Sunday, 29 May 2011

Beijing to Taiyuan

I was advised that Chinese train ticket offices in major stations are mayhem. “Make sure you buy your onward tickets as soon as you arrive” warned the Lonely Planet. Surely that’s a bit of over-reaction, I thought. Like when it says you mustn’t accept money with your left hand while entering a yurt backwards, on pain of death. Guidebooks always exaggerate to make you feel like you can’t live without them. Having said that, I love the Lonely Planet, or “the bible” to give it its other, more common name. It gives slightly autistic people like me all the information one could possibly want about an area - major sights, the rat-less hotels, restaurants with little-to-no e coli - but it makes me want to plan too much in advance. For this bigger trip I was relishing turning up without bookings, with no cares and no plans and going wherever I fancied. China, as it turned out, doesn’t really do the whole laissez-faire thing.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh. It certainly didn’t help me arriving on their national May holiday, when all transport is packed to the brim with domestic holidaymakers, but it certainly took more effort than I expected. I arrived at my hastily booked, seedy business hotel in Beijing and asked about train tickets.

“Can I buy a ticket to Taiyuan for tomorrow?” I asked.
“Tomorrow? Good luck. Go to station now and buy there.”

“Is there any other way?” I asked “Internet booking? E-tickets? Buy on the train?” not wanting to make the 90min roundtrip to the station.
"No, just station"

When I finally arrived at Beijing main station it was a hive of activity, with hundreds of people swarming around the 30 or so ticket booths. I made a bee-line for the information desk and asked if they spoke English in stilted Mandarin (one of the few phrases I tried to learn on the plane journey - again, a little more planning would have been handy). Blank looks all round. Maybe I said it wrong. I pointed to the characters in the phrasebook.

“Ahhh,” the assistant said and after repeating the phrase back to me with imperceptible tonal differences, “go to counter 18 - she sometimes speaks English”.

Mandarin is a tonal language with 4 or 5 ways of saying each vowel (rising, falling, rising and falling etc) and can have totally different meanings e.g. ‘ma’ can mean ‘mum’, ‘horse’, ‘hemp’ or ‘scold’ depending on the way you say it, and if you get a tone wrong, it apparently makes the sentence wholly unintelligible to the native ear. Couple that with my natural tendency to go up at the end of a question and down on a statement and it caused no end of problems.

After queueing at counter 18 for 30mins without moving I gave up. There must be an easier way. I went back to my hotel and asked reception again.

“Well, you can buy from the state train ticket office next door. No commission.”



Beijing is big. Really big. In the same way that Greater London is a large area of satellite towns inside the M25, Greater Beijing has swamped a region the size of Belgium (that's no exaggeration), with 6 city ring roads and a seventh in the planning stages. Luckily most of the major city sights are clustered together. As I knew I'd be back in Beijing several times before the end of the trip I decided to leave the heat and haze of the city and head out to the Summer Palace for the afternoon.

Built around manmade Kunming lake, the palace grounds cover several square kilometers and has impressive sounding temples, halls and pavillions e.g. "The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity" or my personal favourite, "The Temple of Excessive Moisture".

Back at my hotel in the evening, the phone rang. "Ni hao, do you want massage?"
In fact throughout the trip, every night I stayed in a cheap business hotel I got a call asking about "massages", whether I'd like some "hot water" or some other euphemism for physical activity with a happy ending. Although all the Chinese business hotels have signs in the lobby stating that prostitution won't be tolerated, I find it hard to believe that the hotels aren't in on the game. And it seems it's not just limited to cold-calling single men - some of the girls I met also had calls to their room but when they answered the caller would hang up. I suppose to a Chinese "masseuse" reading the hotel register, it's not immediately obvious which western names are boys and girls...

The following day I used my hard-earned ticket to Taiyuan. In the carriage I got plenty of stares from the other passengers, and pointing and giggling at the "waiguoren" [foreigner] or "laowai" [arguably more offensive word for foreigner], depending on their perception. A little child ran up to me to show me his battery-powered, crawling, flag-bearing PLA soldier toy with electronic machine gun noise. Entertaining for the first 15mins, but mixing 3 hours of continuous gunfire with ear-blisteringly loud Chinese pop eminating from the phones of velour tracksuited Chinese chavs and I was daydreaming of an alternative use for the emergency hammer.

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