Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sixteen Hours? No Way!

When I decided to take on my new adventure to Qing Dao I consulted the train schedules and fares online, before even leaving the house. There is a direct train to my destination city but it would take me sixteen hours to get there.

Sixteen hours on a train? Even if I got a sleeper bunk that is a long time to spend on the train. Surely there is a better way to go. I contemplated going via Beijing, and then cutting across either by train or by long distance bus. Not only could I get a sleeper car ticket to Beijing for two days hence but it would only take me ten hours to get there. Much better!

After making notes of train numbers and departure times I headed to the train station to buy my tickets. The lines were nowhere near as long as I had experienced in the past. Soon enough it was my turn at the ticket window and with little fanfare I became the proud owner of two train tickets: one to Beijing and the other to Qing Dao from Beijing. The fare to Beijing was 265Yuan and to Qing Dao 115Yuan. There: now that’s MUCH better, right?

Except that I was going to have to spend about fifteen hours in Beijing, and I would end up in Qing Dao somewhere around 2AM. That’s not good.

Not only do I not like Beijing but, if I got to Qing Dao at 2AM buses would not be running and it would be hard to find a decent hotel at that time of night.

No problem: once I arrive in Beijing I’ll just exchange the Qing Dao ticket for an earlier one. There’s bound to be an earlier train. Satisfied with travel plans at last, I went home and packed.

Overnight train ride to Beijing: only OK. I did get a top bunk, which I always seek but, for some reason I did not sleep well. Tossing, turning, waking up every so often… I consoled myself that I would have a rare (for me) cup of coffee when the train pulls into the station.

Why don’t I like Beijing, do you ask? That city is too big, too cosmopolitan and too Western for my tastes. The people tend to be very rude and the city is dirty. I do like the way they manage their bus system – people queue up for their bus instead of shoving their way on. There are bus monitors who oversee the boarding to ensure it is done in orderly fashion. However there are always those that cut in line and then, the monitors have their buddies who get to move ahead of everyone… It just seems that, in Beijing it is every man, woman and child for him/herself. A far cry from the peaceful, harmonious atmosphere of other cities I’ve been to.

So you can understand why I didn’t sleep well and, once off the train felt harried and rushed. I immediately headed to the ticketing window to see about exchanging my ticket. Apparently I was at the wrong window even though the signage indicated that any window could/would exchange tickets. By this time the ticketing office had filled up. I called it quits when a man cut in line in front of me and refused to go to the end of the line even though I told him that I too was waiting for my turn. See what I mean about rude?

Time to go find that cup of coffee. There’ll be time enough to exchange tickets after something to eat and a bit of a time out. I’m stuck in Beijing for fifteen hours as it is.  

After breakfast, resuming my place at the ticketing window – the correct one this time! I did find out there was an earlier train to Qing Dao: the high speed train that leaves from the south train station at 3PM. Ticket price: 317Yuan. I forked over the difference (202Yuan) and walked out of the station contemplating what I would for 8 hours in this city I detest.

Ride buses. That is what I do in every city. It is a cheap and fun pastime. Added bonus: Beijing has ‘accordion buses’. A bus and a half, with an accordion extension joining the two. One boards at the middle door and pays the conductor, and exits at either the front or back doors. The fun part is standing or sitting in the accordion portion of the bus and getting spun around when the bus goes around a curve.

Beijing is so large that it has no less than 6 train stations. I came in at Beijing East train station but needed t get to South train station. After asking the bus monitors which bus to board in order to get to South Station and being misled no less than four times, I finally boarded the right bus for that destination. I consulted the bus route map to find out which station to get off at. Nowhere on the route map was ‘South Train Station’ indicated. More rudeness: I asked a fellow passenger which station to get off the bus to get to the South train station. He told me to talk to the conductor. I asked the conductor. She told me to sit down.

“Will you tell me what stop to get off at?”  No response. I sat down.

Two stops later she instructed me to get off the bus. Still nowhere is a train station indicated. I asked some uniformed women at the bus stop where this maddening train station is. They were quite helpful and told me exactly where to go.

Once I found out where the train station was and ascertained it was in fact the correct train station I went bus riding some more. And that is when I got to thinking…

Fare from Wuhan to Beijing: two hundred sixty five Yuan. From Beijing to Qing Dao: Three hundred seventeen Yuan. All the bus fare I spent killing time while in Beijing: fourteen Yuan.

Between what I spent getting to Beijing – a city I loathe and then to Qing Dao, and all the bus fare and food money I spent while dallying around, I could have bought a plane ticket and gotten to Qing Dao much faster. And then, to add insult to injury: I spent twenty four hours in transit due to my so-called clever maneuvering, instead of the sixteen hours it would have taken me to go directly to Qing Dao from Wuhan.

Boy, do I feel bright.

Part of the problem is that I’m at the mercy of everyone from ticketing agents to bus conductors. As of last year people can go online to buy train and bus tickets. A certain number of tickets are reserved for online sales and the ticketing counter gets the leftovers. If online sales exceed their reserved number the system will automatically make more tickets available online. Counter sales are now the last option. Tickets are sold out days in advance. It seems that, if I wish to make the best traveling plans and decisions I need to learn how to buy tickets online.

Oh, Sam!!!   

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