All Aboard The Doggie Express

“Oh look! They’re putting a dog in a bag into the luggage storage space!” my trusty travel companion Richard remarked, no, shouted, just as I was settling in on the top bunk of the virtually empty sleeper bus taking us from southern Sichuan to Yunnan.

I had been looking forward to some relaxed reading and gnawing on peanut sweets when my zen-like bliss was disturbed by Richard’s outburst. I could see nothing from my window, but now I could hear yelps and moans from a dog in evident distress.

Damn. I knew there had been something wrong about this bus. No means of transportation in China is “virtually empty” and especially not in the run-up to Chinese New Year which, like Christmas in Hong Kong, comes earlier and earlier each year.

And here we had been thinking we’d hit the transport jackpot on our Christmas trip, even welcoming the fact that the journey would take five hours instead of the normal three so we could relax properly! Now we had to stare in horror as the Dog Torture Express, winding its way around the unpaved country roads of southern Sichuan at 30 km an hour, stopped again and again to pick up ever more dogs trussed up like turkeys, some of them with their jaws bound with wire.

“I can’t be here,” I said, just as Richard was jumping off his bunk and getting his luggage.

Outside the bus was mayhem. The un-muffled dogs were yelping, howling and generally shouting for help. They seemed to understand that they were heading for restaurant tables to be gristly snacks for men who think eating dog meat makes them more virile. The yelping wasn’t the worst, however, although it cut us to the marrow. It was their eyes looking at us, pleading for mercy, which really made me wish I was a huge, AK-47 brandishing bruiser, no, had heaps of money so I could free them and set up a doggie rescue center and …

The driver and his gloved henchmen, wielding metal wire and shoving the dogs like so many postal packages into shallow shelves in the bus luggage hold, sniggered derisively; staring at us like we were some bleeding-heart liberal tree-huggers or something.

And really, having twice eaten dog meat in my youth and on this trip commenting on all the restaurants proudly proclaiming they served the best dog meat – where had I thought it came from? Organically reared dogs which happened to wander into the kitchen of an afternoon, accidentally impaling themselves on cleavers?

The driver’s assistant, it has to be said, was kind enough to drive us to the nearest train station, where we only had to wait five hours for the next train. He also gave us 80% of our money back. He seemed almost sheepish when I commented on the fact that the upholstery in his car featured cute cartoon dog figures.

That was New Year’s Day, something of a nadir of an otherwise suitably dramatic Christmas holiday with ample opportunity to wear our winter clothes, and with excellent hovelage.

Was it the repeated reading of Oliver Twist in my childhood that set me up for a life incessantly seeking out grim places full of hovels? I’m drawn to them like other tourists are drawn to beaches and dry martinies. In that respect, the trip didn’t disappoint. Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan all have their share of mud-encrusted, run-down, grey and grimy villages and city neighbourhoods with snotty children playing among stinking rubbish heaps and teenagers whose soot-blackened faces make them look like 65 year-old – truly hovelage to rival Dickens’ Isle of Dogs.

Grimmest of all and therefore my favourite, was Guizhou. Apart from superior grimness, Guizhou is the best province for winter travel: Its restaurants have coal-fired stoves with large surfaces on which you can put your condom-thin plastic beerglass without its melting.

Is that why large parts of the province’s population like to wander around in their pyjamas at all times of day, even when temperatures get uncomfortably close to zero? They know there’s always a stove waiting around the corner in Guizhou, whereas in for example Sichuan there is no source of heating, none, and even the tea they serve is cold.

Yes, Guizhou is in every way a place dedicated to people’s creature comfort and also their need for law and order. It was in Liupanshui (six basins of water) in the north-western part of the province, that Richard and I felt the full, crushing weight of the Chinese legal system.

We had remarked upon the ease with which we had been able to check into hotels of late; a glance at my Hong Kong ID card with my name in Chinese seemed to be sufficient to register us both – the receptionists were only too happy not to have to bother with cumbersome passports and tricky spelling.

Wandering through a market where chilies in their myriad forms ruled the roost, we were approached by a geezer in a black leather jacket. He pulled out a police ID.

“Police. What are you doing here?”

“Why are you asking?”

“I work at a station down the road and we’ve had a phone call about two foreigners walking around the market. Where are you staying?”

I showed him the hotel card. Cool! 19 years of travelling in China and I was reported on at last! He thanked us and buggered off.

Back at the hotel, the receptionists were in a state.

“You have to fill in forms! We forgot! It’s for your own safety! We need passports! Visas! … and your Hong Kong ID, how long is it valid?”

“I see. You’ve had a phone call from the police?”

“Er… yes. You must wait for them here. They must see your … er… your safety…”

Having already checked out hours before and with our luggage stored in reception, we saw no need to fill out any more forms. Ignoring the receptionists’ plaintive cries about our safety we legged it down to the train station to lose ourselves in the crowds heading home for Chinese New Year. With my blonde head and Richard’s 6 foot 3 frame, the law would never find us.

But the rozzers got us in the end. We were just about to board the train, congratulating ourselves on our lucky escape when a fat, uniformed policeman, a bruiser in fact, caught me by the elbow.
“Have you been taking photos in the station area?”

“Er… yes? And?” Damn! I should have said: What took you so long?

“We’ve been told about a foreigner taking photos in the station area. It is illegal and you have to erase them.”

It was true; I did have one photo of thousands of people fighting to get through the gates to the platform and also a particularly incriminating one of a Yi minority woman with a baby in a sling. These I deleted amid much commenting by bystanders. Oh well, the photos were of inferior quality anyway.

And reported, no, ratted on, twice in one day! This was the life. I made a mental note of looking up “I am a spy working for the Norwegian government.” Oh, the fun one can have in China … but I probably won’t eat dog meat again…

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