Cooling My Heels in Stew


June 17th, 2011
Location: the G7319 to Hangzhou
Time: 3:55 pm

There’s nothing like a trip to the train station to get the ol’ creative juices flowing.  Barring some interesting fast-food experiences (yes, that is plural), I haven’t had much going.  No, that’s not entirely true.  I’ve actually amped up my social life considerably:  I’ve been to an improv show, torn up the go-karting track, seen a series of one act plays, watched the Championship game at 2:45 in the morning and then went to eat with some strangers I met on the street, hosted a Dragon Boat Festival party, eaten at new restaurants, and this weekend I’m going to a philharmonic concert and bowling. All in all, I’d say my life is pretty full – but that doesn’t mean it was worth writing about.

Instead, I’m going to offer you a vignette of train travel in China.

If nothing else, China has taught me how to cool my heels and be a little more “zen.” Why? Because it’s frustrating that’s why and here’s the thing: it’s always going to be frustrating.  There’s nothing to do but sit back and revel in the bitter stew that is Chinese travel.

It used to be I could show up at the train station that is within walking distance of my apartment, buy a ticket at the self-service machine, and be on my train within 30 minutes.  Now, I’ve got to haul myself across town to board the high-speed train that costs 3 times the amount and saves maybe 30 minutes. But, since it takes an hour or so to get to this new train station, I actually lose time.

And, since some yahoos decided to make a few extra bucks by buying out trains and then jacking up the ticket prices and selling them to desperate travelers on the streets, you’ve now got to have your passport handy when booking a train ticket.  China might not have the highest crime rate, but its penchant for sticky fingers is unprecedented.  I’m not a huge fan of taking out my passport for anything but international travel.  This passport business also means that I can no longer use that handy-dandy self-service machine.  Chinese people still can, but here’s the kicker – the majority of them don’t. They also apparently find the act of train travel and ticket purchasing extremely confusing.  So, I wait in line for 45 minutes behind a man desperately in need of a shower and finally show up to a window and manage to get my ticket in less than a minute.  What were you other people doing? Chatting up the ticket lady? Commenting on the weather?  It’s been raining for 2 weeks straight – can’t be much to say.

Another thing: every time I go the train station I encounter really angry people.  Again, I am confused.  Train travel is one of the easiest ways to travel. There are no luggage restrictions, you don’t have to check anything in, the security check-point is a joke as people just stream through unhindered. Are you angry that your train is sold out, lady?  Enraged at the extravagant prices when you used to pay 20 RMB for a slow train? Or maybe you didn’t get the memo on needing your id card to get out of Shanghai?  Whatever it was, it was enough to warrant your husky screams, palm slapping, and people-pushing to make your way over to customer service to put on your show again.  To which the lady manning the booth laughed at you.  I saw it.  She tried to hold it back, but the onslaught of your rage only made her laugh top lip quiver all the more as you slammed your hand down again and again.  I thank you for that show, hot pink shorts lady.  Please don’t board my train.

Although, I’ve got to say that my experience on this train hasn’t been all that calm and peaceful.  I’ve got a mother in the seat directly in front of me who thinks it’s necessary to shout at her 2-year-old son perched upon her lap.  If this is her normal level of speech, I can only imagine what it must sound like when she’s angry. And I know it’s loud even for a normal Shanghainese woman’s standard because the guy across the aisle from her is shooting her looks with a quirked brow. Every once in a while the grandfather behind me gets on his cell phone and shouts something into it – you know, just to add to the noise pollution.

I would put in my earphones and attempt to block this out, but on the way here I caught it on a seat and yanked the cord clean out of the jack. 

And so, I will work on simmering through it.  I feel like I could go home and nothing will phase me.  That’s probably not true – elevators will seem remarkably slow. And I won’t be able to yell at people anymore and get away with it because they have no idea what I’m saying. I guess no place is perfect.