This week is the labour holiday and everyone in China gets a week off. Well, that is, (as my friend Louise aptly pointed out), everyone except those in the travel industry. It seems as though the entire population of this country hops a train or a bus or a plane and disappears somewhere during this labour holiday week. So, thankfully, there are conductors and drivers and pilots still working!
When I realized that I’d have a week off school, I was surprised. I hadn’t planned to do any travel while in Beijing considering my study schedule, and I also hadn’t factored in a large budget for any out-of-town venturing save the short distance jaunt.
My friends Sarah and Jenni convinced me that I had to go to Shanghai four a fve-day weekend. It didn’t take much arm twisting. The train tickets aren’t that expensive and Jenni lives there and so we can stay in her apartment for free. I’d love to see another major Chinese city and I’d love to experience train travel in this country too, the latter being something I have been told is totally worth doing once (or twice, in my case!)
Getting train tickets proved to be quite an affair.
(The picture above shows the long line-ups at this train window later that evening.)
Last week, we went to a travel agent in Wudaokou to check into availability. Sarah had known this agent before and after some serious wrangling and partial translations over the telephone, we finally managed to find her office in this big corner office building on the main intersection of Wudaokou.
We still couldn’t figure out which floor she was on, though, despite my recently learned stock of travel phrases and vocabulary. I managed to pull out “luxing she” (travel agency) and we were directed up and down the elevator.
Finally, on the sixteenth floor, we ventured down the lonely and unclear hallway and found the “luxing she” office at the far end. Services in this building are hidden away and I found it to be a great contrast to services back home in store fronts with flashy signs and advertising to catch the attention of potential customers. And, all the floors look the same and so one obviously needs to know where one is going!
The travel agent was really sweet to us but after making some calls, told us there were definitely no seats available. She told us that we should call back early this week – the week of our departure – but she couldn’t guarantee tickets because of how many people were travelling for the labour holidays.
We were deflated and discouraged.
Trying to figure out the next course of action while walking towards some lunch, we discovered a small hole-in-the-wall train ticket wicket and asked the man behind the tiny square opening in the wall about tickets to Shanghai on the 27th of April. He told us that we should return on Monday at one in the afternoon and that tickets will be made available then.
Why? If they were available, then why couldn’t we just purchase them then? We were frustrated and confused.
A few phone calls later and one of Sarah’s friends tipped us off that here in China you are not permitted to purchase train tickets directly until it is, at most, five days before your departure time. The other option is to book more than a month in advance with a travel agent, but of course one pays extra for that premium service.
As we were planning to leave on Friday the 27th of April, Monday was the magic day for booking. The man behind the square was being straight with us. Okay then.
Furthermore, you can only purchase tickets from departure location while in your departure location. For example, Jenni (who normally lives in Shanghai) had to purchase my ticket for my return to Beijing, whereas we had to purchase Jenni’s ticket to Shanghai from Beijing. (She’s here now on business and will be going back with us on Friday night.)
So, Monday came around and we returned to the wicket window to find that the time we were supposed to return was now pushed until Tuesday. “Why?” I asked, but I didn’t understand the answer. I said: “But you told us to come back at this time on Monday and now you’re telling me something different.” I still didn’t understand his response but he was clear that nothing was available through him until Tuesday.
As our intended departure time was creeping closer, we were starting to think it wasn’t going to happen. “That’s okay,” I said. “Maybe it’s not meant to be?”
I think that fuelled Sarah’s determination to make it happen and so she took it upon herself to go down to the main Beijing train station (“Beijing Zhan”) in order to ask around. She went once and was turned away. She was told the same thing as we were told in Wudaokou. But, later that same day she returned.
It’s really her perseverance that got us tickets this weekend.
Jenni told Sarah on the phone that there is supposed to be a foreigner’s desk for ticket purchases at Beijing Zhan. While the lines stretched endlessly in the main section of the station (and she was already familiar with these!), Sarah started exploring other desks to see if she could find the foreigner’s ticket counter. She went upstairs to another level and saw that a similar ticket purchase area was nearly deserted. Only one counter was open and there was no one behind the desk.
In the hallway, she had passed a woman – the only person she saw there – and asked her about whether or not there was a foreigner’s desk at the station. The woman very curtly said “mei you” and walked away (“no, there isn’t” in Mandarin). Sarah now watched this same woman walk behind this large counter and station herself behind the only open wicket. The counter said “VIP” and there was no one in line.
Figuring it was worth another shot, she approached the woman again and asked if she could purchase three tickets to Shanghai for the 27th of April. The same woman who had just dismissed Sarah’s question in the hallway then just as curtly responded “keyi” (“yes, you can”) and processed the purchase for Sarah right then and there.
Sometimes the language and culture barrier makes simple things seem extremely confusing. But, hey no complaints.
I got an excited text from Sarah moments later telling me that she had been successful and that we all had tickets to Shanghai. A few days later, Jenni was able to purchase my return ticket as well. They’re continuing off to another destination by plane and I’ll be coming back to this city for the Midi Festival.
While we may not officially be “VIP,” we will be the “very intriguing people” on the overnight train to Shanghai on the 27th.
I can’t wait!