Took the train out of Hong Kong, through the New Territories that just seem to go on

and on

and on

across the fairly fortified Chinese border

through the “special economic zone” of Shenzen

and Dongguan

past monotonous state-built housing

empty factories

unfinished buildings

rusty bicycles

and 1,000 stories of drying skivvies

and rooftops that double as garbage receptacles

past shantys in the shadows of tenements

through swamp and hill and fog.

the deeper you go the weirder it gets

and the disrepair more all encompassing.

muted pink and blue withering hues

farms and factories side by side

pollution a certainty

you see the abandoned factory squats

and smoke rising from random shit burning on the periphery between buildings and palms.

the sadness travels from your gut to your head.

and that’s before you begin to imagine what it must be like to live here.

Aside from the black couple (look really hard and you just might see them)

I was the only non-Chinese on the choo choo.

On the ride I sat next to a Chinese Hong Kong businessman.

He asked me where I was from. When I told him, he asked me why I was there,

“Tourism,” I told him. He sat on it, and then looked at me strangely, “why?”

So I offered one of my classic long-winded explanation of why I’d come, perspective, truth, inspiration, etc. and he eyed me with a look of confusion and pity, took a moment and broke it down to the basics.

“So you just want to see it for yourself.”

I said something like “yeah, basically, sure,” and he nodded back lips twisted with uncertainty.

Turns out he lived in Torrance for two years after the ’97 handover of Hong Kong from the Brits to the Chinese. Works in transportation, setting up what is basically a Chinese version of the Super Shuttle.

Our conversation wasn’t easy necessarily, but comfortable enough that I asked him about his feelings on the handover.

He thought for a moment and then said something like, “it was scary to see communist soldiers in green with guns streaming across the border,” in a very matter-of-fact way, and left it at that. And it felt very much to me like I should leave it at that. So I did.

And then his 60 year old business partner’s Rihanna “Umbrella” ringtone went off.

When I asked how Hong Kong and Shenzen’s governing structures differ, he explained that Shenzen is under China law. “They have the death penalty in Shenzen, but not in Hong Kong,” he told me, knowing brow raised, and the example he picked wasn’t curious at all.

And even less curious when a cute little drug beagle attacked my bag at the Guangzhou East Rail Station. I nearly shit my pants.

Back in the day when I was stupid enough to do something as crazy as bringing a little somethin’ somethin’ over an international border, they never bothered me. Now I do nothing and I’m going to get questioned because a smell-challenged beagle decided that my underwear smells like cocaine. Just my luck.

Ended up just being some melon caramels I picked up in hong kong.

So after I peeled the beagle off my bag, I went to the nearest information counter and asked for a taxi to Guangzhou Central Rail Terminal and they told me I could buy a train ticket to Nanning from them. I asked the price. They jacked it up. I told him it was high and they told me it was the right price. I asked them what their commission was and they told me nothing.

Time was a wastin’, so I politely thanked them and told them to keep their ticket, but I’d take a cab. And this is when they told me that if I didn’t buy the train ticket from them my taxi driver, the one standing two feet from me as they told me this, would be unable to get me to my train on time.

By the time I got in the taxi I could already feel my face changing, my smile sloping down to save me.

Here’s a picture of my shady taxi driver extortionist.

on the web, the bourgeoning industrial city of Guangzhou looks like this…

but the part of town that Guangzhou Central Railway Station calls home makes the Greyhound Station in Cleveland look “It’s a Small World.”

A big, mean, ugly, old school archetypal communist utilitarian monolith

10 Zillion people everywhere.

Everything written in Chinese

Ubiquitous voices booming instruction/explanation from giant invisible PA speakers, inside and out.

Little green men everywhere and an angry police officer dragging a metal barricade howling across the marble floor, shouting down random people on cue for whatever reason as they skitter out of his path.

This is not a sports book (unless you’re an American betting on when your trains going to leave).



Some of the vibes I was getting, including the cop that left his post to follow me for five blocks into various buildings and over a bridge, temporarily scared the camera back into my pants. I know they’re pretty hardcore about taking photos of government buildings and will snatch your shit for taking a picture of a bridge if they feel like it, or worse.

But I had a day to kill so I headed into the ugly to kill some time and found filthy people emerging from overpasses, a con man in the fake cast begging for change and this hot “communist” shopping hot spot “time square,” mall design inspired by a coke-dusted 70’s Persian disco nightmare, marble and gold and mirrors everywhere.

where new evil meets old, a sort of capitalist/communist gang bang of shoppers, soldiers, con men and aimless impoverished loiterers.

Here’s the food court where everything I ate, the wilted vegetables, the dry rice, the rotten chicken, had a faint flavor of pesticide. Yum.

After eating shit, I got lost in a mall that doubles as nuclear bomb shelters (apparently the government offered incentives to mall builders in the 80’s to make their buildings “mixed-use”).

I re-emerged into the afternoon smog to somehow ended up in this place.

like the standard Guangzhou or something. It was the only place I could find internet service.

So fucking bizarre. The AC’s got the room down to about 30 degress, they’re jamming Dolly Parton and Sting soft pop classics and 20 feet away, there are children selling their souls for food (more on that later.)

I roll out after taking a quick shower in the hotel sink and happen upon a quaint tree-lined street that could be in the West Village (if it had more rats).

And then in this gorgeous park

where everybody was smiling and getting their exercise. They were playing badminton

and ping-pong

working out on calistetic machines.

and pacing in circles like this fit old fellah

It was hard to tell if this was default contentment (Happy the way things are b/c there’s no other way to stay sane) or if it was the real deal. It looked real enough.

Whatever it was, I found myself immersed in it long enough that I started thinking, what I’m sure many people put-off by the U.S.’s greed-fueled, consumer-obsessed culture think regularly, but most definitely after spending time on the lighter side of communism.

That maybe it isn’t so bad.

That maybe we’re the ones that are fucked up, sacrificing our souls, our entire lives to chase some dwindling “American dream: big everything and too much of it, work, work, work, want, waste, death.

And of course, I started asking myself questions like, what’s so wrong with having only what you need? Do you really need a 15,000 square foot house, a 72 inch TV and a fucking $80,000 car? For what?

Because you’re that insecure or lost that you need to make you feel better with “stuff?” What’s wrong with doing a job and being a part of something bigger than yourself? What the fuck is wrong with sharing?

The answer of course is there’s nothing wrong with sharing and everything wrong with greed, but it’s also bat shit insane to starve 20 million people (as Mao did during “the great leap forward”) to even the playing field.

But soon after my frolic in the park the darker side of communism reared it’s ugly head again. In fact, about forty five seconds after I got the best stir fried rice I’ve ever had in my entire life from this guy…

I sat down on the curb to eat and somewhere down the block somebody starts blowing a traffic whistle and instantly all of the street vendors in sight tore off down the street, terrified, as if it were a nuclear air raid siren going off, into alleys (some taking their shit, some leaving chicken still sizzling in the wok). The street emptied instantly and the only people left were me, and curiously enough, another white dude.

I shrugged like “what just happened?” and he shrugged back like “who the fuck knows?”

He asked me where I as from. I told him. He was from Argentina, on business. He asked why I was there. I told him traveling and he spun the invisible wheel around his ear very deliberately with his index finger and said “you are fucking crazy, man,” and stalked back off into the night.

About a block after that, and about 30 seconds after I snapped a shot of this sign

a young girl, no more than 12, came up to me and asked if I’d like a “massagey.” It didn’t register at first, and then she asked again, more desperately this time, reaching for my hand and I was like “hold up. Am I about to be on “To Catch A Predator? WTF? Isn’t this shit only supposed to happen in Cambodia and Thailand?” and I’m like “No, Jesus Christ! No!” My heart sank. i wasn’t sure whether I should run or cry or scoop the kid up and save her. But from who?

Her mother, that’s who, mommy dearest who rolled up a millisecond later as I was holding my head and muttering “no, no, no,” and shoved a newborn baby in my face, pointed back to her daughter and begged me to take the little girl up on her offer.

Holy fucking shit! What the fuck?! Get me out of here right now before I throw up, break down in tears in the middle of the street or snatch the baby AND the kid and take them to the nearest something… police station, shelter? Where do you take a child prostitute at 8 o’ clock at night in industrial China when you want to liberate her from her intensely desperate and insane mother?

Who the fuck knows.

So I bolted, like any ignorant western pussy would do, made my way to the nearest mototricycle driver and got a ride back to the train station. I would not advise this mode of transportation for anyone who does not have a sever death wish.

Guangzhou, China // Motortricycle from Sleep Never on Vimeo.

At the end of the ride, the driver asked me for what sounded like 15000 or something so I handed it to him. he shrieked, shrank back like a dude in an old school kung fu movie and slapped the money out of my hand, offended that I would try to rip him off.

Apparently he was trying to say 50,000. My bad. So I handed him the proper dough and he screamed at me and tore off on his bike.

Now back at the luxurious Guangzhou Central Railway Station, I posed for a photo op forced upon me by some curious 13 year old Chinese girls and their brother who wanted to know if I knew Yao Ming.

Now remember how I paid the shady travel service a stupid price for a soft sleeper and a cab ride ride the Guangzhou East Rail Station? Well those motherfuckers ended up baiting and switching me and handing me a hard sleeper.

and I ended up with the top premium casket bunk in a cabin with five other passengers, complete with filthy sheets, filthy pillow, filthy blanket, and the entire cabin, just like much of china it seems, was covered in a layer of dirt.

Beat to shit, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, unable to sleep, and unable to take a crap without falling into the toilet,

I grabbed some nasty grub in the dining car then sat up and watched scooter gangs roam black and desolate streets of dilapidated ghost towns, anonymous shadows carrying out secret operations in crumbling factories and farmers working fields under xenon lights as they piped crazy music pop muzac and jubilant classical anthems through the train’s PA speakers.

Guangzhou // Train Soundtrack from Sleep Never on Vimeo.

Around 10 o’ clock, some ticket taker types appeared and started shutting all the curtains in the entire car (excluding mine) and began ordering everybody into their bunks (except me) and then they did a bed check, gently interrogating people in any cabin that had an empty bed. Trying my best to fit in, I made for my bunk, but was urged by the interrogators to relax and enjoy the ride.

It wasn’t easy, but at some point, I lay my trusty Mickey Mouse towel down, climbed into my rolling casket, complete with funeral home curtains, talked myself out of a panic attack as the BO rose from the bodies of the travelers sleeping below me, fell asleep and woke up a few hours later to this:

Holy scenic rural China! Rolling green hills dotted with bamboo and tin shantys and tents and cows and water buffalos and roosters and rice patties and people hunched over working in them who’ve somehow miraculous escaped having their bodies evolve into a horseshoe-shape over the millennia of days they’ve spent as picking that rice.

After a short ride through the beauty, I got off at Nanning Station, a much more pleasant and cleanly a train station than that nightmare in Guangzhou.

Basically Nanning looks like what I’m assuming Guangzhou looked like 50 years ago.

a sprawling pseudo city with a handful of buildings over 4 stories, zero identity, and dodgy infrastructure.

I specifically traveled this route so I could stop at Ya Mai Te, ancient city. But when the only person at the train station that spoke any English had no idea where it was, I assumed i was probably shit out of luck finding it.

But that’s never stopped me before.

The only thing I knew is what I read, that it was only 30km away and I had a full day to get there and back, so I wandered the streets until I found a woman who claimed she knew where the bus station was. She wrote the name of the ancient city down on my pad in Chinese characters and then pointed me in the wrong direction. Many people, in fact, were extremely helpful as I drew pictures of buses and terminals, engaging in what I’m sure was a wildly entertaining, one-sided games of charades, and gladly pointed me back and forth in the wrong direction.

I ping-ponged like this up and down the same streets, never seeing a bus once. I gave it one last shot at an off-site train ticket office. And they pointed me back in the exact same direction, I’d just come from.

So I plopped down on my ass and called it.

Fuck the Han. Fuck the Ming. Fuck the Quing. Fuck the Chinese, fuck me and fuck public transportation.

Seeing this made me feel a little better though.

And that’s when some old lady rolled up with a bike and simply said “” and took me gently by the hand and led me back the way I’d just come down the street, down a narrow dirty alley between two crumbling buildings with no windows, to the “bus station”: 3 empty airport buses and a small office…

That was padlocked fucking shut.

And now the gentle old lady’s gone. There’s no driver. No clerk. It’s 100 fucking degrees, 150% humidity, and I’ve just lugged my shit 2 miles in Dante’s undiscovered 10th circle of hell.

And then some librarian-looking lady popped out of the station bathroom. “You need?”


Some dude appeared from behind the bus and motioned for me to follow him…
led me into the unmarked men’s bathroom, and turned to me with a big smile.

What do they think I want? A piss, a shit? A handjob? You can never be sure in these parts. And I was just offered a “massagey” by an 11 year old less than 24 hours ago. So I bolted, found the librarian and showed her the name of the ancient town.

She motioned me towards an idling 3/4 empty bus and told me it would take me there and back. I told her I had to be back by 18:45. She said the bus returns at 17:30 (enough time? probably not.) I tell her I have to be back earlier, and she now says, without discussing it with the driver, that the bus will be back at 16:30.).

Huh? Deal is, if I miss the bus or the train, I miss my flight out of Hanoi into Luang Prabang, Laos and I’m kind of screwed.

Whatever. Fuck it.

So I hop on, thinking the drive to Yai Te Me, at most, should be, what? 25 minutes? Because, in my head, a kilometer is less than a mile, and buses on the highway do 60 right? 60 miles an hour, I should be find right?


What I didn’t consider was that maybe the ancient town wasn’t accessed by well-paved highways, alone, but by a fairly complicated route of dusty dirty, muddy jungle

flooded, rocky, pseudo roads through flooded gorges, over suspect bridges and through damn near abandoned towns

all the while picking up locals (including these emo farmers)

along the way to take them god knows where.

We arrived an hour and a half later and the town was amazing. 2 square miles of straight up dynasty construction.

authentic shit

like this Ming statue

this Han Dynasty graffiti

or this authentic MIng basketball court from the 11th century

and the First United Bank of the Quing Dynasty (founded 1616)

it was so authentic in fact that most of it was falling apart

And many of the old dynasty homes are now occupied by villagers, their bicycles and motorbikes

and veal

parked outside.

As if the Quing moved out and they moved right the fuck in.

It was hot as shit and I had a ton of fun carrying my 150 lbs. of luggage and gear up and down the authentic stone streets and steps, observing river life

and leering at young Chinese girls while they sunbathed.

Some things you might want to consider when visiting rural China:

bird flu



food poisoning


hep A, and the fact that angry cows hanging out in narrow alleys are still angry cows whether they’re on tiny leashes or not.

Apparently they weren’t feeling my umbrella. I’m assuming that this is because folded up it looked much like a cattle prod. I’d pass and they’d rear up and moo crazy, snort… scary shit. So I folded it up and hid in my backpack and that seemed to calm them slightly.

Anyway, I made the train with 15 minutes to spare and checked into my sexy soft sleeper, decorated in neutrals this time and fitted with moderately clean bedding, electrical socket, a window I could see out of, and a “me” (pronounced (may) and slang for white westerner in vietnam/laos) bunkmate, (one of four of us total (besides the two Italians I later met) on the train.)

We’ll just call my bunkmate Strasberg for now, because listening to him was like watching an episode of inside the actor’s studio. It was like he was testing out personalities on strangers to see which one fit.

That is until we got pulled off the train in the middle of the night by Chinese army. Then he played it cool.

Prior to this, Strasberg was telling me (all the while rolling his eyes and grinning smugly, overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of his own knowledge) about how he intended to open up his own language school in Ghiang Dao (though most were doomed to failure), how chill China was, telling me how there were two China’s: poor and middle class, but that the only kids that gave the government any real worry were the kids born in the 80’s and 90’s who want it all and never knew a hard time.

Very cool kid, this Strasberg was, and seemingly insightful, just very strange.

So basically we’re in our 1st class car with the first class crapper

and the 1st class dining car

with the 5th class food

freely talking China junk, the good, the bad and the ugly of it, getting ready for bed when the train comes to an unexpected halt at a darkened way station in the middle of nowhere China, and a crowd of little men in green, the one’s the Hong Kong businessman told me about, appear in our doorway.

They ask for our passports and without asking why (because they’re the Chinese Army and they have guns and according to international law if they want to detain us immediatley, they don’t even have to let the U.S. consulate know about it for four days) we hand them over.

The soldiers pass our passports back and forth between themselves, inspecting them, pointing at certain pages and nodding emotionlessly, chatting in very official harsh, hushed tones.

They tell us we look alike, as if to insinuate some sort of identity fraud shenanigans on our part and we explain that we both just met on the train. And from the soldiers there is no response.

Strasberg’s response to the soldier’s presence and demands, at this point, has gone from surprise, to confusion, to semi-flexing, and back to courteous. Because, of course, he’s the seasoned alien here and has been an English teacher in some pretty city and so old school, hard ass “you’ll go to prison for a few days or forever because we said so,” communism is just a figment of some melodramatic xenophobic modern U.S. travels imagination (i.e., mine).

But I can tell he’s just as freaked as I am, because he’s shapeshifting with every second that goes by.

So this freaky soldier business goes on for what feels like a genuinely uncomfortable amount of time and then they leave.

With our passports.


Strasberg and I chit-chat about what’s going on. I’m hoping he knows something I don’t, and he knows absolutely nothing.

He’s never had this happen before.

The little green men return to our cabin and tell we have to get off the train.


I double-check that we are indeed to get off the train, just me and Strasberg it seems, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the night, while the soldiers hold onto our passports and confirm my questions in no uncertain terms.

So I’m a little freaked out, and I can tell Strasberg is because he’s a completely different person. He speaks differently, his voice sounds different and his grand facial gesticulations have come to an abrupt halt.

So Strasberg and I rise and begin our disembarkment and the little green men stop us and tell us to get all of our luggage and bring it with us which sends the whole scenario into “what the fuck“ land.

And then Strasberg’s like “I hope this isn’t because of me,” and before I can say something like, “and why would that be?” I’m thinking who the fuck is this Strasberg really?

Some black market hustler?

A drug dealer?

Did he stash some opium in my bag like in that movie “Transiberia” while I was in the shitter?

What will life be like spent inside a Chinese prison?

Or is this shady motherfucker really CIA in training? Being inserted into Chinese society as some rich kid English teacher who’s come to “find himself” abroad?

Spy cocksucker!

Am I going to end up in front of some semi-retarded fucking firing squad with heads full of propaganda, itchy trigger fingers and shit aim?

Fuck that!

Give me the gun. I’ll do it.

And he tells me that his visa’s expiring tomorrow or today or something and that’s all I get before we’re out the door and heaving my bag across darkened railroad tracks, up onto the platform and into that empty station, where the guards from the train are standing, staring me down.

Inside, there are two luggage scanners that looked like they were purchased at an Eastern Airlines liquidation circa 1991. The little green men tell me to put my luggage through and I do, Strasberg does, and still we’re the only two in the station.

My luggage doesn’t set off any alarms thankfully (I polished offf the melon caramels on the train from Guangzhou just to make sure), but there’s still a lot of whispering and pointing and bad vibes going round.

I separate myself from Strasberg and this point and he does the same as I’m not about to take one for a team I don’t even belong to.

And then they start making everybody get off the train.

And I begin to breathe a little easier.

But when the other passengers arrive, the little green men don’t hassle them, and as they call Strasberg and I to the window to point out our passports, the Chinese passengers are now beginning to whisper and point to like “what did the stupid white kids do?” and the little green men are crowding around the desk going over and over and over our passports.

And then they load us all back on the train.

Strasberg and I head into our cabin and I take another breath.

But they’ve still got our passports and the train’s jerking and groaning like we’re about to depart.

Strasberg picks up a book and I stare down the floor and Strasberg’s like “you alright?” and I’m thinking “listen, you smug sonofabitch. Where’d that crazy, eye rolling, so impressed with my tales of “bringing education to the people” attitude go when those fucking Chinese soldiers rolled into our cabin? When you mumbled some shit about hoping this wasn’t “because of” you?

Again, Strasberg’s not a “bad” guy, just an genuine fucking weirdo, subtle in his brand of strange maybe, but batty just the same.

A few minutes later the little men returned our passports and I changed my underwear, turned out the light and sang “America the Beautiful” until I was rudely awakened in Hanoi.

This time by the Vietnamese army.


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