Turpan >> Seoul
'Through a Long and Sleepless Night' - The Divine Comedy
I now had seven days left on my Chinese visa before I had to leave the country ahead of returning for another sixty days a couple of weeks later. I wanted to go to South Korea to meet a couple of people I had met on the train ride into Mongolia. The fact that I was now on the far-west side of the country and that I was not looking to fly, meant I had a chase across to make my exit in time. In summary, this is how the plan looked reasonable on paper before I began:
25th - bus from Turpan to Urumqi, buy train ticket
26th - see friend in Urumqi
27th-29th - train from Urumqi to Beijing
29th - buy ticket to Qingdao and ride train there, arriving late at night
30th - free day to explore Qingdao or to allow for problems earlier in the plan
1st - Boat to Korea hours before the visa expired.
What could possibly go wrong? The only complication was that I was travelling around the period of 1st October which is Chinese national day when half the country is travelling for a short holiday or to see family. This problem would be particularly bad if you were trying to get to, for example, the capital city (Beijing) or a major seaside resort (Qingdao)
After a nice lie in and a hearty breakfast at the cafe, I carried my bag back to the bus station and rode the 3-hour journey to Urumqi. On the way an American environmental worker told me about her work in the country and how the central government actually takes these issues pretty seriously but are let down by the ever-inefficient local government organisations. This seems to be a common theme for China. An elderly local woman sitting next to me tried to enthusiastically engage me in conversation about something, but she didn't seem to grasp that I couldn't understand her. I could hear the words and repeat them back to her, I could read them when she wrote them dowm on my notepad for me, but I simply didn't know what they meant.
I terms of the plan, this was as good as it got.
I checked into a different hotel in Urumqi to be closer to the train station than before. It was fairly grim but you get what you pay for. You might imagine that being in a hotel with a private room rather than the communal atmosphere of a hostel could have been a lonely experience. But, fortunately, a local lady was kind enough to telephone my room throughout the night to excitedly talk to me about "sexer fuck".
After taking my bags up to my cell, I walked over to the train station to buy my Beijing ticket. In some ways, the Chinese train system is modern and magnificent, for example many of the stations and trains themselves. In other ways, they are a nightmare, for example the ludicrous ticketing system and the fact that there often aren't enough trains to cater for demand. Ticket halls are huge to cater for the huge slow-moving queues and contain several windows, each timetabled to shut for an hour or two at a time while the sales person goes off on their break. It says everything for the situation that, when the window shuts for two hours, no one in the queue, even at the back, considers switching to another queue; it's easier just to wait until she returns. On top of that, there is a sizeable minority who just walk straight to the front of the queue and push in. Members of the public seem reticent to complain and the sales people don't seem to care in which order they serve people. All ticket halls in all stations have a security guard to come and shout at these people and herd them away, but they literally come straight back the second he turns his back to remove people from the next queue.
Forty yards of queuing took me three hours to get through, and that's after it started to move much faster near the end. There are four types of ticket for Chinese trains, First and second class for both beds and seats. There was only one ticket type available for the train I wanted. Knowing that first class sells out quite quickly on this route and as there obviously aren't seats for a journey that long, I assumed that I had a second-class bed. Certainly, the woman appeared to snort at me derisively when I asked if they had any first-class beds.
Afterwards I found a cafe to eat and where several people had gathered to watch China launch its big new space shuttle aimed at, I believe, its first ever spacewalk. I had timed it well and walked in two minutes before take-off. Thinking of what happened with the American rocket in the eighties, live coverage of a launch seemed possibly risky to me, especially in a country where image is so tightly controlled. Musing further on the matter, I guessed that they were showing it on a 30-seconds delay and probably had alternative pictures lined up to show in case anything did go wrong. The real pictures they did show were very impressive though. Assuming I believe them, they had live high-quality pictures of the astronauts inside the shuttle and from a camera on the outside looking back at its firey jet and the Earth disappearing behind it.
I was feeling pretty ill and shakey again by the next day so didn't do much with the rest of my time in town other than sit in an American bar and eat and drink. Not very authentic, I know, but it was the only place in town with wireless internet. I also used the time to telephone the ferry company to book myself on a boat to Korea on the 1st. Jia, the guide from the Kanas Lake trip, joined me with a friend on the first night. I don't know how she arranges it and I assume it's going on her company's expense account, but once again a few words were spoken with the bar staff and my bill became a non-issue. Not bad considering I'd been sitting there for ten hours eating and drinking.
After sitting there again the next day I went to the station for my train, looking forward to lying on a bed for two days. As I walked along the platform looking for my carriage still feeling pretty ill, the horror dawned on me that my ticket was for a seat, a small seat at that, for the 43-hour ride back to Beijing. Furthermore, as the train left at 20:03, it wasn't as if I had just got out of bed and was feeling fresh before the journey even began.
I'm not one of these people who can sleep sitting up. On the first night the brain was still active enough to be able to read so I finished my book. It was about brainwashing and the parts I read this night included sections on torture, mental torture and how this often includes depriving the victim of sleep, regular meals, adequate toilet facilities and forcing them to stay motionless in uncomfortable positions for hours or longer at a time. Hmmm, and I'm paying to take part in this experiment? Am I expected to confess to Al Qaeda activities or to being a witch at the end of it?
The inefficiencies of the Chinese ticketing system should have come to my rescue. Ticket sales are not networked from station to station, so the only place to buy tickets for a train is from the station it originates from, in this case Urumqi. Other people board at other stations so I assume they have bought some kind of generic unreserved ticket, but they must then queue up at a desk on the train if they hope to upgrade to a reserved seat or bed. This assumes that either beds and seats are not sold out or that someone had left the train from an earlier stop and vacated their place. So, three hours before we reached the major stop of Lanzhou at the end of the next afternoon, I went and waited by the desk. When people leave the train there, their beds become available and I would be first in line to upgrade. Sure enough, three hours later when the desk was surrounded by a big crush, I was standing at the front. However, in a situation I was told was highly unusual, no beds had become vacated or were expected to at any point before Beijing. I waited another hour in case a stewards enquiry produced a new result, but it didn't. Still, at least it broke up the monotony (with a new monotony) for four hours. And by this point the train had become so crowded that there was very little standing room left, so I figured I should count my blessings that I even had a seat.
On the second evening, a guy from another carriage came to join his friends sitting right by us. He had one of the large two-string guitars that had been demonstrated to us at Kanas Lake, only a bit bigger. Everyone in the carriage crowded around as best they could and stood on seats for a better view while he played and they treated us to an hour and a half of ethnic songs and even dances. Despite my front-row view, I was ill, tired and was still wearing the earplugs I'd had in my ears for most of the journey, so I lent my head against the window and ignored most of it. By rights, they should have dismissed me as a miserably bugger, but I was actually singled out by the dancers and asked to stand-up and join them dancing. Normally I would have said yes, but on this occasion I felt I had to politely decline, which was a shame.
This journey was gruelling stuff, partly because although sleep was otherwise impossible, my brain wasn't really able to handle reading so there was very little to do to pass the time. But, as long as we were moving my objectives were being met, which was the main thing. A couple of hours before dawn I found a bit of floor in the narrow corridor to lie down on for some shut-eye alongside someone else who was already sleeping on the floor.
We arrived an hour late into Beijing West station, which isn't a lot on this scale of things. I headed off to the taxi rank and went straight to Beijing South station which handles all trains to Quingdao and that area of Shadong province. This station is brand new and has the scale and facilities that would honestly put most airports to shame. As the taxi rode across a bridge overlooking the twenty platforms, there didn't appear to be any actual trains there, but who needs trains when you've got escalators, eh?
The woman at the ticket desk wouldn't sell me a ticket but told me to go somewhere, writing "17" down on a piece of paper. I went to the entrance to platform seventeen but this offered no clues so I had no idea what to do. A winning smile is one of the most important things you can pack when you go travelling like this in the last few months and it is no exaggeration to say its importance is only outranked by passport and wallet. Similarly, the ability to look very lost and confused, possibly with a bit of weary distress thrown in, is very useful. So, I pulled this expression and, sure enough, within a minute someone came and asked if I wanted help. Normally it's women who come and offer assistance, but on this occasion it was a man. I explained my confusion and neither he nor his wife could work out the problem. After a conflab, they suggested that I might have been supposed to go to ticket window seventeen. He was tasked with looking after the bags while she followed me to the window to do all the talking.
The problem was that all trains to Qingdao were sold out both for today and the day after. Thinking on my feet and pointing at various other locations on the map, I was able to buy a ticket on the night train to somewhere 50km away for tomorrow night, thereby using up my extra day. Assuming the train ran on time, I would arrive at half-seven and have six and a half hours to get to the ferry terminal in Qingdao. There were no direct trains from this station to Qingdao, so I had to either...
- stay on the train for an extra twenty minutes to the next stop and hope I got away with it. This next station had two direct trains to get me to Qingdao in time
- find a bus between the two towns
- ride a taxi for the 10km
If I got to the new town, I then had to...
- hope there were tickets available for the Qingdao trains
- find a bus going that way
- find a taxi to take me 30km
Taxi was not a good option, but if the only alternative is to outstay my visa, then a taxi it must be.
In the mean time I took a taxi back to the old hostel and checked in for a night. The traffic was pretty dense but the driver was very proud of how he could weave in and out of gaps that didn't exist. We had a funny time despite my tiredness, joking and high-fiving when we turned a corner and found a stretch of gridlock-free road ahead of us. Back at the hostel I said hello to the staff and even a number of the guests who were still there. When I checked out a month before, I tried to tell the guy on the desk that he was giving me too much of my deposit back but I couldn't make him understand. He told me now that he had realised after I left that I was right and the missing Y50 had been deducted from his pay, so I reimbursed him. Other than that, my twenty four hours there consisted of gorging on food, sleep and popping out to buy a Lonely Planet for Korea.
The next night I headed out for the station. On my previous visit, every second car in the city was a taxi and half of them were available for hire. Tonight, everywhere was packed for the national holiday in a way that far exceeded the Olympics. It took me ten minutes and half a kilometre of walking to wave one down. Oddly, many of those I saw before that just ignored me or looked at me as if it should be obvious why they didn't want to pick me up.
Although the delay briefly threatened to become worrying, I arrived at Beijing South station with plenty of time to spare. I couldn't find my train listed anywhere so I took my ticket to the information desk. The woman looked at it and explained that this one particular train ran from Beijing central train station, not Beijing South. She then looked at her watch as if to suggest "You'd better run, but we both know you've got no chance, don't we?"
Running with my big backpack is very much like walking with it except that it uses us a considerable amount more energy. I made my comical-jogging way across the airport-sized complex, down a couple of escalators and over to the taxi rank where there was thankfully no queue. I showed my train ticket with the time to the driver and he seemed to understand. To my surprise, I made it onto the train with ten minutes to go.
My ticket for this eleven-hour journey was for carriage two which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a seater carriage. It was as jam-packed as the worst rush-hour tube train you've ever been on. I didn't even bother attempting the impossible walk down to my seat and instead allowed myself to be squeezed into the next carriage. Whilst standing may be harder than sitting, at least when it is this busy everyone leans on each other and the weight doesn't feel so bad.
Chatting to Chinese passengers, they assured me that half of the people on the train would be alighting after an hour at the first stop, and they were right. There were still more people than seats, but suddenly there was a lot more room. This gave me a chance to walk down into my carriage and find my seat, but as soon as things had cleared, the connecting doors were locked from the other side so I never did get around to bothering. But, after sitting on a seat for so long on the last train, I didn't really mind. Finding a bit of floor to call your own gives you the flexibility to sit, squat or stand as you wish. And after forty three hours from Urumqi, eleven didn't really seem that long by comparison. And anyway, the priority was that I was on the train.
During the night I passed some time by trying to work out a good song to use for the soundtrack to this journal entry. It occurred to me that I hoped I wouldn't end up with Bob Marley's 'Train in Vain". By morning we were more or less on time and I hadn't really suffered much. Five minutes before I left the train, I showed my ticket to a fellow passenger who said I had been in the wrong carriage. Apparently, due to the increased demand around national day, three extra carriages had been added, so the sixteen carriage train had become a nineteen carriage train. One might imagine that the best numbers to give to these extra carriages would be '17', '18' and '19', but they had instead been called 'Add1', Add2' and 'Add3'. So my ticket was not for carriage two, it was for 'Add 2'. And, you've guessed it, 'Add 2' was a sleeper carriage. So, I had paid for a bed for the night which had just been empty while I sat on the floor elsewhere. On the plus side, they come and wake you for your station on a sleeper berth which would have made it harder to stay on an extra stop, so maybe this bad luck was in fact good luck after all.
Tickets were checked, as ever, as we left the platform. Sometimes the bemused foreigner is just waved through, but my efforts to pretend I wasn't ready and didn't immediately remember where my ticket was cut no ice. When I did produce it, the mistake was noticed so I mimed being asleep and said that I had missed my stop. I even rubbed my eyes to make them red while queuing for inspection, to make my story seem more believable. I don't really like telling this sort of lie. Not because it is morally wrong. Normally that might be a factor here, but I had made every effort to buy a ticket to this station and didn't see that anyone had suffered as a result of it, especially as I had paid for a bed I didn't use. No, the reason I felt guilty was that oversleeping is the lamest, oldest excuse in the book. Why didn't I just tell her that the dog ate my real ticket along with my homework while I was at it?
Either way, it was too much effort for her to pursue the matter further so I was through and into the ticket office where tickets were not only available for the train to Qingdao but cost just Y3.5 (perhaps 24p)! When the train arrived an hour later, it was funny to see some people beat the crush to get on board by running on to the tracks, opening the door on the other side and climbing into that. Good to see that at least some people in China have a healthy disrespect for the rules. On the train, seats were filling up fast and a man was trying to reserve a set of six for his friends. No chance, sunshine. I plonked myself down and he seemed to accept it. I kept trying to encourage a group of lads to do likewise - there were more of us than him and it wasn't like he was going to do anything other than scowl at us, but they bottled it. They joined me later though when the first group disembarked and had fun taking pictures of me and of themselves with me from the mobile phones.
And so it was that the train arrived into Qingdao on time at 11:00 and I got away with it all. The town is a former German outpost and this is clear from the architecture, so I am told. But, I just had time to walk to a bank and a restaurant en route to the ferry terminal to board my boat. I always find boat travel to be a very dated process. Unlike planes, trains and, well, automobiles, they haven't been subject to a major technical overhaul in recent years or been through major investment to bring them into the modern age for the good of society. The facilities on board are just like a naff set of motorway services and the procedures to get you on and off suffer from the same timewarp mentality. All that said, this seemed to go mostly smoothly and I am very impressed with the bunk/pod I am lying in as I write this now in the early hours, complete with its own curtains, light and power socket to keep this laptop alive. If only they had wireless internet.
Tomorrow, if we don't sink, We should get to Korea by late morning. I have a guesthouse in Seoul booked and am meeting Jiny that night for something to eat. Beyond that I have no idea what I will do there or how long I will do it for. Probably just a couple of weeks before sailing back to China for sixty more days. Right now I'm still getting over my surprise of getting out in time before my first sixty day period expired. Goodnight all!