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Once Around The Sun, Jessica Mudditt

This extract is taken from Jessica Mudditt’s new book, Once Around the Sun – from Cambodia to Tibet. Jessica details the highs and lows of backpacking in Southeast Asia – from $2 hostel rooms, to drinking Coca Cola out of a plastic bag and eating duck foetus, to riding a horse along the steppes of Inner Mongolia and trekking to Mount Everest base camp. She also has a few romances along the way.

Chapter 13: The Man

After arriving back in Hanoi, I submitted my one-month tourist visa application to the Chinese embassy and spent a few wistful last days in Vietnam. Over the past three months, I had grown deeply fond of Southeast Asia and was sad to be leaving it behind. At the same time, I was wildly excited to experience China. As the giant of the region, it was a country I’d heard about on the news a million times before, yet it also had an alluring mystique.

Unfortunately, I woke up with a cold on the morning I was due to enter China. I would have rolled over and stayed under the covers, but I had already bought my bus ticket to the border crossing known as Friendship Pass. There was nothing to do but swallow a couple of paracetamol and head out to the bus station.

Once there I took one of the few remaining seats near the front of the minibus. My backpack was plonked beside me on the floor of the aisle, which was crammed with other bags and belongings.

I spent the first part of the three-hour journey trying to memorise the steps involved in getting to Nanning, which was the capital of southern Guangxi province. My head was so foggy from the cold it was a struggle to make the information stick.

‘The only place in Guangxi where foreigners can cross is the Friendship Pass, known as Hue Nghi Quann in Vietnamese and Youyi Guan in Chinese,’ stated my China Lonely Planet.

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Youyi Guan, Youyi Guan, I mouthed silently, before sneezing again. I forgot the name as soon as it was out of my mouth.

Once through customs, I would need to find transport to the nearest town of Pingxiang, and then take a bus or train to Nanning, which was another four hours away. I hoped I could manage it all by nightfall.

At some point over the next couple of weeks, I would need to decide where I would go after China, and begin heading in that general direction. I scanned the list of bordering nations and thought how thrilling it was to be in a new region of the world. From China I could cross into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia or Tajikistan.

Wow – North Korea. What would that be like?

The man sitting opposite me caught my eye. He pointed to the weeping blister on my lower leg. I’d burned my calf on a motorbike exhaust the day before, and had been cross with myself for being so careless. I should have known better after a month of mounting and dismounting motorbikes in Vietnam.

‘Motorbike,’ I said.

The man nodded sympathetically. ‘China?’ he asked me.

I sneezed and nodded, and we exchanged a smile. Perhaps he was surprised to see a backpacker among the dozen or so passengers.

Of the three official land border crossings between Vietnam and China, I had chosen Friendship Pass because my guidebook said it was the busiest. I had assumed this meant it was also the easiest, with the most readily available transport links to Nanning, which was itself a transport hub for onward travel. But I had no idea whether backpackers routinely used it, and when I turned back to my guidebook I realised with a sinking feeling that I had made a mistake in choosing to travel to the border by bus. I probably should have taken the train. My guidebook said that I would need to flag a motorbike to Pingxiang because there were no bus links, and that it could be a bit of a hassle.

The oversight wasn’t entirely my fault. Up until the day before I had been relying on the information provided in Lonely Planet’s Vietnam, which hadn’t flagged this as an issue. But it was a note to self for future border crossings to always check what the guidebooks said in the one for the country I was leaving behind, as well as the one I was about to enter.

I closed the book and stared out at the rugged limestone cliffs, which were soaked a deep shade of grey from the steady drizzle.

Well it’s too late now to change my plans. I’ll just have to wing it.

By the time we all filed off the bus, my head was so stuffed up I almost felt as if I was underwater. My limbs felt achy and my throat hurt. I swallowed another couple of paracetamol.

Our straggly group made its way along a gravel path towards an imposing classical archway in the distance, which presumably marked the beginning of Chinese territory. As I grew closer, the incline of the hill made the gate loom even larger. Across the middle were bold black Chinese characters on a red background. Its gables sloped upwards and were adorned with intricate patterns. I felt like a real adventurer as I strode under it.

The customs building was brimming with officials, traders and immigrants. I took my place in a long line and noticed that the man who had asked me about my injured leg was behind me. He carried nothing more than a black briefcase. He was middle-aged and slim, and parted his hair to one side. The line was scarcely moving, so after standing there for a couple of minutes I took off my backpack and rested it on my foot, so that I would sense right away if someone tried to grab it. Shortly after, the man from the bus pointed to an official sitting at a desk on the other side of the room. I wasn’t sure what he meant, which I must have made clear by my expression. He pointed to me again, and then to the official.

‘Oh right,’ I said, wiping my nose. ‘Should I go there?’

The man nodded and looked at me with a little frown of concern. I didn’t protest when he picked up my backpack. He came over to the desk with me and looked on as my passport was duly stamped and signed. We passed through the next section together and then he indicated where I needed to stand for another passport check, and to provide my passport photos. He then ducked back to the original line.

I went outside to wait for the man so I could thank him for his help. However, I wasn’t sure what language he spoke. Was he Vietnamese or Chinese? If he was Chinese, did he speak the local dialect of Cantonese or the national language of Mandarin? I’d learned Mandarin in high school, so I knew that ‘xie xie’ meant ‘thank you’, but if he spoke Cantonese, was it impolite to speak to him in Mandarin?

While waiting for the man to appear out of the sliding glass doors, I took my first proper look at China. A few sparrows hopped about on the wet grass, looking for bugs. The shrubs, trees and soil were the same muted shades of green and brown as those in my home state of Victoria. I hadn’t expected China to look downright familiar.

I was first struck by the similarities of earth’s topography six years earlier. I had just arrived in Morocco by ferry from Spain, and I took a bus inland to Fez. I had assumed the continent of Africa would look dramatically different from anything I’d ever seen in my life. And yet it didn’t. It reminded me of my home. I had realised then that it was often the manmade parts of a nation, such as its architecture, language and dress, that lent it a distinct or exotic look.

I grinned as the man reappeared.

‘Thank you,’ I said in English, still holding my passport.

He smiled and nodded. I was glad he knew I was grateful for his help.

We fell into step and headed towards a couple of parked cars. The man exchanged a few words with a driver – presumably in Cantonese – who seemed to have been waiting for the man while he stood smoking a cigarette in a baggy pinstriped shirt. The man put my backpack in the boot and motioned for me to hop into the backseat. He began chatting to the driver as we sped off along the gravel road. It was raining heavily and I was relieved to have avoided the need to negotiate my own motorbike or cab fare to Pingxiang, which was about ten kilometres away.

When we were dropped off at a street corner in the sprawling metropolis, the man refused to let me pay my share. I expected that we were about to say our goodbyes, but he smiled and indicated that I should follow him. We headed over to the nearby bus station, where the man purchased two tickets and paid for my backpack to be held in a nearby storage facility. I was delighted to have sailed through the next steps in my journey and happily trotted after him along a footpath until we reached a restaurant. The man held the door open for me, and just as I was about to enter I came face-to-face with a pair of severed bear paws. They were displayed on hooks and were as big as my hands. The paws had been cooked, with the claws left intact.

I was still reeling from the macabre sight as two bowls of clear soup appeared on our table. The no-frills eatery had posters on the wall advertising soda drinks and ice creams, and it was empty except for another table of two men. Because of this, in between bringing out a pork and chicken dish, and a whole fish, the waitress hovered near us in case we needed something. I felt self-conscious using chopsticks as I found them a bit unwieldy. Most of all, I was greatly relieved not to be served bear paws.

The man and I sat in comfortable silence, although I noticed the other patrons were staring at me. I thought I’d have a sip of green tea. When the man waved his little pinkie up at me, I raised my little pinkie as I drank the tea, as though I were very posh.

Then he and the waitress laughed, poured the tea into our soup bowls, and then tipped it onto a silver tray on the table. It seemed that the tea was used to wash the bowls in between courses – but then we also drank the tea at the end of the meal. I was confused.

The waitress brought over a large bottle and set down a couple of shot glasses. The clear liquor was like some kind of liquorice firewater that burned the back of my throat. It gave me a much-needed burst of energy as we headed back to the bus station.

But first we called into a pharmacy. The man spoke to a pharmacist, who went up a step ladder and scooped out a handful of dried fungi from one of the inbuilt drawers in the wall. He bagged the mushrooms and passed them to me, along with a strip of pink tablets. The man bought me a water bottle along with the medications. I swallowed a couple of the pills right away.

For the past two hours I hadn’t spent a single note of the yuan sitting in my wallet. The man had insisted on paying for everything. He also insisted on giving me his jacket to wear as I sat snivelling next to him on the bus. The air was frigid from the air conditioning, so I gratefully accepted the extra layer of warmth.

The journey to Nanning took four hours. When we got off, the man walked with me to two Western guys who had been on the same bus. They seemed a little surprised when the man tapped one of them on the shoulder and smiled and gestured towards me. I introduced myself and asked if I could go with them to find a hostel. They agreed, and told me they were from Belgium.

I gave the man back his jacket. This was goodbye. He had found me new travel companions.

‘Bye-bye,’ he said with a smile and a wave.

Within seconds, he had disappeared into the sea of people.

‘Who was that?’ one of the guys asked me.

‘A very kind man,’ was all I could say.

About the Author

Jessica Mudditt is a journalist and author of two memoirs, Once Around the Sun and
Our Home in Myanmar.

She was accredited as a newspaper journalist in London in 2009 and she spent ten years
working in London, Bangladesh and Myanmar, before returning home to Australia in 2016.
In 2023 she founded Hembury Books to provide coaching, editing and self publishing
services to nonfiction authors.

Jessica has just been nominated for the 2024 Women Changing The World Awards.
Presented by Sarah, Duchess of York, and Oprah Winfrey’s all-time favourite guest, Dr
Tererai Trent, the awards celebrate and recognise women achieving outstanding success in
areas such as sustainability, humanitarian work, leadership, advocacy, tech, product
development, education, health and innovation.

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