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Friday, July 27, 2007


30-hour journey

On Monday I reach Guangzhou from Wuzhou. I don't like carrying my two backpacks too far. Fortunately the bus station is almost next to the train station and I manage to find a hotel that isn't too expensive without having to walk too far. Then I go back to the train station to see about getting a ticket to Hangzhou.

There are about twenty booking counters. Each has a long queue. Only one has someone who speaks English. I join that queue. I'm sure I had read somewhere that the trip takes 30 hours. So when I am told the train leaves at 9 am and arrives at 3.40, that makes sense to me. I ring my friend Feng in Hangzhou and ask him to pick me up Wednesday at 3.40 pm.

I book myself into a soft sleeper. I had wondered what a soft sleeper was like because generally in Asia beds are firmer than we have in Australia. China seem to have the firmest of all. I like them. I didn't really want a soft bed. I also book the top bunk because I had read somewhere that everyone sits on the bottom bunks but if you have a top bunk you can leave your stuff up there.

Tuesday morning I get to the station in plenty of time. They have a special waiting room for the soft-sleeper travellers. I think it is their version of 1st class but in a communist (sort of) country there isn't any such thing as class, is there? Once you are told to go to the train you have to mix it with the masses—probably thousands of people pushing and shoving each trying to not be the last one on board. And me with my two backpacks that weigh more than 1/3 of what I do.

I get on and find my cabin. It is a four-berth cabin. The beds are quite firm. I wonder what the hard-sleeper beds are like. Probably just boards. When the train leaves there are only two other passengers in my cabin, a fortyish couple. They try to be friendly but they speak no English and I can't understand their Mandarin. Why can't people say the things I've learned to understand?

The ticket attendant comes to check our tickets and ID. She does speak English, well a little anyway.

I hadn't slept well for the last two nights so I make the most of my bunk and catch up on a bit of sleep. I wake up mid-afternoon. We are stopped at a station and the cabin is empty. My fellow passengers hadn't previously both left together. Usually one stays back to keep an eye on things. But they don't come back. They must have got off at that station. They paid for a sleeper when they weren't even travelling overnight. But of course there's no classes in China.

So this means I have a four berth cabin to myself for the rest of the journey. How's that for class?

My sister had suggested that I could use the 30 hours of this trip to do a lot of practice of Mandarin language. But my iPod batteries don't last for 30 hours and besides they have piped music coming into the cabin. I spend most of my time looking out the window. I love the greens of rice fields and I am getting a bit of a view of life in China—rural, town and city. I also do a bit of reading.

After a while I pull out my Lonely Planet China, the one that I managed to avoid being confiscated. I've already read the write-up on Hangzhou a couple of times but perhaps it won't hurt to read it again just before I get there. And guess what? The trip is not 30 hours, it's 23! So I do some sums. 9 am plus 23 hours makes 8 am the next day. This book was published in 2005. Times are not going to get longer. They probably have better lines, faster trains. You guessed it—the train's arriving at 3.40 am. Well, that's what I figure. But how can I find out? Who speaks English?

I go and have my dinner. After dinner I go and find the carriage attendant. We have a little chat. It takes a bit of work but she confirms that yes 3.40 means AM or it would be written 15.40. Mmmmm. The train does not end it's journey at Hangzhou. It goes on to Shanghai. But she says that I will be able to stay in the station until daylight. I don't particularly want to wake Feng at 3.40 am. I'll give him a call after he's had time to wake up properly.

I get a good night's sleep. Well, I sleep from about 9.30 pm till about 2 am. At this time the track becomes noisy. This train did not have the clack-clack noise that I usually associate with trains. Very smooth. I might add that this train is very modern, clean and efficient. I catch perhaps another ten minutes sleep before I get up, dress and pack. Am ready well before we reach Hangzhou at almost 4 am.

But there is no where to sit in the station. Once I hand in my ticket I am outside. There are hundreds of people outside, waiting for trains I guess. Many are sitting on the ground or the steps or the garden border. Nothing is clean.

There are touts from hotels. Perhaps a dozen of them. Several approach me and I say 'no'. One goes off to get another guy who actually speaks a few words of English. I explain to him that my friend is going to pick me up. He seems to understand and leaves me alone.

But as I'm looking around for somewhere to sit and my backpacks are getting heavier I'm starting to rethink the situation. I had noticed on the cards the touts are flashing one quotes 38 yuan. I figure maybe I would pay 38 yuan ($A5.70) to have somewhere clean to sit for a few hours.

I approach the English speaker and explain the situation. Eventually he seems to get the idea and tells me 120 yuan or something just as ridiculous.

Before Guangzhou, the most I've paid for a night's accommodation in this country is 68 yuan. I'm not paying 120 to sit in a chair for a few hours. 'No.'



How much you pay?

'Not that much. I only want somewhere to sit.'



'How much?'


'Fifty.' (Actually he says 'Five-ty'. They usually do.)


'OK. Forty.'

He then passes me off to one of the other touts who leads me off to a hotel within walking distance. When we get inside he asks for my money. I take the money out and then have second thoughts. 'See room.'

He rubs his finger and thumb together indicating pay money.

I point to my eyes. 'First, see room.' I hold up the money so he can see that I have money to pay.

He is insistent. But the more he insists, the more I figure he has something to hide. I'm not paying 40 yuan to lie on a bed with bugs. We both walk out.

There is another place almost next door. I am tempted to try it but they just stare at me. Don't seem interested in getting me inside.

Walking back towards the station I see there are some shops open, so wander towards them. One is a restaurant. I'm not hungry but I figure if I buy something it will give me a seat for a little while. I order some congee and put my bags down. After a couple of hours I ring Feng. By time he turns up I have sat in this restaurant for four hours. There's a new shift on duty.

As we walk to the taxi rank, both loaded down, we are approached by a tout speaking in Chinese. Feng ignores him. I say, 'Bu, xie xie' (no thank you). He backs off.

'You speak Chinese,' says Feng.

'Only the essentials,' I reply.

We take a taxi to one of the universities. He books me into a room in a hostel for international students. The room has everything I need. There is a shared bathroom close to my room, but not too close. It's clean, has a washing machine. It's quiet here. There's trees outside the window. Good security. For this I'm paying 70 yuan.

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