Hot and Bothered (And Not the Good Kind)

Hangzhou Travel Blog

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China is difficult.  Nothing here is easy.  Nothing.  And on top of being so maddeningly difficult, it's filthy.  Like shockingly, disturbingly filthy.  I hear two weeks is the norm for getting over the "shock" of the vast filth and awfulness, so I figure I'm squarely in the first few days of my allotted two weeks.  I'm pretty much horrified or angered (or both) at every turn.  It's going to be a long two weeks.  (Here's hoping it's just two weeks, and not my full five.)

So the deal with China's rail system is that it's wildly inefficient and a massive pain in the ass.  While train travel is widespread and popular and there is an extensive web of tracks that crisscross all over the country, they still manage to make it as difficult as possible.  There aren't many trains on a given route per day, you can only buy tickets 7-10 days in advance (depending on the route), and you must buy tickets in person.  Moreover, you cannot buy a return ticket, and you cannot buy a ticket that departs from a different city than the one in which you are currently standing.  In other words, I will need a ticket out of Beijing in about a week.  In theory, I could buy one now, because I'm within the allotted seven day period.  However, because I am not actually in Beijing, I can't buy one.  I must be in that city.  And seeing as trains get booked up days in advance, I could very well find myself SCREWED and stuck in Beijing for days longer than I intend to.  You can see how this is outrageous and maddening.  I'm pissed off just thinking about it.

Happily, there is a small loophole for Hangzhou and Shanghai, because the two cities are so close to each other, and in order to travel north from Hangzhou you must pass through Shanghai.  As such, I was able to secure my Hangzhou - Beijing ticket upon arriving in Shanghai, as opposed to waiting until arriving in Hangzhou.  (This will probably be the only exception to this rule throughout the whole of my travels in China.)  Train stations don't offer so much as a syllable in English, which makes ticket buying ever more delightful.  Most hotels and hostels cater to this niche by securing rail tickets for you for a small fee.  (I will be paying these fees up the wazoo if it means I don't have to deal with the jerks manning the ticket windows.)  So I had my hostel snag my ticket from Hangzhou to Beijing, and asked them to do the same for Shanghai to Hangzhou.  The guy at the desk told me there were dozens of trains between Shanghai and Hangzhou every day, and that I'd be fine, and that I should just go whenever I was ready, that way I didn't have to worry about rushing to catch (or miss) a train.  Sounded good to me.

Fast forward a few days to when I'm checking out, and he asks me if I have my ticket.  And I'm like uh, no, you said it wasn't necessary.  And he's all "oh."  OH.  I did NOT like the sound of that "oh."  So I get to the station, stand in line at the ticket window for ages, being pushed and shoved and nearly spit on the whole time, hand over the paper that I had the dude write down in Mandarin what I needed, and am handed my ticket.  Easy enough.  And then I notice it's for THREE HOURS and change later.  Three hours!  No they don't have dozens of trains per day, they have four.  And they're every few hours.  And the one that will pull out of the station in a mere forty minutes?  Booked solid.  Gee, thanks guy.  Really solid advice there.

So I'm summoning my mother's voice in my head, "consider yourself lucky if this is your problem, there are worse things in life," etc, and am thinking three hours in a train station isn't the end of the world.  I have a book, and sudoku, and maybe I'll wander around and break and have fast food for the first time, it'll be fine.  Well the train station itself looks nice enough.  Big (no ventilation to speak of, but you wouldn't know that just by looking at it), room to walk around, random KFCs all over the place.  I circle the whole damn thing and can't find my gate.  So I ask the first person I find that works there (a feat unto itself) where my gate is, and she points me downstairs.  Into a waiting area that's akin to a holding pen for cattle.  Oh no I am NOT exaggerating.  Believe you me, I wish I were.

If the train station above lacked ventilation, I don't know how you'd describe the room below.  Disgusting?  Suffocating?  Inhumane?  It was about the size of your standard gate/waiting area at an airport, so not exactly small.  Except it had something like TWO THOUSAND people in it, sitting, standing, pushing, shoving, spitting, screaming, staring at the funny looking foreigner, screaming and pushing some more.  It was AWFUL.  So along the whole length of the room is a wall made entirely of windows, where you can look out to the (vacant) train tracks.  And when that train pulls in, EVERY EYE in the room is on that train.  The train is emptying, and then there is a cleaning crew on it (who just run around and frolic to their hearts' delight, as the train isn't actually CLEANED), and the whole time the mass of people in this cattle pen is staring and straining and screaming louder and pushing harder and CHOMPING to get on that train LIKE YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE.  The British couple I met a couple nights prior mentioned in passing that the boarding process for trains was insane, but every train I've boarded thus far has been a manic surge of people pushing to get on first (although the Japanese make it look downright sluggish and polite in comparison), so I didn't think much about it.  In hindsight maybe it was better that I had this first train boarding to watch before my own.  They open the gates, and all fucking hell breaks loose.  You would think they were handing out a million dollars and a free pass out of this wretched country given the speed and aggression with which these people move.  Pushing, shoving, hurdling, running, full out sprinting -- FULL OUT SPRINTING!  To a train that is going NOWHERE for at least twenty minutes.  There are ASSIGNED seats, no less.  Where are you running to?!?  Why are you bulldozing people over left and right to get to Car 9, Seat 26?  Why??  It will STILL BE THERE three minutes from now.  BREATHE.  I mean, jesus.  It's an all-out STAMPEDE to the train.  Not pleasant in the least.

The mass exodus from the cattle pen meant that most of the seats freed up, so I chose one against the windows and next to the gate.  I wanted to be as far away from the next mass that would swell in and then stampede like rabid animals.  And when it was our turn, I stood there, leaning against my bag and as far away from the grasp and purposefully thrown elbows as I could (catching a few dozen anyway, just for good measure, I'm sure), and getting a whole manner of scandalized looks.  Not only was I committing the offense of being a foreigner, but I was clearly not partaking in the mayhem to get to this train.  And these people were thinking, what the fuck is YOUR problem?  I then loaded the hippo on my back and calmly made my way to the train, with something like seventeen minutes to spare.  And hey, what do you know!  My seat was STILL THERE when I got there, all of three minutes after the gates opened.  ANIMALS.

Seeing as consideration of others is an entirely alien and unheard of concept in this country, it should have come as no surprise that people play their hand-held video games and tvs and other assorted electronics without headphones, all while talking on the phone and screaming at the person next to them.  And spitting.  The infernal, never ending, sound that makes me want to vomit: spitting.  Spitting EVERYWHERE.  For godssake people, you're ON A TRAIN.  Could you refrain from hocking a lugie please?  Would it kill you to act civilized??  But of course, this is all part of the glorious culture I'm supposed to be embracing, and what, you thought you'd get some sort of peace and quiet on this ride?  Silly, silly girl.  So on went Beethoven, cranked as loudly as I could stand it, and I did my best to zone out and find my zen place.  (Zen place has long since fled.  Took one look at the boarder I crossed last weekend and went "Nu-uh, NO WAY I'm going there.  You're on your own, Sweet Pea.")  I even managed to snooze a bit toward the end, so not a total loss.  Points for Beethoven.  Man knows what he's doing.

I didn't even think about attempting to exit the train before everyone else.  Wanted no part of that.  Which means I exited a full three minutes after the train pulled into the station, and was on the back end of the pushing and shoving down the three flights of stairs into the station.  (I would not be surprised if death was a routine occurrence for the Chinese whilst boarding/leaving a train.  Seriously, OUT OF CONTROL.)  Enter the twenty minute hunt for the tourist information booth, which was (of course) located in the most un-obvious place possible.  I then had to PAY for a map so bad it made me wish for the days of Busan and the cartoon rendition.  It was then nearly an hour until the bus I needed pulled in, the whole time I'm hot and sweaty and irked like hell and being stared at like I'm someone's science experiment gone awry.

I'll save you the drawn out details of what happens next.  Let's just say this: remember Matsumoto?  "Take the bus to X and walk ten minutes."  Without further directional help or explanation.  That's what I had here.  Except I wasn't as worried, because I knew which general direction to walk in (thanks to the crappy map) and I had the address written in Mandarin characters.  You'd think that'd be helpful.  OH CONTRAIRE.  WELL OVER an hour later, so totally dripping with sweat my shirt was soaked through and my backpack was slick, having asked dozens of locals for help (one talking to me in Mandarin, me conveying I couldn't understand a single word he said, only to have him write it in the Mandarin alphabet, like that was going to be helpful in anyway whatsoever, only to find out that he was trying to negotiate prices to cut my hair, since I had stepped into a salon for help -- you've GOT to be kidding me), I finally -- FINALLY -- made my way gasping and BEYOND PISSED OFF to the most obscure hostel on the planet.  And the girl wonders why I'm giving her as much attitude as I've ever mustered in my life.  Um, gee.  Because I had over a dozen people CALL YOU and SPEAK TO YOU and ask you for HELPFUL DIRECTIONS and every time you couldn't be bothered, you simply told them to tell me to "keep going."  That may have something to do with it.

After dropping my bags and regaining the use of a vocabulary that didn't involve four letter words every time I opened my mouth, I ordered two dishes for dinner.  The girl tried to talk me out of it, saying that was for two people, and I let her know with my tone not to fuck with me.  Lady, I haven't eaten all day.  I have a migraine the size of Texas.  I've had to deal with unventilated cattle pens and two train stations without a single sign in English and do you have any idea what a toilet looks like on trains in this country of yours??  FEED ME.  I then ordered the most deserved beer I've ever had in my life, only to find out it's served WARM (wtf?? who drinks warm beer?), and so made do with tepid water instead.  Dinner was good: delicious fried rice with lots of eggs and peas, and more eggplant, which was every bit as greasy and salty as the last time.  Happily, since they speak some English at the hostel I was able to have them withhold the sausage from both dishes, which is about as good as it gets, in my experience.  Finally fed and still profusely sweating, I opted to save the headbanging over the slow and restricted internet for another day, and showered and attempted early bed.  The loud savages that I share a room with here are doing everything in their power to be sure that I come away from Hangzhou with anything but a favorable opinion.  And let me tell you, they're winning.
Tracey-lee says:
Do the world a favour and stop traveling.
Posted on: Jan 30, 2013
sweettangerine says:
OMG that just sound soooo familiar! I'd never got used to the Chinese way of taking a train either!
Posted on: Nov 17, 2011
mandijoy14 says:
Yikes! I have to take one of those trains with 40 middle school students this summer. You are making me so nervous!
Posted on: Jan 12, 2010
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