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Full Circle

Day 69: Chongqing to Guiyang

Michael Palin - Full CircleA Jack and the Beanstalk of a tower block is going up beside the hotel. There are lights on, cranes swinging and tiny figures working on its concrete summit throughout the night. I can't bear ear-plugs and don't take sleeping pills so I have to learn to live with the noise. The one sound that always lulls me to sleep is the sound of the sea and I'm beginning to miss the Pacific. I reckon it's now about 1,500 miles away. I have seen more of China than ever before but now I want to move on to where I can hear the waves breaking.

This is easier said than done. Our way out of China is by train into Vietnam, but we have heard conflicting reports as to whether or not a railway link between the two countries actually exists. To reach the frontier means finding our way through the two rarely visited provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi. When, and if, we reach the frontier, my guidebook warns of a ten-minute walk into Vietnam and 'some of the most unwelcoming border guards you are likely to have encountered'.

These glum dark-hour thoughts are banished by the arrival of dawn and the repetitive practicalities of packing, loading and moving on. Our driver this morning wears white gloves and is used to driving Vice-Premiers and other luminaries. Instead of a siren he has a loudspeaker on the front of the vehicle through which he can hurl abuse at anyone who gets in his way. It's thoroughly effective and we arrive half an hour early at Chongqing station (which boasts the largest Marlboro ad outside of Times Square) for the train to Guiyang. At the next door platform an overnight train from Kunming disgorges one and a half thousand bleary travellers. Staggering beneath huge burdens of crates, sacks, planks and coils of rope they look like sappers of an invading army.

An hour out of Chongqing we have our last view of the Yangtze, trailed by heavy industry along both its banks. I have to say it looks pretty despondent at this point. Broad, limpid and lazy, a dull inscrutable silver-grey glimpsed behind steel and concrete installations from which God knows what noxiousness flows.

We, on the other hand, climb slowly up into a rich, vertiginous, sub-tropical landscape of rice terraces secured with elegant mud-red walls, interspersed with bamboo groves and banana plantations. Every now and then, of course, a bauxite mine or an aluminium smelter rears up, a sharp reminder that after Mao Tse-Tung's disastrous agrarian revolution, Deng Xiaoping gave industry priority over every living thing.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 69
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Chongqing
  • Book page no: 99

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