From the hilltop I watched the sun say goodbye, its final breath doused the clouds pink and saturated the lake below.
These vivid colours made the nightmare return. My mind was transported back to that dark club, where hellish red lights writhed to thumping bass. Bipedal silhouettes were distorted in the smoke, demonic shapes that had once been human. I had to escape. Out of this room and Vietnam.
In a flash the memory was gone. My thoughts returned to the present where the karsts had turned to purple. I gazed at this watercolour landscape. By some miracle, I was in China.
Against all the odds I’d left Hanoi, abandoning its intoxicating nights, no more serotonin to offer. With a three month visa in my passport, I’d stumbled into China across the land border in north Vietnam. The immigration officials were surprised to see a foreigner, five of them had crowded the booth to inspect my documents. With some relief they stamped me through. I boarded an empty bus to Nanning, a minor city in southern China with a population that still exceeded New Zealand’s.
The bus drove along a highway that was virtually deserted, perfect for a fast-moving convoy of tanks. Thick forests stretched to the horizon, occasionally interrupted by villages of brick and corrugated iron. As first impressions go, this wasn’t the China I’d expected. Where were the hordes of people, the cities, the devastating pollution? After three hours Nanning finally appeared, signaled by a collection of skycrapers jutting from the earth.
I got off the bus and found the subway, annoyed to have to put my bags through an x-ray machine just so I could enter the station. This action would become second-nature on my 6,000 kilometre overland journey through China. The paranoia of a government trying to maintain control over 1.3 billion citizens.
Selita was waiting for me when I reached the central station. The first thing we did was get dinner at the night market. It wasn’t long before I understood just how much life in China revolves around food. Selita and I roamed the crammed streets, eating stinky tofu, fried oysters, and other more exotic animals.
The next day we departed Nanning and shot through the countryside on the bullet train to Puzhehei. This was how I ended atop the hill, watching that colourful sunset. The lakes spread out below, covered in lotus plants and teeming with fish.
After a debaucherous month in Hanoi, Puzhehei was a complete contrast. There was no free beer at 6 pm, Catalan girls, or Me and Michael. Instead I rested, strolling through the limestone valleys in a meditative state. The paths went past brick houses among lush rice-paddies, where men fished in the still waters.
I drank tea and sampled the delicious food of this part of China, Selita introducing me to the sour flavours of Yunnan cuisine. And for the first time in over a month, I slept for longer than four hours. It was a real milestone.
So it was slightly ironic that I’d never feel this relaxed in China again. The future held smoke-filled trains, dystopian cities, suicidal roads, deadly pollution, the grip of a loathsome bureaucracy, and Space. But in Puzhehei, I was blissfully unaware of this. The potential was limitless — which might also be the perfect way to describe China.