#29 Thank You for Those False Expectations

I feel the most alive right before visiting a place I’ve never been in my life. I remember myself, sitting on a train heading south towards Lake Constance from Ravensburg (the town where I stayed with my host family), inhaling the familiar scent of leather upholstery mixed with black coffee, staring out at the emerald and sienna and earthy tones of the countryside, and the thing that occupies my mind the most, is imagining what the lake looks like in summertime.

Last time I was nearby, the trees were topped with snowy caps, everywhere, save for the asphalt autobahns and winding roads, was blanketed with a sea of white white white. What shade of blue would the lake be now that it’s summer? Would I still be able to see the mountains in Switzerland? Do the seagulls here squawk like their cousins in Brighton and the French Riviera?

The train slid into the station at Friedrichshafen Station, where I followed the flow of day trippers and bikers and everyone else to the other platform to catch a connecting train heading eastwards to the famed lakeside town of Lindau…

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#12 Eight Lessons On Rail Travel – Beijing, China

Travel Dates: 2 – 7 May 2009

Not many people enjoy reading a descriptive travel piece without any extra value towards their base of knowledge, so I shall give some travel ideas and dish out some advice about going to Beijing  instead. What’s of utmost concern to you, the free and easy traveler? Getting to your destination of choice, before anything else!

Lesson #1: Travel guide books may have some doubtful content, but they are mostly right! Believe what Lonely Planet says, at least the travel advice!

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We sit, we stand, we whine and we grumble…in the hard seat carriage

My journey to Beijing is an exhausting, close to hellish, train ride, but nevertheless rather ‘adventurous’ and thus made it pretty unforgettable indeed. It did occur to me to book tickets in advance, but since we decided to take the train from Shenzhen (China) instead of Hung Hom (Hong Kong), we needed to buy them in Shenzhen. And we didn’t want to make the extra trip across the border, so we just simply hoped there were tickets to Beijing while we arrived in Shenzhen. Bad move, because there weren’t ANY seats left, let alone sleepers! Booking train tickets in China can be a bitch, so unless you go to a travel agent, you can’t get return tickets, because tickets are only sold at the point of departure. The only good thing is that we paid RMB260 for a one-way ticket, and that’s half the price of a hard-sleeper and near 1/10 of a plane ticket. Money saved in exchange for some physical hardship. Aah, come on, this is what travelling is ALL about! :)

Lesson #2: Always buy tickets in advance to avoid surprises and potentially uncomfortable situations, and especially if you can’t bear to stand throughout a 24-hour train ride.

We were determined to get our asses to Beijing the next day, so in the spirit of adrenaline-charged adventure, we bought a “no seat” ticket, which is essentially just a standing space confined to a particular carriage on the train. This proved to be a challenge, especially the culture shock at first. When Lonely Planet mentioned that hard seaters could be quite unbearable and not for the uninitiated, they were absolutely right. In a narrow aisle space of less than 50cm along the carriage stood at least 25-30 people who all purchased “no seat” tickets.

Lesson #3: Know your threshold before you embark on an adventurous journey.

After 1-2 hours of standing, and with the prospect of standing for another 23 hours at the back of our minds, we decided to sit in the aisle, while people continued to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisle, going to the extremely unsanitary bathroom, or just near the doors for a smoke. It was warm and stuffy, people were eating and YELLING at each other (no fear, this is how Chinese people conduct a cordial conversation). The smoke from both ends of the carriage wafted in and filled the space, since there was civic mindedness in people to close the carriage doors. On top of this olfactory annoyance, there would be annoying standing passengers who would plonk their butt down onto a seat they didn’t pay for, and ask a paid seated passenger to scoot aside to make space, and they usually do because they want to avoid making a scene. Essentially this means that you won’t be spared from having your private space invaded even if you DID manage to secure a hard seat for yourself. For the pampered tourist, this would be the part where you will flung your prissy ass across the tracks and contemplate suicide because you won’t be able to stand this nonsense.

Lesson #4: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

Very soon, adversity forced us to learn the Chinese way. Whenever someone stood up to use the bathroom, we would take their seats until they return to give us the evil eye, of which we would promptly ignore and dismiss. Close to nighttime, after 10 hours of sitting/crouching/standing like an illegal immigrant smuggling into another country, we decided to conquer some space, and sat at someone’s seat and just refused to get up, managing to get 2 hours’ of nap while the rightful passengers stood and watched us (rather patiently, in fact). At this point, I realized that these people must be regulars in these situations and they are quite nice indeed to not have demanded for their seats back, knowing that standing passengers have much rougher time on the ride than they do.

Lesson #5: Be flexible and willing to part with a little money for some precious slumber.

We didn’t learn the Chinese way quick enough though. By 2am, we felt the exhaustion settling in and we were desperate to look for a place to sleep. Looked for the train conductor in hopes of upgrading to a sleeper. No luck… Decided to go to sleep in the restaurant car instead. Passengers need to be paying customers in order to stay there, so we paid RMB35 each for the standard snack set they had on the menu to earn the right to stay until 6am. I later learnt that we could actually spend that RMB35 and stay in the restaurant car from 10pm to 6am, but it was good enough for us to have a bit of personal space for 4 hours. Even though the seats were too short length-wise and a little hard in spite of the padding, I promptly fell asleep, curled up like a fetus, only awoken by a crick in the neck…

Lesson #6: The beautiful moments on a journey are transient and unpredictable, when they appear, just sit back and enjoy.

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Sunrise, sunrise…

The sun began peeking out from beneath the flurry clouds at a little before 6am. The scenery of the countryside was dream-like and whimsically beautiful. A thick blanket of fog shrouded the rolling plains of farmland somewhere 8 hours south of Beijing, around one-third of the journey left (near Jinan perhaps?). The sunrise was spectacular, since we were facing seawards towards the east. The weather was balmy and crisp, very promising for a great day out in the city…though it was really too early to tell since we were still far from reaching our destination. We were recharged even though we barely slept, but the little shuteye and the prospect of actually surviving this “worth a story-telling session” train ride perked us up and gave us the strength we needed to endure till the end. Continue reading