Wednesday, June 07, 2006

China Stories, Pt. 8: Making Travel Plans

I had just gotten to China, and already I had a week off. I wasn't sure what to do, until my classmate Bob asked if I wanted to travel together with him, and I agreed. We had decided to go to Sichuan.

After looking through our guidebooks (Lonely Planet), we decided we would start off by going to the provincial capital of Chengdu, and then travel out from there to Leshan. Our first and most important task was getting train tickets. (We were only getting our outbound tickets-- we could only buy our return tickets once we got there.)

Spring Festival in China is the holiday-- it's the time when everyone returns home. It's Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. Oh- and Fourth of July, since fireworks play a big role in the celebration. It's the busiest travel time of the year by far, so we were worried about being able to get tickets. We were certain that getting the tickets would be a hassle, since everyone else was getting tickets too.

Bob and I rode our bicycles down to the Xizhimen train station and made our way into the station, which was packedwith would be travelers. There were posters on every wall warning of the dangers of fireworks, complete with colorful graphic photos of gruesome injuries.

There are 4 classes of service on trains in China: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. For long trips such as we were taking (47 hours, two nights and two days), the sleeper berths were absolutely the way to go. But plenty of Chinese traveled those kinds of distances by hard seat, because of the cost, which was probably 1/2 the price of hard sleeper, which in turn was 1/2 again the price of soft sleeper. Spending two days and nights upright on a bench seat--with a hundred or so other people-- did not sound like my idea of a good time. Fortunately Bob and I were in agreement: no need to be a hero. We would go hard sleeper.

We made our way through a pushing, grabbing mass of people to find the right line. We had to be vigilant to keep people from breaking into the line. We were being stared at by virtually everyone, most of whom were probably from small rural towns, and had not had much contact with foreigners. People were curious about us. But they had no compunction about pushing their way in front of us.

When we finally got to a ticket window, we asked for hard sleepers.

"Sold out," the ticket woman said.

She was about to help someone else, which would mean we'd be out of line and out of luck. Bob kept talking while I held back a human tide that wanted to push us away from the window.

"How about the next day?"

"Sold out," she said again.

"How about soft sleeper?"

"Soft many? Two?"

"Two." Okay now we were getting somewhere.

She started shuffling papers around.

"230 FEC each,"she said.

Bob and I were flabbergasted. That was a lot more than we were hoping to pay.

"But we're foreign students. We pay in RMB."

"No," she said dismissively. "Foreigners pay in FEC. 230 each."

Bob and I just kept talking - just to stay at the window. It was as though we were talking someone in off a ledge. At the same time, people behind us in line were trying to push us off a ledge.

"We're just students. We don't have FEC, only RMB. We can only afford to pay RMB."

She paused to consider our argument. We held our breath. If she asked for our green cards, we would be out of luck.

"Wait," she said, and walked away. Was this progress, or would we never see her again?

While she was gone, Bob and I had to physically protect our position at the counter.

She came back.

"Okay. 115 RMB each."

Bob and I were only too happy to pay and get out of there. When we emerged from the station with our tickets, we were physically and mentally exhausted. The effort to get to the window, to stay at the window and to finally get our tickets had been taxing. We were elated to have paid in RMB, and we hadn't accounted for the extra savings from paying the regular price instead of the jacked-up foreigner price.

We spent the afternoon in comparative relaxation buying other things we would need for our trip-- food, loose tea, a teacup. Toilet paper. Reading material.

In less than a week, we would traveling by soft sleeper to Chengdu, a 47-hour trip spanning more than 1,300 miles, for the cost of about US$15.


At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Whinger said...

SO interesting.

Mildly unrelated story: my mother's dad was stationed in Japan after WWII, and brought his family with him. My mother, who was blonde as a child, remembers the Japanese people constantly fondling her hair as they'd never seen that color on a child before. It's her first memory.

Travel is eye-opening and liberating, and I'm so glad you're sharing these stories.

Word verification: ACTUAL word -- waded.

At 4:40 PM, Anonymous Kirin said...

Ish -

Are you just writing these now for the blog, or are these from a diary? Just asking because of all the keen detail. Is your memory that good? If so, then I'm jealous.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Ish said...

Whinger - funny you mention that about hair. As you will shortly see, that happened to me as well.

Kirin - this is mostly from memory, with some help from the internet and some license in filling in the blanks. For instance, I don't know for sure the exact cost of my train tickets, or the originally quoted price. But the order of magnitude is right, and the how and where of it is accurate.

I have been surprised myself by how freely these memories are flowing right now, and the vividness of my recollections.

Thanks for reading!

At 6:53 PM, Blogger riseyp said...

LOVE the way you crafted this one to culminate with the extraspecial ending :-)

man, i wish i'd been there.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger riseyp said...

p.s. these stories would be great in a real, live, hardcover book (hint) ;-)


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