts on how to continue the journey, I stop to look at the building that houses the customs office. In front of it, the red flag with five stars is flying, almost proud, against the backdrop of a blue sky. Even in a remote outpost of the Empire, in a border post forgotten by all but the trucks carrying goods of various kinds and some tourists – mostly Chinese – visiting Laos, China seems to want to show right from the start its best image, and it succeeds no doubt. Beyond the efficiency shown by the customs officers and the cleanliness that prevails inside the premises, the structure in itself looks majestic and modern, a worthy entrance to a country aware of its power and that still has great potential to be expressed.
I look at the passing of vehicles waiting to be inspected, and the impression is that everything takes place in a certain order, with a certain regularity and with relative speed. All under the watchful yet not too severe eyes of a soldier in green uniform – lighter shirt adorned with showy red epaulettes, darker pants – who verifies each vehicle’s documents and license plate number, performs a quick check and then gives the go-ahead. On the opposite lane, the one for traffic exiting the country, a woman driving a red truck, her hair tight in a ponytail, waits patiently for her turn, while a tour bus unloads two dozen people who rush to reach the passport control.
Crossing the street, a woman in a black jacket wearing a shoulder bag comes up to me and tells me that she wants to exchange my currency. I am a bit hesitant, I do not know if I can trust her; as I ponder, other people approach, their haversacks full of cash. I had already noticed them on the other side of the street approaching people, and I had also seen that most people trusted them and without fear gave out their money to be exchanged, only bargaining a bit the exchange rate. I relax and do the same: I bargain, I manage to improve the rate and at the end I exchange Thai Baht at a rate of five point three. It will prove to be the best exchange rate of my entire stay.
Tireless, the ‘improvised bankers’ approach other people and carry on with their job: they buy Yuan from those who come out for Dollars, Euro, Baht or Laotian Keep, and resell them to those who enter in exchange for the same currency. It is the first practical application I experience of Deng Xiaoping dogma, “getting rich is glorious”, and I’m pretty sure that at the end of each day, working at these rhythms between arrivals and departures, the friendly bankers return to their homes full of ‘glory’.
Of course, work is not always without its drawbacks: suddenly, with an all-Chinese calm, the ‘currency exchangers’ leave with indifference: some walk away, others depart on silent scooters. I raise my eyes and understand the reason for the exodus: a patrol consisting of three soldiers in a single line with a higher rank officer besides them is approaching, goose-stepping in war-like style. They pass by my side, intentionally avoid eye-contact with me, and reach the group of runners who had stopped a few dozens of meters away. The higher rank officer seems to be muttering something to them, perhaps he is expressing a doubtful zeal. Eventually he performs an about-turn and decides to return to base after having closed one eye, probably both of them, and having showed some tolerance and understanding. Needless to say, as soon as the patrol disappears from view the ‘currency exchangers’, attracted by an incoming bus, return to the front lines.
I deploy myself to the front lines too this time: on the bus windscreen, in Western characters, a ‘Vientiane – Kunming’ sign is affixed, and I see in those names a real chance to move away from the border. If the language problem with the currency converters was solved with great ease thanks to the help of a simple calculator, communication with the bus staff highlights my first encounter with serious difficulties in this trip: “Is there an empty seat ?”, “What time do we leave?” , “How much is it?” ,” What time do you get to Kunming?”. In front of me, neutral faces that reply with sounds that I just cannot understand; they may have understood all my questions and they may be replying in an appropriate manner, especially since I denote a certain willingness in them, but I simply do not understand them. If the situation does not get me depressed is only because it is not the first time I travel and I have always managed communication pretty well. Especially because in all the countries I have been to, most spoke a little English that was more or less understandable, but it was still English. Not here. No-one speaks it, and there is probably a logic behind it: a nation of nearly a billion and a half people, about 20% of the world population, may as well have the right to speak their language in their motherland.
My solution is unveiled with the help of two young Chinese students who study in Laos and can understand a bit of English and a bit of Thai, so I find out: that the bus will leave in a short time, that it will take about twelve hours to get to Kunming and above all, to my delight, that there are seats available. Actually, being a sleeping bus it is only fit with sleeping berths, so I will have a place to lay down. Fortune, which seems to have taken the right fold from the start, keeps helping me: at the back of the bus, on the upper floor, there are five great beds free and, apparently, at my disposal.
The bus leaves only to halt a few minutes later: we stop in the center of Mohan for a lunch break of about half an hour; I eat a quick meal and I take the opportunity for a hurried visit to the town, which appears to be clean and well kept. The houses, mostly with two or three floors, fully reflect the Chinese style to which I am accustomed: the business is based on the ground floor while the upper floors represent the living area. Shops, guesthouses, restaurants with food exposed to the outside, normal tables inside a room and a few tables down on the sidewalk where groups of three or four people share their meal accompanied by rice and by the inevitable tea. In a small lane off the main street, some people are playing on two pool tables on the edge of the road. Mohan is a quiet border town, unpretentious, with its activities, its laziness and its slow rhythms.
The half-hour is gone, but the bus shows no signs of leaving. Most of the passengers are comfortably lying inside the vehicle, the driver is sitting nonchalantly outside, chatting and smoking with some other travelers. One of them kindly offers me a cigarette, lights it for me and tells me something. I nod, smiling – what else could I say? – and I get ready to patiently kill time.
The two students who had rushed to my aid a few hours earlier explain that some passengers are missing and so we have to wait for them. We start a broken conversation with the little vocabulary we have in common; they tell me that they hail from a city in Yunnan where they could not continue their university studies, so they went to Vientiane where they began studying law. I am puzzled: they study Chinese law in Laos? No, they study Laotian law, they clarify; I believe they are just making a virtue of necessity when they say that they like Laos and that at the end of their studies they plan to keep living in Vientiane. I can easily believe it: what could two lawyers who studied the laws of Laos do in China?
They are very friendly and willing to confront with a European; one of them helps me to buy a Chinese SIM card; the process requires to register with a document, and he does not hesitate to show his identity card and guarantee for me. I begin to like Chinese people, and despite the initial difficulties with the language, albeit not insurmountable, I feel that it have started a journey that will not disappoint me.
After a false alarm and a delay of more than an hour, the missing people arrive and are welcomed by total indifference and by no sign of impatience by the rest of the passengers. The bus finally departs. I lay diagonally in my spacious room, taking on the position of an ancient Roman, half-lying on a triclinium. I get ready to enjoy the views, until sleep do us part.
As if frames of old movies, China rushes at my side through the windows: a variety of mountains and hills, banana, rubber and other plantations, towns and villages comprisedof country homes that alternate with large dormitory buildings accompany my passage. A road sign informs me that we are cruising along the borders of the largest tropical forest in China. This, and some of the buildings we pass that have unmistakable Thai style roofs, remind me that the Thai population is native to Yunnan, and make me go through some sort of trip down memory lane of the country that has been hosting me for twenty years.
The journey continues without surprises, only a few stops to eat or for a visit to the toilet until about halfway when, during one of my moments of ‘deep concentration’, the bus stops, the door opens and I am awakened by a sharp barking of orders in the usual unknown language. Two pretty policewomen wearing camouflage clothes have entered the bus and, apparently somehow roughly, are asking all passengers to show their documents. Berth after berth they are approaching me, the only European in the bus. I notice that, upon seeing me, their grim expression gives way to a more good-natured one. Politely, in a very rough English that draws a smile even to the scowl of her military colleague, one of the two asks for my passport. Helping each other, they formulate a couple of standard questions in English about my destination, and then, perhaps satisfied by their linguistic performance, they both let go to a friendly smile, say goodbye and leave the bus.
The trip gives away no further distractions, with the evening and then the night relentlessly falling onto the landscape. After another stop for a check to the bus cooling system, at around midnight we arrive at Kunming bus station, surprisingly ahead of the estimated arrival time. Amongst the various people around who offer me a place to sleep, I choose one randomly and after about ten minutes, I am transported through the half-deserted streets of the town suburbs on board an old minibus. Eventually, I find myself in a guesthouse with only a few rooms, clean enough, where waiting for me, along with a sleepy clerk, stands a poster of Chairman Mao.