Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ping Yao, Part I: Departure & The Train

On Thursday afternoon, after Angela found out that she had Monday and Tuesday off in honor of the new year, as I did, she proposed going to Ping Yao. We had planned to do something with Dawn and we all thought it was a great idea so I asked one of my Chinese assistants, Estee, to work her magic procuring tickets for us. Unless you're traveling with a tour group, it's quite difficult to get tickets to popular destinations as the remaining tickets only go on sale a few days before departure and they can often sell-out quickly. Tickets may be available, but we wanted a sleeper car, as we had planned on traveling at night, and those are the tickets which sell quickly. Luckily, tickets were still available and Estee quoted us a price of around 350 RMB. We reserved the tickets and were told that we could pick them up on Friday at work. We weren't sure about the actual departure time or from which station we would be leaving, and Angela was expecting a call from me to confirm these details for her so she could leave work in time to meet us at the station.

I learned all of these details after work on Friday and made a quick call to Angela to let her know. It turned out that our tickets were only going to cost 202 RMB, which was a nice savings on the original quote, but left me feeling a little skeptical about what we had actually reserved. Dawn and me had planned on leaving at 6PM to make our 7PM departure, but Angela suggested leaving at 5:30PM as it was rush hour, Friday, and a holiday weekend. It was good advice. I had things to do at home (put our clothes into backpacks, prepare sandwiches and other snacks for the journey, clean up the house a bit) before heading out so I thought I had ample time, but our boss wanted to pay everyone early, before the long weekend, and we ended up hanging around at work for an extra hour, which killed all of my spare time. I got home about 4:50PM, which gave me just about 40 minutes to get everything together. At about 4:20PM and just beginning to prepare bagel sandwiches for the three of us, my boss called and asked me if I could send a new year's greeting by e-mail to someone on behalf of the school, which I squeezed in. Dawn had agreed to meet me in front of my apartment building at 5:30PM, and she was there when I came down at 5:35PM, a little behind schedule. We caught a taxi to the Beijing West station, and met Angela shortly after 6PM in front of the entrance right on schedule.

Train to Ping Yao - Dawn, Me, AngelaDawn was a little worried about the accommodations on the train ("soft" sleeper, upper bunk, shared cabins with strangers, water closet scenarios), but everything worked out fine and we were all in high spirits. Angela and Dawn were in one room with two older Chinese men while I was in the cabin next to them with a Korean threesome who were already playing cards when we arrived, which didn't bother me. I was planning on returning after they were already asleep. Dawn was especially excited about her first train ride in China and was all smiles as our mode of transport didn't seem too strenuous and was proving to be comfortable enough. After enjoying a beer in the corridor outside of our rooms and talking with some of the other passengers, we made our way to the dining car to do more of the same. Only a few beers and a night of sleep between us and Ping Yao.

Train to Ping Yao - Soldiers in the Dining CarThe dining car was full when we arrived, so we stood near the cash register and waited for an empty space. We didn't have to wait long. Being the only foreigners in the dining car, we were quite popular. All of the people, including a soldier who had joined us at our table, were captivated by us and asking us many questions. We compared cigarettes with a conductor. We drank and smoked with everyone until midnight, and returned to our cabins to get some sleep. The Korean threesome in my cabin had retired already, although they were all reading quietly in their bunks when I opened the door. I climbed up into mine and began recording the days events in my journal while the train rocked me gently and the beer made my eyes feel drowsy.

I woke up around 4:15AM and had to go to the bathroom badly. I was also parched, hot and sweating under my thick comforter. The train had stopped in a station, and all was quiet in the cabin except for my rustlings as I tried clumsily to pull my pants on in a cramped space. I needed to find some water after last evening's bout with Yanjing but, as we were sitting in a station, the door to the dining car and the bathrooms would be locked, so I had to wait. Finally, the train started up again. I hopped down from my bunk and slipped into my shoes, exactly where I had left them. The cabin was quiet in a way that suggested that none of them were really sleeping. I tightened my belt while examining the door handle-ish mechanism in the dark. It was not entirely clear to me how it worked. I tried in without any luck, pulling a lever back and hearing it clack loudly against something. There were a number of other switches and levers, which I felt around for in the dark, but moving them didn't produce the desired effect and the door didn't open. While engaged in this futile activity, the one woman in the cabin leaped out of bed with a grunt, gave the handle a good solid jerk, and freed me of our hot compartment. With a quiet xie xie, I step out into the corridor and notice Dawn and Angela's cabin door open. They were getting their things together. "What are you doing?" I asked. "We're going to the dining car. We're have to get off in about an hour." I said, "Oh," and wandered off in that direction.

We collected our things together and drank a glass of instant coffee in the dining car (never leave home without it, especially in China where it seems impossible to find outside the big cities). The train stopped around 5:30AM and we stepped down into the darkness. It had snowed during the night or early morning and there was a nice blanket of snow on the ground. We were feeling good, even though the train station was not so memorable. A smattering of people were making their ways toward the station and, after the attendant tore our tickets, we walked down the steps toward the waiting taxi drivers who assaulted us with their offers to take us to a hotel. One woman who was particularly persistent, gave us a brochure for the Harmony Guesthouse as we were closing the door. Angela already had the name of a hotel in mind and, after a brief dispute about the price of the fare, the driver took us there.

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