Thursday, July 12, 2007

Train in Vain

No, seriously, buying a train ticket in China is harder than you might think. I know because I once spent three months there traveling by train. Well, more like two and a half months. Just before Thanksgiving, I was in Chongqing, a strange little city at the navigable end of the Yangtze River, and spent most of a day at the train station trying to buy a ticket to Guilin. Guilin is in southern China and is famous for its misty cliffs—if you’ve ever seen a Chinese landscape painting, you’ve seen Guilin.

I waited in several lines. A couple of times I got to the front of one, only to be told “mei you”—there aren’t any. I remember it taking about five hours to get someone to sell me a ticket to Guilin.

When I got on my train, the conductress in my car struck up a conversation with me. She was very sweet, and seemed to be charmed by my imperfect Mandarin. We made small talk for a while, and I felt the conversation was really flowing for a change—my Chinese must have been improving. “Where are you from?” she asked; “How long have you been here? Where are you going now?”

I told her Guilin and her face fell. She shook her head and turned my ticket over to show me. “No, you’re not,” she said sadly. Sure enough, the ticket said “Xian” on it.

To put this in geographic perspective, this is like getting on a train in Denver, thinking you’re going to New Orleans, but finding out hours later that you’re actually on your way to Chicago. I don’t know exactly how this happened. Probably the ticket salesperson panicked when she saw a foreigner, didn’t understand what I said, and was too embarrassed to ask me to clarify. Possibly Xian was the only destination sold at that window, so when I said I wanted a ticket, by golly, I got a ticket. At any rate, it was at that moment that I knew my adventure was more or less over. I knew I wouldn’t be extending my visa. It was time to go home. At the next major rail junction, I got off, bought (correctly) a ticket to Beijing, a city I’d gotten to know pretty well, and stayed in that area until it was time to fly home.

It doesn’t have to be that hard, of course, and didn’t even then. If I’d just stayed at a decent hotel instead of a bare-bones youth hostel, I could have had a concierge handle it. But decent hotels cost upwards of $20 per night then, and what backpacker has that kind of money? (Answer: Lots of them, including myself. But it’s easy to get caught up in the backpacking mania of doing everything on the cheap.)

Nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were possible to buy tickets over the Internet. But you can see why I might have some issues surrounding the situation. Please wish me luck as I attempt to climb back on that iron horse.


Anonymous said...




Nicole said...

I used to have a strict no flying within China policy, but I relented last summer, flying from Shanghai to Beijing. Obviously I lived to tell the tale. I try never to say never where China is concerned.