I was so relieved when one of the three receptionists at the Golden Lampstand Hotel handed me my train ticket from Qingdao to Beijing. I felt like doing a little jig in the enormous reception area, but the Chinese are so reserved one feels constrained.
I had ordered online while in Shanghai but the ticket agency didn’t seem to understand where my hotel was and I couldn’t relax until I had the ticket in my hand.
For the last month I had had this grumbling underlying worry about this the last leg of the journey. I had a plane to catch on the last day of the Chinese National Holidays and the day I was going to travel to Beijing was the second busiest travel day of the year.
Travelling around China outside official tour groups is hair-pulling stuff. In China tickets can only be bought ten days beforehand, and as every train is fully booked it is imperative to get in early. From Beijing to Pingyao we only booked six days ahead and endured thirteen hours on hard seats. From the bigger cities you can just go to the station and buy tickets up to ten days ahead, from anywhere to anywhere, such is the impressive computerised system.. You pay, your passport is scanned and you get your ticket.
There is also a Chinese train website where you can buy tickets online and pick them up from at one of the bigger stations. But this has two drawbacks, one it is only in Chinese and secondly it only takes Chinese credit cards, and oh yes there is a third drawback, you cannot pick up a ticket from all stations.
When in Pingyao I wanted to buy a ticket for the thirty hour trip from Beijing to Guilin which was some 10 days ahead. Pingyao station was not one of those stations that was allowed to issue tickets for travel from other parts of china. Luckily, the receptionist in the hotel in Pingyao is definitely the most helpful person in China. We worked it out that I would give her the cash and a photocopy of my passport which was then faxed to her friend in in Taiyuan, who would go to the station there and pay for the ticket, would get a reference number for me to pick up the ticket in Luoyang. And yes the ticket was there when I arrived. Complicated ? Yes!
The whole trip had these complicated arrangements. The small problem with all this is YOU can do things in person with your passport but as a foreigner it is not easy to get a third party to do things for you.
Although outwardly China appears an open western society, Chinese are only allowed to travel with their computerised identity cards and the state has to give permission to leave the country.
So when I got to Shanghai station to buy my train ticket from Qingdao to Beijing some 10 days ahead, after a real bureaucratic marathon they said tickets are only issued 3 days in advance. So I thought these people must be local bumkins and I would go out to Hongqiao station, Asia’s largest, and get my ticket SO when after they tried to book and the computers refused I found out that Shanghai had different booking software to the rest of china… stress!
I found an online agency in Beijing and they could courier the ticket to my hotel in Qingdao And Now ..and after wrong hotels etc I had the ticket and was on my last leg.
Anyway finally I was on the train to Beijing with for the first time the sun directly behind me, and I was travelling due west in the land west of the sun and east of the moon. This was my last journey in my six thousand kilometres odd circuit around china. And all of it had been fascinating.
I love road trips and journeys into the unknown, well unknown for me. I had read two contrasting books about travelling around around China. Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster and Tao by Aya Goda . Reading Theroux is like reading something with grey skies He didn’t appear to like the Chinese. One of his greatest pleasures appeared to be having a dump as his train passed over the Yangste. He also spends much of the book complaining about his shadow, a party official who travels with him and yes, it is sort of irksome having some state official trailing you , I had one in southern Sudan in 1983, but this official obtained all his first class train tickets and organised his hotels.
Perhaps he was fulfilling a publishing contract!
The other, Tao, by a young Japanese girl and her boyfriend, a Chinese painter, was a sunshine book full of great descriptions of landscapes and the ability to give characters depth. It had the added frisson of being a chase road story.
Travelling on The high speed trains on the east coast is not dissimilar to travelling on high speed trains in Europe not even these more urban middle class Chinese speak to each other. So different to the slow central and western trains where conversations not only start almost as one takes one’s seat but appear compulsory.
Arrived at Beijing South, whipped out my computerised card and took the tube back to the Forest and Land hotel. Rather different to a few months beforehand.
Something was borrowed and changed from William Morris