Another funny thing happened to us at the Beijing train station: On the advice of the staff and manager (I think that’s what she was!) we left early so that we would have plenty of time to get around once we got to the station.
Tonight, as “luck” would have it, the proprietor of the hostel escorted us, to facilitate the hailing of a cab! We made quite the quaint picture, the three of us, in full rain gear, (the first night time rain since we’ve arrived and have had to go out) trotting along behind him, riding his bike with only a wide brimmed hat, pulling a cart behind him with our three packs pilled up like a minor pyramid…hop, hop, skip, skip, trot, trot then run to catch up to him, and the routine would start over again! Too funny! Being a rainy night, all the cabs are full and trying any longer seems pointless. We had been at it for a good 20 minutes! A better idea might be to make a dash for the metro, which would give us better odds of making it on time! So off he goes on his bike and we begin, again, our little dance…hop-hop, skip-skip, trot-trot, run to catch up to him, hop-hop, skip-skip, trot-trot and run to catch up to him! LOL! At this point if the boys were with me while I am writing away at 6 in morning, they would point out that it was only I, doing this particular night’s recital! But as I am producer and conductor of our little l performance I choose to remember it this particular way! A brisk 15-minute walk away and we finally arrived to our destination, not too wet and not too tired seeing the hard job would have been to carry those packs! Only ten metro stops to go! Wouhou!!!
We make it with lots of time to spare. What a chaotic place to arrive to, at 10 o’clock at night for a midnight departure! Once there, the first thing you notice is the people! People, people, people, everywhere people. It’s like arriving to a carnival and the gates have just opened and the crowd surges towards the open doors… there is a rush and a pressing of bodies all pulled magnetically in the same direction. Once inside the station its more of the same: People waiting in line, sitting down, leaning against the wall, squatting down or sitting on those little stools they seem to carry everywhere they go, but especially, most especially is the people lying down, helter skelter, everywhere! You find them along the wall, in the middle of the hallway, on newspapers, across the few seats that are available…and not just sitting down but squarely passed out! Smack in the middle of the walkway. Imagine arriving at Grand Central Station in New York, in the main hallway just below the billboard announcing arrivals and departures, where the huge dome is and everyone (or so it seemed) is lying down on the ground taking a nap! It’s truly an amazing sight to see! Unfortunately, being me and a little more than Canadian by culture; apologizing for everything and always feeling like we take too much space for everything! Lol! I just cannot convince myself to take pictures…Often times with camera in hand; I feel like I am intruding on their privacy, that I am somehow witness to something intimate and personal! I’ve seen some amazing things since my arrival but taking pictures whenever I see something striking seems like peeking into a window, as you do when you drive by at night when all is dark, and you get a glimpse of something: you know you are sneaking a peek into someone’s else’s life that you would just not see otherwise! Though strange to us, this is their life; this is their culture and not an easy one! I’ve gotten a little more brave in my picture taking since my arrival and to a compromise of sorts: I now ask permission, which makes me feel better and not like I am secretly invading their privacy!
In any case… here we are, surrounded by people, hardly, no completely, unable to read any of the information we need as everything is in Chinese character. No idea where the right waiting room is, from what platform the train is leaving and how in God’s name are we going to know when it is time to board!!!! HELP!!! LOL ! English is very little spoken and so asking for information is another story altogether.
With our new talent at charade and acquired acting skills we nevertheless, finally, manage to figure it all out, find a place to settle down and wait it out! The deck of cards is pulled out and after deciding what game to play we begin in earnest. Not 10 minutes goes by that we start drawing a crowd! At first a lone man leaning against the wall starts looking at Miguel’s’ hand, then another. Next this younger man plops down in this little seat, the one that everyone seems to carry along and parks himself squarely between Miguel and I. Next thing you know we have a crowd surrounding us; old ladies leaning on their canes, old men on their rickety legs, young couples arm in arm and once parents get in there the children quickly follow suit… everyone is trying to figure out the rules of the game we are playing; going back and forth from one player to the next as we are laying down our cards and picking up new ones, trying to make sense of it. Not an easy thing to figure out when the rules nearly do not make any sense to me! But they are persistent and the Chinese love to watch an ongoing game that catches their attention. Walking along, seeing people gather around a foursome, playing a serious game of majong is not unusual! The bigger the crowd, the more people are pulled towards the game, out of a sense of curiosity to see what is being played or who is winning!
Ok… getting back to the story at hand…
Train travel in China is like nowhere else in the world. Once again the Chinese have managed to take the whole concept of train traveling to a whole other level. There are 4 categories of train traveling in China: Soft sleepers, hard sleepers, soft seats and hard seats! We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel in the comfort of soft sleepers and will be able to boast (a little boast mind you) that we have done hard sleepers also. But for the rest, I will count my blessings that I did not take part in that particular style of the Chinese train experience. Let me explain.
The soft sleepers are the epitome of traveling for comfort and style “Chinese Chic” made up of a private cabin, shared by 4; so two bunks on the top and two bunks on the bottom, that come at two different price range: more for the bottom less for the top! Very much like our own system except you get to share your cabin with two strangers. Your places are pre-reserved and the cabins are supplied with pillows, duvets, white tablecloth covering the itsy bitsy tiny side table and a service of hot water throughout the journey day or night. All very nice! No toilets though, so you still have the inconvenience to haul your ass out of the room and make the journey down the hall, to the end of train wagon and squat with the best of them. The squatting, on its own, is a feat to be proud of, let alone in a moving train (bragging rights! Lol)
The hard sleepers are a bit more rough and ready: just an opening, divided by cubicle style walls, but from floor to ceiling, with 6 bunks on the left and six bunks on the right. No doors enclosing the compartment in which you are lying down so you are very much aware of everything. Throughout the trip you hear of the back and forth of other passengers: embarking and disembarking, trips to the bathroom, getting up and down from the two other top bunks, stretching of legs, yawns, coughs, burps, clearing of throats, spitting in bags and last but not least (forgive my French) farting notwithstanding! The train officers add to the cacophony of sounds with their back and forth going on from one cart to the next, checking in new passengers and exiting passengers or the bringing of hot water to waiting travellers. Conclusion of the matter… no peace and quiet whatsoever! Not quite the restful environment to grab a few zzzz during your night ride through the country. You save yourself one night of hostelling but then need to take into account the wear and tear of the journey!
Another thing about those two options is that only ticket holders of soft sleepers and hard sleeper have access to the dining car (I’m pretty sure anyways), which, to our experience, is best left un-experienced! Imagine getting up to a bowl of watery lukewarm millet base porridge, one fried egg; burnt on the bottom and not quite cooked on the top, three slices of some sort of ham/salami/baloney tasting meat and three clumps of bread with a strong bitter after taste! Ugh!! We sort of went without that first time and swore it would be our last…I guess bad food, in trains, is universal after all…lol.
Moving on to the soft seaters; very much like what we have in Canada in terms of sitting and comfort levels except there are 3 seats to each sides so a bit more squished for the ride and it’s on a first come first served basis… so not much to say there!
Now comes the hard seaters…well, you have to see it to believe it, my goodness, just unbelievable! Four days ago, when we made it to the Beijing train station, we wondered about the “cattle being led to the slaughterhouse” mentality! It was unreal… an hour before boarding people started lining up (if you can call it that) and when the gates opened??? Free for all, rush through the gates, every man for himself; like the start up for the Boston marathon, (in terms of numbers), and like the Kentucky Derby in terms of onslaught of bodies, suitcases, bags, strollers etc…Crazy, crazy, crazy! We didn’t really understand the push and shove attitude of everyone and only after getting off the train and were talking to some other fellow travelers, did we find out about this poor young couple from Wales, that actually had to stand for nearly all of the 17 hour train ride from Beijing to Pingyao, did it finally all click into place! Hard sleepers are oversold! So there are never enough seats and they are also on a first come first come served basis… so if you get there last and there are no seats left, then there are no seats left! Tough tidily wink for you! People are left to stand, lie down in the alleyways between the seats or where the train wagons connect or worse case scenario will have to stand up to wherever they are going! What a nightmare! When we tried to book our train tickets to Shanghai (a 23 hour train ride) we where told that there were only hard seaters left! I immediately booked 3 plane tickets! Enormous sigh of relief!
Ok this about wraps it up for this time around as I’ve more than abuse you with the length and detail of this email…
I should be up-loading a couple more photo album to Facebook….so take a peek!
PS… on another note… we later learned that had that poor young couple shown their tickets to the wagon master they would have had a seat… They actually sell “no-seaters” for Chinese people…so someone had a ride on them! That’s another example of what the language barrier can do!