Touring China’s Hospitals from the Inside


I would love to give some rousing tale of the excitement of finally reaching China, overland, after so many months, but truthfully the days went by so fast, and we were in such a feverish blur. Our journey started early in Luang Probang, Laos. As the monks were going about their morning alms called Tak Bak. We hopped in a tuk tuk and were whisked to the bus station an hour earlier than necessary, without breakfast or snacks. Boarding the bus we were pleasantly surprised, it was more than half empty, and actually remained that way to the border. The ride through Laos was some of the craziest roads we had been on so far, twisting up and down mountain roads, whipping past giant lumber trucks, buses, and cars alike. Our driver knew just the right amount of pressure on the breaks to keep all four wheels on the ground in hairpin curves. No one stood in his way though. It was a bit exciting to be going at such high speeds in a full size bus. The road went from paved packed clay to pot holed Tarmac. We passed many small shantytowns with traditional houses built on poles on the edges of cliffs. Every time we zoomed through these you would see kids playing naked on the sides of the road, pigs, chickens and dogs running free, and people struggling to make a life in a very rough environment. I even saw a topless woman bathing openly in public showers next to the road. The mountainous tribes in Laos believe it’s ok for woman to bare their breasts, though it is taboo everywhere else.

The mountains were gorgeous, huge Karsts jutting out like jagged teeth with jungle vegetation growing out of it. The closer we got to China; the more depressing the environmental damage got to be. Every inch of these beautiful mountains were being slashed and burned. It was not uncommon to see an entire mountains burning. On plots already blackened you would see a farmer trying to clear it out by hand to plant some crop that would have a hard time struggling for life in such an inhospitable environment.


Laos Border to China, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013

I was really not sure what to expect when we arrived in China, but it was not long before we came to a giant golden gateway. Clearly we were at the border. Everyone got out of the bus, got in line at a concrete building with some windows, and waited for the Laotian exit stamp. Then you hop back on the bus, and underneath a modern gateway, we walk into an ultra modern building with all our luggage. Here we type our info in a computer system and it prints out our entry visa. Pretty painless over all. After that we wait for an hour outside the bus. I changed my Laos money at a bad rate, but was happy to have it done.


Chinese Border with Laos, Copyright Michael Bencik 2013

The difference between Laos and China was instantly recognizable by the smoothness of the road. Instead of going round mountains and over them, we were going right through them in massive tunnels. The slash and burning of the mountains were gone too, instead the mountains were all manicured orchards, rubber, from what I could see. Everything was neat and orderly.

On the bus we met an American Chinese girl who was doing research on Primitive mans’ burial sites, the similarities from Ireland to Laos, Australia to Peru. She feels they might all be connected with some primal earth energy, to paraphrase her. She was incredibly nice, and interesting to chat with. We arrived at 8 pm to the city of Yunnan. To say I was having some extreme culture shock would be an understatement. Everything was so modern; skyscrapers everywhere, nice lighted pathways, public art, and neon. It was a really nice city to look at. They have a wild herd of elephants, possibly China’s only, so there were elephant’s sculptures everywhere. Yvonne and I were feeling good after being in a bus for fourteen hours, and thought it might just be easier to continue on to Kunming instead of finding accommodation and getting back on bus tomorrow. Our new friend helped us talk to bus the ticket lady and she told us there was a bus in a half hour. She then helped us find an ATM. She was awesome. So sweet, we never would have made it back in time. We said our goodbyes and hopped on a sleeper bus.

A sleeper bus has two layers of bunk beds, three across with two rows in between them. We lucked out and got two beds in the upper back section to ourselves. The night went ok, with a strange stop at three in the morning for two hours. First thing we noticed was it was damn cold in China, at night it was in the fifties, the coldest we had been on the trip.

There are a few things that we instantly noticed in China. The first was that no one speaks English. Everywhere we had been so far, ten countries, the local people have had a basic understanding of English, and we were able to get by with no problem. Here, no one spoke English. The bus lady, restaurant worker, police officer, no one. Second, and even more disturbing was that no matter how modern China had gotten, their bathrooms are the worse in the world. They did not just have squatters, they had a long trough that you are supposed to squat down amongst other squatters, all in the open, and do your business. They are disgusting, often making me retch in my mouth. Only fear of Chinese prison prevented me from not just pissing outside the bathrooms. If completely baffles me how China has grown and modernized so fast, yet their toilets are still in the stone ages.

We managed to do sign language negotiation for a guy with a van to take us to the hostel. They spoke no English, and things got pretty heated, but in the end we agreed on a price. Let me just say we got a good deal because it was much farther than we had thought. When we arrived at the hostel we were beyond surprised at how nice it was, Cloud Land Hostel. We got a double room with hard wood floors, private bathroom that was actually just in the middle of the room with a curtain, and nice new flat screen TV that we never got working. There were terraces throughout the hostel, Ping-Pong, billiards, and a really nice Tibetan style bar that reminded us of pubs in Ireland. The atmosphere was great and staff so helpful.

We spent the day wandering Kunming, checking out the markets and architecture. Kunming is a very modern city that has very little traditional architecture. The historic small section left is being turned in to open mall. It’s actually really tastefully done and enjoyable to see. We saw Return to Oz, after a lengthy conversation to discover if it’s in English or not. We discovered an old theater that was showing it but were not able to find out if it was English. If they actually had a movie, and where we go in, so we went to the new one down the street. Oz was entertaining, not great, not bad either. Though it was faithful to the original movie, which means absolutely great for kids.

We met a really cool Chinese American guy named Kaden and had dinner with him. We got traditional Across the bridge Noodles, a staple in Southern China. The story goes that a man was studying in university, so his wife would bring him lunch every day. But she had to cross large bridge, and the food was always cold by time she got it to him. So she started putting the ingredients separate, and carrying just the hot broth with a layer if oil on top. The oil would trap the heat, so that everything could be thrown in and cooked while she walked. So hot lunch was served.

The next day we hopped on a bus to Dali, a five-hour trip. Everything was going well, even though we were stuck in back row with three other people. Before we arrived my eyes did that bugging our action and got horrible cramps meaning that if I did not find a toilet soon I would not need one. Sweat came pouring out of my forehead, and I could only walk at a very slow pace. The bus station bathroom was the worst I had seen, and I puked a little just from the smell. We grabbed a cab and told him to rush, because we were still 15 kilometers from where we hoped to stay. I was beyond caring I was in so much pain. He had no clue where the hostel was but dropped us off at a different youth hostel. I could not give a shit where we were as I ran past the front desk screaming “TOILET! BATHROOM! WATER CLOSET! It was a squatter but I was good at balancing by this time and just made it. Yvonne took one look at my face and unless the place was an open toilet itself we were not going anywhere. Luckily it turned out to be a nice room, in a great location. I was not thrilled with the staff, but all in all it worked out fine.

The diarrhea was only the beginning of my problems, as the entire night I was racked with a horrible fever. Yvonne was super worried for me, but I figured I just needed to beat the fever. I lost all my appetite for food, in fact it actually turned my stomach to see food. All I could do is go for short walks around the city then back to bed.

What a shame it was because Dali is a fabulous town. We were in the old city with all the original architecture preserved, with the tile roofs. All the building almost seemed organic how they each blended into each other after shifted together over hundreds of years. You could walk around here and feel like you were in china three hundred years ago. The other great thing was that it was mainly Chinese tourists there, not too many westerners. China’s middle class has grown so quickly that it can barely keep up.

On the third day we decided we had no choice but to go to the hospital in hopes of finding an English speaking doctor. There were no English-speaking doctors of course. What was here was were two Chinese students who spoke a little English. They became my translators as thermometers were shoved in my armpits, IV bags attached to my veins, and plenty of poking and prodding. Initially I was sent to infectious diseases department, I know this because they had it in English on the door, even though no one speaks it. Everyone wanted to know had I eaten chicken, played with chickens, or had sex with chickens. Bird flu was going on. Where was I before, I had to draw a map of Southeast Asia on a pad. They released me to the real nurses after they were satisfied. Then we were left in a room for hours with IV bags in me as they waited for my fever to break, which was around 103. We finally were released after 8 hours, but no cab could be found so we wandered for ages till we finally found one.

Next day I slept and Yvonne decided I needed to get a better hospital, so we packed up and headed back to Kunming. All our plans for trekking, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and eating Yak steaks went out the door. It was all a blur to me any way. My fever had broken but I was still really miserable, and in a daze. The bus ride was ok, though no cabs would take us in Kunming. We got in one, and the dude started looking for other people. In the end we got out and took the public bus.

The next day we went to Kunming hospital, where a bit more English was spoken. A bunch of tests were run on me, but with the fever broke it was hard to determine what was wrong with me. It was not malaria, nor bird flu, and not TB. In the end I got a bunch of medicine, antibiotics, Chinese herbs, and more ibuprofen. Then I just slept for the next day. We had a flight booked to Myanmar, and even though I’m was better yet, there is an emergency clinic there that works with my international insurance, so we figured it was worth the risk. Better than losing thousands of dollars and having the rest of our trip delayed.

One last note, Kunming’s airport was one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen. It’s has a hint of pagoda that you can see for miles. Inside there are flowing beams supporting the massive structure that actually look like ribbons. The facilities inside though were pathetic, only one cafe. Why make such a gorgeous building and not fill it with food, bars, and souvenir stands.


Kunming, China, Airport Copyright 2013 Michael Bencik


Kunming, China, Airport Copyright 2013 Michael Bencik


Kunming, China, Airport Copyright 2013 Michael Bencik


Kunming, China, Airport Copyright 2013 Michael Bencik




5 responses to “Touring China’s Hospitals from the Inside

  1. So sorry you were that sick. Yet you managed to put this together – even though I assume it was after the fact, your brain must have been working well enough to remember this much! Quite a trip to border cross from Laos to China – that alone…and Dali, I’ve wanted to see that. Great descriptions!

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