Friday, 9 March 2012

Asia Memories 1: Confusion on the Beijing Express

Last month I asked readers to enter a competition for a copy of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook, to celebrate my accumulation of over 1000 followers on my Twitter feed.

Here's the second-placing entry, Fran Watson's entertaining tale of the difficulties involved in finding one's train in a busy Chinese railway station (edited from the longer version on her blog):

In hindsight, I possibly didn’t choose the best route for my first solo train trip in China: Taiyuan to Beijing. Even forearmed with my ticket, the whole experience is overwhelming.

Taiyuan station is quite a large hub for the area. It’s not a little regional station. I should have tried to do this from a small, two platform station but noooooo, I've chosen the crossroads of a zillion communities. 

Although Taiyuan Station is quite the hub, it’s not quite up to the standard of the big city stations. Beijing and Shanghai have stations like airports (and they’re bilingual!), but not Taiyuan.

Numbers and pictures

Airports in China are pretty much bilingual. Everything is stated twice, once in Chinese and once in English. Stand in front of a board long enough and you will find where you need to go. I stand in front of the big flashing LED board at the station long enough. I still have absolutely NO IDEA where the hell I'm going.

Finally I see my train number and time flash up. There it is D2006, departing at 11:30 for 北京 - that would be Beijing. This much I can ascertain from comparing squiggles on my ticket.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else I can glean from the magic light board. It does indicate that I need to go to a waiting room that looks like this  and another unidentifiable symbol.

I look for help. Damn near every worker in China has an official looking uniform, so it’s not necessarily helpful to approach someone who may LOOK like they are an authority figure, because you’re just as likely to find that they are the local dog walker.

Crouching tiger, hidden platforms

Well I have my ticket so let’s rule out all the windows labelled ‘ticket’ and assume that there’s no baggage check.

That leaves one door. Here’s hoping this is the right direction. Through I go. Baggage x-ray machine and more people in uniform, this time waving wands. Well, it seems to be progress. No point having a security check just for the hell of it. Bags through, me through, wand waved in a rather non-effective way.

At the top is a big corridor with what appears to be waiting rooms breaking off at regular intervals.

Sill no signs in English, numbers that mean nothing, people swarming all over the place carrying neat little suitcases and enormous bundles of unidentifiable food. I am yet to even see a TRAIN let alone a platform, or tracks, or anything that vaguely identifies this as a station. In fact, all I have done is gone UP to the second floor. 

Enter the waiting room

I spot a sign at the end of an enormous hall. This is the only way I can describe this waiting room: it’s like a giant ballroom of rows of chairs … and people, thousands of people! Well … it looks like I am going to have to go through each waiting room one by one. I stand in the corridor and take a deep breath. I am completely lost.

Do you remember that feeling you had as a child that first time you got lost in the supermarket? For me there is no recollection of conscious thought, it’s just a feeling of utter despair and fear. As an adult I don’t feel this far out of my comfort zone often. I rarely feel this utterly lost. Today though, I am almost at the point of sobbing.

I consciously tell myself not to cry. I actually mutter it under my breath: “I will not let this beat me! I have got this far in a foreign land and I’ll be damned if a fricking railway station is going to beat me.”

Form a disorderly queue

I have now pushed my way through the barrier into three other waiting rooms. I have discovered that the LED ticker sign at the end of each waiting room is above a bank of stairs and escalators leading down to … OMG! PLATFORMS! Thank God, sign of trains!

Finally in waiting room number four I see my train number, D2006, departing 11:30am for 北京.

There are people forming a queue over to the far left of the room. This is in front of a bank of stairs and escalators; however, my LED ticker is over on the right side of the grand hall. Does this mean they lead to different  places? Is that the queue I should be in?

The big mob seems closer to my ticker than the neat queue in the far left of the room, so I’m going to go with that. I weave my way through the crowd to what, I think, is the ‘end’ of the ‘queue’, and I stand. I am pretty sure I am in the right place. Although I am still somewhat curious about the smaller line near some ‘nice chairs’. 

The secret of the nice chairs

Now I have a first class ticket, and I am wondering if I have access to the ‘nice chairs’ and the small queue. I sure as hell am not going over there to find out though.

I decide to try and communicate with a fellow mob member. After some charades and ticket pointing, neither of us are any the wiser as to what the other is saying. Then, from behind me, a rather proper, somewhat hesitant voice says "Hello, may I help you?"

I turn to see a young Chinese man who has clearly had to think about his words. It’s not his native language. It is music to my ears though.

“Am I in the right place?” He looks at my ticket. He points to the smaller queue and the ‘nice chairs’. “You may go over there if you like.” 

The gate opens

I am pretty sure I tread on some toes, I think I drag my bag over the odd foot, I try ever so carefully to be polite. 

Anyway, I finally get to my more civilised queue… and I wait. This queue is far less of a seething mob than the other… until the gate opens. 

One person through is enough to show sign of movement and chaos ensues. Everyone seated is now pushing into the queue. A grand ballroom of people just started pushing forward. It would not surprise me if people die doing this!

Finally my bag and I make it through the barrier in one piece, then down the escalator to the platform. I know that I am on carriage 16, seat 51. Once I figure out which direction the numbers go, I start heading down the platform … carriage six, carriage seven, carriage eight … I am starting to run out of train here. Ten minutes and ten carriages later, I get to carriage 16.

To Beijing and beyond

From here, it’s easy. Just like a plane. Seat numbers are clearly marked. Perfect. Bag stowed, I find my seat. Relax. Deep breath. I made it.

The trip is uneventful and three and half hours later I am in Beijing. Thank whichever deity you care to, I chose the right train.

And that folks, was my introduction to train travel in China.