When I first booked my flight to Cambodia, a scheduled 10 hour layover in Nanning, China gave me some pause. I knew nothing about the city nor what I might encounter during my flight change. Guidebooks and internet resources describe this “small city” of 2 million people as a train stop en-route to Vietnam and tout waterfalls and historic areas outside of town. As I was due to arrive after midnight, none of this was very informative for me.
My domestic Shanghai Airlines flight was the last arrival of the day. The small, mostly regional airport closed soon after, with all the lights shutting down and the only staff a cleaning person or two. The doors were propped open, and people were stay inside near the baggage claim, but the heating was turned off and the metal benches were separated by armrests. I took a deep breath and decided to head into town. In the daytime there is a bus you can take to the train station near downtown, but after 11p it’s taxi only.
The taxi driver who flagged me spoke no English (and I speak no Mandarin), but we did manage to communicate through a translation app on his mobile phone, which we passed back and forth. He named an over-priced night rate of 160 CNY, which I accepted (note – next time, haggle!). The 45 minute trip from the airport seemed to fly as he sped around lorries with no regard to speed limit signs or lanes in the road. I had previously read about the Night Market in downtown and decided that could be a place to explore a bit. By the time I got there at 2am on a Thursday morning, the market was about 1/3 open. Restaurants were sweeping trash into piles in the middle of the street and a few locals were stumbling out to catch a ride home. I walked around the few remaining stalls with seafood on sticks, tofu noodle bowls, and fruits before deciding to venture a little further. A few blocks through tall, modern concrete buildings leads you to the Yongjiang river. Along the side is a lovely, clean, well manicured park. Everything was silent and empty.
By 4am I gave up and took a taxi back to the airport, the return trip costing night rate of 116 CNY. This driver didn’t have a translation app, but thankfully I had written down the word “airport” on a post-it note, which did the trick (after he corrected my pronunciation). The first domestic flight out of Nanning is around 7am. Using my western standards, I assumed the airport would officially re-open 2 hours before. Instead, I walked in circled in the dark airport until the lights turned on at 5:45am and the first check-in counter opened at 6. My international flight to Phnom Penh at 10am didn’t open for check-in until 9. (side note: I’ve never been so happy to be traveling with only my backpack.)
Lesson learned: if you’re going to have a layover in Nanning, aim for the daytime. The city looked lovely and I hope I get a chance to see it in full glory in the future.