Capitive in Kunming


Kunming, Yunnan, China

Oh! The banality of travel mishaps.


The Nujiang had been a challenge. After returning to Dali, I spent 14 blissful hours in an affordable, comfortable hostel, before continuing what I knew would be an arduous 3 day commute to Xian.

My plan was simple, and I was becoming increasingly confident navigating China’s public transit system. From Dali, I’d catch a bus to Kunming, before seamlessly changing to a sleeper train that would spend 35 hours traveling to Xi’an in China’s northeast.

Me utterly unimpressed with Kunming.

Me utterly unimpressed with Kunming.

The bus from Dali left as planned, and spent 8 hours on a barren, boring highway with unappealing views before entering the outskirts of Kunming.

A few people had recommended Kunming as somewhere to go -- I have no idea why. Disembarking the bus, I was greeted with a smoggy, dusty city that had less charm than any other I’d seen all year. There are mountains nearby, but the views are obscured by thick pollution haze. I was grateful my scheduled visit to the town was no more than a few hours.

I darted straight for the train station. I’d learned from the past to book my train ticket ahead of schedule: China’s trains are usually sold out, leaving little room for spontaneity. For the first time, I felt truly organised and ahead of the game in China.

Kunming’s train station was chaotic. Here was my first taste of one of China’s big cities. Dozens of ticket offices had queues stretching 30 to 40 meters. Of course, there was no English language help, signs or guidance -- not that I expected as much -- but it made even converting my digital ticket into something tangible a headache.

There’s a bit of a misnomer about China. Everyone tells you it is an example in ruthless efficiency. My Kunming station seemed an acute example of chaos and disorder. Those brave ticket attendants manning the booths put on a stoic face, barricaded as they are from a horde sweaty, grumpy travelers, who pushed and pulled their way towards the front.

I walked to a side queue that was empty, and, I think, dedicated for special purposes. But the gracious attendant welcomed me. What followed would be a distinct example of the bureaucratic inflexibility of Chinese organisations.

I’d booked my ticket through CTrip, and inputted my details as requested. On double checking at the ticket booth, a single digit of my passport was entered incorrectly. The dozens of other personal details I had to input were, of course, all in order. But a solitary digit astray caused enormous issues.

“You’ll need to cancel your ticket”, the attendant told me. “Then, you can buy it immediately back, from me”.

It seemed silly. But I had no capacity to reason or argue.

I cancelled the ticket on my phone , and showed the waiting attendant.

“Can I buy it back now?”, I asked.

The attendant gazed into her computer, mashed the keypad for 20 seconds, and then looked back with the same emotionless expression that she’d had all along.

“The train is sold out”, she said.

I didn’t understand: I’d just followed her explicit instructions. In the 6 seconds between me cancelling the ticket and repurchasing it, the train had sold out. The next option was for tomorrow morning.

Defeated, I purchased that one. But then noticed it went to the wrong city! She had sold me a ticket that, if used, would have taken me 1200 kilometers northeast of Beijing. She’d almost sent me express to the North Korean frontier. More negotiation, more waiting.  It was rectified, eventually, and I was on the 35 hour train to Xian scheduled for the next day.

Oh! The banality of travel mishaps. Such triviality can occupy so much time and energy. My initial elation knowing I could leave this unwelcoming mess of a town was so rapidly replaced by the dour realisation I’d spend at least 16 hours there.

I walked away from the station, defeated, in search of a room. A pain, of course. But I soon found a shoebox on the twentieth floor of a fire-trap apartment complex. What a misery of an evening that followed: I strolled the streets and ate a meal that consisted mostly of offal and grease offset by the familiarity of soggy rice. Inedible. Truly abhorrent.

I ended my night in a room the size of a single bed, drinking an unrefrigerated can of beer and eating a cup of noodles. I felt sentenced to 24 hours in the slammer, being in Kunming. After the virtues of Western Yunnan, it was a dramatic upheaval. I laboured through a restless sleep, yearning for daybreak, and early the next morning headed back to the station. My ticket, this time, was valid. I left, onwards towards China’s swollen northeast.

Edward Cavanoughchina