No sooner had the train ground into motion than the attendant trudged along with a bucket and cleaning tools. She was a tiny middle-aged energetic woman with red dyed hair and betel-stained teeth. She rolled up her sleeves, took out the scrubber and set about rubbing the steel surface of the train sink as thoroughly and painstakingly as if it had been her own home. Every nook and cranny underwent the vigorous treatment until the washbasin was all glittering with cleanliness.
When probably the top layer of metal had been successfully scraped off, she set about mopping the floor. If someone’s luggage happened to fall within her range she pulled it aside without standing on ceremonies. With military precision she swept down the gangway until she arrived at the seat I was occupying next to another man. As he didn’t lift his feet high enough, she nagged him, and only when she was certain that even the farthest corner had not escaped the action of her mop, did she put on a content expression.
It was then that she noticed me and with an unexpected smile she enquired about all that my foreign status inspired her to ask me. She had come across as quite grumpy, but turned out a friendly funny person, with humorous talk and expressive faces. Every time she happened to pass by my seat she stopped by and exchanged a word.
Once I felt a presence over my shoulder and turning around I saw her leaning on the mop stick trying to make out what I was reading. Realising it was a foreign language book she gave up, but not completely because after some thinking she brought up the universal language of music as a topic. She took out her mobile phone and showed me a song she liked whose title was I want to hug you. I’ll never know if that was to be considered as a subliminal message from my friend the train cleaner, because by then we had pulled into the station and I had to alight.
It was already pm, but the day still held a big surprise in store for me. I had phoned Jiang Wei to say I’d meet him the next day, but I’d never have expected to see him and Xinjie waiting for me at the exit gate. I felt rather guilty because they’d been standing there for one hour due to the train being delayed and they’d have to get up to go to work the next day. In spite of all, it was indeed a great pleasure to see my friends where I just expected to find an unknown city by night.
I moved on to Kaili and found another hotel where I was the first foreigner to stay. The lady thought it wise to phone the police and find out if they were allowed to host laowai’s. The officer gave the green light, and that was great news because the room was spacious, clean and with an immaculate fluffy bed. I’d make Kaili my base to explore the region. That guesthouse would be my home, much as Chishui had been when I explored its surroundings.
Shidong was my first visit, after a longish ride over the mountains. Its ethnic market was incredibly interesting and big, spreading along the main street and down all over a river embankment paved with round pebbles. Gadding through the stalls I got lost in admiring ordinary and yet incredible scenes, and of course the people, cloth dyers, poultry dealers, the gory chicken slaughter and plucking facility.
At Kaili bus station I’d met two other tourists, a mother with her son, who were at a loss because of a series of drawbacks. I suggested they should come with me, visit Shidong and stay one night in Zhenyuan. So we did and in the early afternoon we were all at the bridge waiting for the bus that would take us further. It was again a beautiful scenery of mountains and rice fields, and eventually we got to a lovely town on the banks of a green blue river with a temple complex of great architectural and historical value. The views over the calm waters that reflected a parade of houses were inspiring, especially when they lit up at night with red lanterns. We also went for a walk, swam in a pool of the stream, and played like children skimming stones over the water.