Monday, June 18, 2012

Night Train to Beijing

Uncle Thad and Kelly on the night train to Beijing


This is the story of a whirlwind weekend excursion from Shanghai to Beijing. The travelers three included myself, Julius and my uncle Thad.

My aunt and uncle booked our tickets in advance for the sleeper train that would take us from Shanghai to Beijing. It was a long twelve-hour journey, and we were to arrive at Beijing South Station on Friday morning, where a driver would be waiting to take us to the Great Wall and then the Summer Palace. My uncle assured me the driver was great, and that they always used him when they came to Beijing.  

Our stay in Beijing would be a short one, mainly because we were only in China for five days. We would have been perfectly happy staying in Shanghai the entire time, but my aunt and uncle insisted that one couldn’t visit China without going to Beijing. We found a way to fit in two days in Beijing, and we would return on Saturday night with the five hour bullet train.

My uncle’s apartment was conveniently close to the Hongqiao train station, but because one never knows with Shanghai traffic, we left home an hour early. Fortunately the roads were clear and we got there in 15 minutes.

My uncle was the leader of the pack. He had been living in Shanghai for the last three years, and he knew how things worked in China and spoke enough Chinese to get around. He was also tall, making it extremely easy to spot him a crowd of Chinese people.  

After consulting the departures board for a minute or two, my uncle started off without a word. Julius and I trailed behind him through the station like two little puppies at their master’s heels. He stopped at the information desk, exchanging a few curt words in Chinese and showing the woman our tickets. The expression on his face looked stern and pensive.

He turned and said to us, “We have to go to the other station.” And without another word, he lumbered off toward the exit with Julius and myself scrambling after him.

Outside on the street, my eyes searched frantically for a taxi while my mind was racing. I had a thousand questions to ask, but I started with the most important one: “Where is the other station?”

It was all the way downtown, and if traffic was good, we could make it there in 30 minutes. If traffic was good. And if we could get a taxi.

“You can’t flag down taxis like this at a train station,” my uncle told us, glancing over at the policeman just ten meters away. “It’s illegal, and the taxis won’t do it. You’re supposed to queue like everybody else.” Queuing for a taxi would take at least ten minutes, and we would never make it in time. There had to be another way.

At that moment, a taxi was pulling up to let a passenger out.

“We gotta jump in before the driver realizes what’s happening.”  

It was now or never. We ran over to the taxi and piled in before the driver had a chance to say anything. I glanced nervously at the policeman, but his back was still to us and he hadn’t seen anything.       

My uncle told the driver where to go and he took off in the direction of downtown. I looked at my watch. Our train was at 20:13 and it was 19:45. I didn’t know how far away downtown was, but the odds definitely were not in our favor.  

In the front seat, my uncle was showing our tickets to the taxi driver. I didn’t know much Chinese, but I could recognize the driver’s tone of surprise when he realized what we were trying to do.

“He says it’s possible, but what else is he going to say?” A beeping noise was going off, which was the speed governor on the taxi. Lots of taxis had them to remind the taxi drivers not to go over the speed limit. At least he was trying to get us there was fast as he could.

“I’m going to give him a nice tip if he gets us there in time,” said my uncle, taking a 100 yuan note out of his pocket. He was like Phileas Fogg, trying to overcome the obstacles impeding travel by throwing money at them, while managing to keep his calm demeanor the entire time. I, on the other hand, was as nervous as Passepartout.

We were close to downtown and things were going smoothly. If traffic kept flowing like it did, we might make it there in time.

We arrived at the station and leapt out of the taxi. My uncle gave the taxi driver the 100 yuan note and told him to keep the change. I heard the excited tone in his voice as he received the tip with gratitude. Just at that moment a man in a military uniform appeared behind my uncle and told him to take his receipt. His face was as expressionless as an executioner’s, and I feared there would be trouble. The taxi driver’s face paled as the soldier stepped into the front seat.

We didn’t have time to stick around and find out what happened next. It was 20:01. We had twelve minutes to go through security and find our train. We could still make it, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.  

The three of us took off at a run, our backpacks thudding heavily. The queue at security was short, and we flew through the check without mishap. The station was busy and we fought against a tide of people to get to the platform. As I saw our train at the platform below within our reach, relief flooded through me. The train was still there! We were going to make it. We flashed our tickets to the guards and jumped into the train with two minutes to spare.  

The train started rolling as we went in search of our sleeping compartment. There were four beds in each compartment, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be too full and we’d get a compartment to ourselves. All the while, I couldn’t stop thinking about the taxi driver and what became of him.   The same thing must have been on everybody’s mind, because my uncle said, “I wonder what happened to the taxi driver.” We would never know.

Upon finding our compartment, we discovered there was somebody already in it – A Chinese man was stretched out on the lower bunk. He had a smile like the Cheshire Cat and greeted us with a cheery “Hello!”

Hardly able to mask our disappointment, we set about changing compartments. I thought it was rude to talk in front of our amicable roommate as if he weren’t even there, but his English wasn’t very good and probably couldn’t understand us anyway.

If there was space available after stopping at the next town, we would be free to move. Unfortunately, many people got on at the next town, dashing our hopes. Amongst the new arrivals was a catty woman who came to our compartment, claiming that one of the beds was hers.  

We got out our tickets, and to my horror I saw my ticket wasn’t for this compartment, but for the one next door. When she discovered this, she started yelling at saying she wanted her bed.

The only thing worse than not having a compartment to ourselves was having to sleep in separate compartments. I wouldn’t do it and they couldn’t make me! I was ready to fight this woman to the death for my bed!

Fortunately our Chinese roommate convinced her to take my bed in the other compartment, and with one last nasty glare at me, she went away.

We got ready for bed and learned a bit more about our bespectacled Chinese roommate in the sky blue polo shirt. He had got his PhD in epidemiology in the Charleston, South Carolina and it turned out he could speak English better than we thought. He lived in Beijing and worked for Merck. He was travelling with only a briefcase, which he carried around with him whenever he left the compartment, probably because he didn’t trust us.

We went to bed at midnight, but I didn’t manage to fall asleep until much later. The constant acceleration and deceleration of the train made me feel like I was going to roll off the top bunk. The incessant chatter of the Dutch girls next door didn’t help either, nor did the occasional cries of our roommate who was having a fitful sleep. Fortunately I was equipped with Night Nurse and earplugs, and eventually drifted off to sleep.

In the morning I decided to skip the rush to use the lavatories. It was a good thing I had, because they were an absolute pig sty. There was urine everywhere, and there was even a string of spittle was dangling from a faucet. Some fellow passengers were so unfamiliar with travelling etiquette that they didn’t even know the toilet door should be locked while in use as Julius discovered when he opened a toilet door to discover a horrified old lady sitting on the toilet.  In Beijing Station I washed my face and put on my contact lenses whilst a queue of awe-struck Chinese women looked on. Lots of people in Beijing were poor country folk and had never seen anybody putting on contact lenses before.

When I got out of the toilet, my uncle told me that the driver wouldn’t be coming as planned. Traffic had become a lot worse in Beijing, especially around the train station. To save time we had to take the metro during morning rush hour to meet the driver at a McDonald’s on the other side of town. Not a big deal right? Wrong. 

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