Over my independent travel period, I decided to spend a week in Sichuan, and the first destination on my itinerary was Chengdu, the capital of the province. It was an incredible trip, but the journey there was a China-adventure highlight.
I chose to take a sleeper train, departing from Shanghai on Friday night and arriving on Sunday. From the get-go I found myself feeling completely lost, with limited language ability and a constant pang of worry that I would be sleeping on the ground. The height of this tension came at almost midnight, when I arrived at a train station miles outside of Shanghai, somewhere hot in the midst of a power outage.
I was rationalizing that maybe the lights were just turned off to save the hordes of recumbent patrons, laying on their unrolled bamboo mats, from the heat. This wasn’t in my travel plans and it was only by luck I made it all the way here to Changzhou, a city that I could only tell you was five or six stops outside of Shanghai on the last bullet train of the night.
From the reactions of the crowds, it was also a place that hadn’t seen a Westerner before. It almost surprises me that even my dark features and average-sized eyes elicit such a shock from countryside Chinese citizens.
It started while leaving Shanghai from my apartment, a comfortable two hours early. The majority of the first semester students were departing the following day, so I said my goodbyes and took the bus, opting to save some money since I had the time to spare. Twenty-five stops later on the metro, I’m at Shanghai Hongqiao railway station.
My train was, as I feared, at Shanghai’s old railway station, which was neither indicated on my ticket nor explained at the ticket office after my repeated questioning. I ran until I finally got to the taxi stand filled with waiting passengers climbing into hundreds of taxis slowly trickling through the floodgates of the parking garage — and I turned around, obviously panicked and looked for option number two, which is always available in China — fix this problem with a black market solution.
Before I had to even ask, several unsavory types had already stepped forward, asking astronomical prices to take me to my desired destination. At that moment, all of the Chinese that had been lying dormant in the cracks of my brain was forced out by the adrenaline that fired my every step. I demanded about 500 kuai fewer than what they asked and finally we agreed on a price suitable for the situation, which I rationalized by telling myself a second ticket would be triple the price we are talking about. Buying a second ticket at this time would swallow up intended expenditures for the trip.
The driver started walking and I emphasized the urgency of the situation and together we began to run. It pained me to watch him, because he was obviously not healthy and had a moderate limp that I didn’t notice for sometime since his sweat pants flapped around his notably skinny legs. Doubling back again, all the way to the other end of the station, then through some backdoor and up a short staircase, into a different parking garage I found the next problem — exiting. This was the first of many times he told me not to worry.
He was very nice about the whole situation and all the meanwhile I closed my eyes and relaxed the muscles of my body as he gunned up the left lane — the oncoming entrance ramp of the ring roads — simultaneously flashing his high beams and holding down the horn that blared for the 30-minute ride to the old railway station. Now and then he gave me an earnest smile though his blackened teeth to tell me not to fear, sometimes going as far to explain that he’s been driving or almost 10 years at this point. I still held onto the handle attached to the ceiling.
Turns out, the train had already left and I was still at the gate, standing under and red LED sign that quickly switched from it’s notice of arrival to a generic message displaying the time and date.
Then, a family of four appeared and the oldest son, who was brandishing a lit cigarette in my face, pulled me by the strings of my backpack into a bathroom to negotiate a deal. I was unwilling to follow him and out of my mouth poured Chinese I never knew I had. The family screamed louder and told me that for 200 kuai I could board that train and they would provide the means.
I didn’t understand how I could board a train that had left but what I understood was that if I followed them down the hall and paid them the money, they would pull me through some sort of hole in a fence where I could board the bullet train at a stop where I could then catch the train I had missed earlier. This seemed risky, and I twenty-something-year-old passerby and explained the situation. I then asked him his perspective on its legitimacy.
I already understood what they were telling me, but I needed a local to weigh in on the likelihood of my cash being turned into any actual service. He didn’t understand how to provide this sort of insight and I saw that the window of time quickly closing, so I walked away and the family told me a new story. They assured me this one would work.
They promised if I paid them, they would pay the ticket checker of the high-speed train to let me board. I waved them off and finally did the first sensible thing of the evening — went and asked the service desk if there was any possibility of fixing the mistake I made when leisurely leaving my apartment, with the wrong destination in mind.
The woman behind the counter, a husky stout woman, certainly physically equipped for her job, told me that yes, this high-speed train would bring me somewhere I could board the three-day sleeper I originally intended to take, but it would be extremely costly to take the bullet train there and that I couldn’t buy a ticket from her.
I asked her to write down the number of the train and the destination onto a piece of paper. I was beginning to sweat in a way that reflected the mess of the situation. I powered over to where that train was scheduled to leave from and approached the ticket collector and displayed both my original ticket and the white paper written on the stations embossed paper in characters I clearly didn’t write — and he waved me through.
Deep in my chest there suddenly bloomed a damp cool feeling of relief, almost welling up with gratitude, and I smiled as my adrenalin high turned soft into empathy and the man stretched out his arm, waving me though. It must have been a mistake.
The next trap waiting was the ticket clipper by the handicap entrance asking me to tell him how much the previous man had asked me to pay him. I held up the paper and protested his question with my hand and was so frustrated again that I refuted his question.
The bullet train sped through the night until fading out to black as the train slowed and the lights went out. We lost power on the track and from an outside perspective, we must have appeared to be swallowed by the darkness of the countryside.
The only sign that we were ever there was the lone firefly flicker from my cell phone while I nervously texted friends to inform someone where on the grid I was lost.
After a short panic, the power returned and we pressed on until I arrived with my bag in my arms. I found myself lost again — in a sea of sleeping bodies on bamboo mats, each with an eye open for the white guy in the station. I finally navigated my way onto the sleeper, the final destination to begin my trip.