Monday, September 2, 2013

Should Have Played the Lottery

To say the least, my trip to Wu Dang Shan was strange, and that banal term doesn’t begin to describe how it went down.

I always get a little stressed embarking on a new journey. I am old hat at traveling and really don’t know why I stress. I can pack in less than 5 minutes and not forget a single essential. Buying tickets is no longer the daunting ordeal it was when I first arrived in China. Nevertheless I sweat it, but then calm myself by reassuring the Nervous Nellie side of me. I have reserved seating so it doesn’t matter whether I arrive at the train station an hour early, as long as I get to the station before the train actually leaves. Being as I’ve been making short jaunts all summer I basically left my bag packed, grabbing it on the way out. That type of stuff.

If you’re wondering about clean laundry: I’ve adopted the Chinese habit of hand washing my clothes every night and hanging them up to dry on the conveniently provided hangers and hooks in my hotel room. Traveling with 3 changes of clothes – one to sleep in and two ‘day’ outfits is plenty. When I post the pictures you will not need to wonder why I’m always wearing the same clothes.

Train boarding time. I now avoid the trademark Chinese frenzy of boarding, where one must rush down the platform and into the cars. These days I wait till the crush has diminished, then lope easily into my assigned car and find my reserved seat or berth.

Car 6, seat 16 – easy enough. Wait a minute… there’s someone in my seat! I approach the young man, a teenager traveling with his mother and tell him he is in my assigned seat. I show them my ticket. The boy’s mother points out that my ticket was for yesterday’s train.

That has never happened before.

In my defense: I have to buy my train tickets the old fashioned way. Whereas the Chinese can now log on to the official railway site and book their passage online, picking up the ticket once they arrive at the station, I have to go to the station and hope for the best when desiring travel on a specific date. This time, when I asked the ticketing official for a booking to Wu Dang Shan for the next day, he said there weren’t any. “What about the day after?” He promptly printed out a ticket after checking my ID. I paid the quoted price and he shoved my change, ID and ticket back through the window. I never gave it a second thought.

I should have because that is when the weirdness started.

With all the pushing and shoving that seems an integral part of Chinese culture, standing in line is quite a challenge. Those that buy their tickets at the station are the ones with no computer access, such as migrant workers who have a different set of ethics like cutting in line, usually carrying everything they own and moving parcel and piece up one by one when the line starts moving. The din is untenable. Behind the bulletproof glass the ticketing officials speed through their duties and cannot be heard very well.

First piece of luck: just after I got in line with about 10 people ahead of me a window right next to the line I was standing in opened up. I was the first to notice and jumped to be the first at the newly opened window. Within a minute or two I had my ticket. No time to stop and look at it with legions of ticket hopefuls crowding and shoving around me.  

Fast forward two days: travel day. Getting to the train involves no fewer than 4 checkpoints where railway officials look at your ticket and approve your progression. On my departure day all 4 officials looked at my ticket, motioning me on to the next checkpoint and ultimately into the car I was supposed to ride in. That’s when the kid’s mother pointed out I had a ticket for yesterday’s train.

I went to the conductor who had waved me into my assigned car and told her I had a ticket for yesterday’s train, but if she wouldn’t mind I’d be happy to stand in a doorway or aisle all the way to my destination – 6 hours worth. She smiled and agreed. Apparently paid passage is paid passage, no matter if it was yesterday’s. I rested my bones in a seat close to the door while the car continued to fill.

The woman whose seat I was occupying boarded. Immediately I got up, resigned to my fate of standing. She urged me to sit a while longer. The Chinese are great at standing, have I ever told you that? The train lurched out of the station 10 minutes later. The conductor disappeared, embroiled in duty. Feeling guilty in spite of this kind soul’s letting me rest, I got up and stood in the aisle, assuaging her protests that I should sit longer.

The conductor returned a few minutes later, instructing me to go to car 13 and choose any seat from the 50-range on up (each car has 118 seats). Turns out this car was reserved for railway personnel deadheading back to their home city, and it was virtually empty. I had a whole bench to myself so I spread out, riding comfortably all the way to Wu Dang Shan.

Not bad for a girl with an expired ticket!

My arrival was not spectacular, only that the bus I was supposed to board to take me straight to my hotel had closed its doors and wasn’t letting anyone else on. Reasoning that it was a city bus I decided to wait for the next one, only there was no ‘next one’. Meanwhile there were a bunch of people demanding the privilege of driving me to my destination for a mere 60 Yuan. I’ve been a victim of that before. No thanks.

And then there was this one who offered a shared ride into town for only 15 Yuan. That was a deal! Three other parties and I climbed in. This driver featured again the next day, coming back down the mountain.

After enjoying the mountaintop and all it had to offer (see previous post), we hit city level rather late and it was doubtful that my friends would be able to return to their home. Just as we were debating solutions here comes my driver friend from the day before, volunteering his services again for a mere fraction of what everyone else was charging. Celine and Amber made it to the depot in time to catch the last bus home.

Now alone with the driver, I asked him to please let me off in a populated area so I could buy some dinner. I had not had much to eat because I was waiting for the girls so we could breakfast together. They had already eaten. Temps soaring during midday left us no desire to sup before climbing. Factor in mountain climbing, and by 5PM I was ravenous. The driver ignored my request, dropping me off at my hotel on the edge of town. As though I WANTED to walk more after climbing a mountain! I plodded back toward town, cursing the buses that stop running at 6PM.  

Here is where the weirdness REALLY gets weird!

Not a street vendor or hole in the wall restaurant to be found on this main drag. When I finally did find an eatery, they served me two dishes instead of the one I had ordered. It took forever for the waitress to reappear with 5 different ‘to go’ cartons. I had no idea what was in them. The bill came to 73 Yuan. I cursed the fact that I had again been cheated.

Back at the hotel and now sated, I reasoned that maybe having 2 meals worth of food was not a bad idea. The dishes were certainly tasty. The portion I hadn’t eaten would do for my breakfast. I slept deeply and well, but woke up with an overwhelming desire to go home. In spite of a noon checkout time, the service person knocked on my door at 10AM, essentially forcing me out of the room about an hour before I had planned to leave.

It seems all my plans are going straight to the dump!!!

Evicted before I could enjoy my breakfast and hours before I was due to meet my friends, again I headed into town, this time on a bus. The thronging masses crowding the walking street I had seen yesterday from the bus window were absent today. Into this hush - a vacuum, you might say, I strode with my full pack nestled against the small of my back.

Toward the back of town, across a desolate, sandy strip I spied what appeared to be an ancient wall. It was in fact a temple enclosure, not renovated or populated. Whereas such relics generally charge an entrance fee, this one appeared to be free. With muted reverence I stepped in, discovering a silent courtyard, devoid of people. 

Let’s explore it in greater depth in our next entry, shall we?


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