Intern Diaries: taking the train to Beijing

Culture | by J. Zach Hollo
Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Updated: March 1st, 2012 | Comments
Train travel in China Every now and then, we at China Travel and Ctrip English get to take advantage of a handful of interns, fresh into China all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The jaded ol' expats that we are, we like to harness their enthusiasm and, in between them getting us coffee and stuff, channel their experiences into the Intern Diaries, a series of China escapades as seen through the eyes of the newest kids in town. Today we welcome James Hollo into the fold, a young man who wields the pen with a fierceness befit for a much wiser man. We are pleased to have him on our team. Why don't you tell us a story, James? My second semester in Shanghai started on February 5. So I figured, why not come back twelve days early during the heart of Spring Festival and try to book a bullet train up to Beijing—you know, the high speed train that travels at roughly 380 kph (236 mph) and has American politicians buzzing over the prospect of China's technology and infrastructure surpassing that of the States'. I bought my ticket at the Shanghai Railway Station (Shànghǎi Huǒchē Zhàn, 上海火车站), which is equipped with a handy "English Speaking" counter. It was January 25, two days after the start of Chinese New Year, and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to buy a ticket to the capital only two days in advance. My ticket cost RMB 550 (USD 87) and was scheduled for departure at 13:57 on January 27. Being the punctual traveler that I am, I arrived an hour early at Shanghai Railway Station and sat down in the lobby where the time 13:57 sparkled from a departure board. My Chinese is very limited, so I had no way of validating that this 13:57 train was in fact bound for Beijing—but I figured, how many 13:57 trains could there be? That's pretty damn specific if you ask me. Now for my crucial mistake. A Chinese woman sat across from me in the station's waiting area. I didn't notice it at first, but she held an American novel in her hands. A light bulb flickered in my mind: an English speaker who could confirm that I was waiting for the right train. All I needed to do was lean forward and utter one simple sentence. "This train is to Beijing right?" I had a choice to make. Look slightly unintelligent and ask if I had come to the right place, or remain silent and let the subtle anxiety of uncertainty swim through my conscience. I chose the latter. After forty five minutes of casually reading my book, boarding for the 13:57 train was called, and the crowd around me rose to their feet, ready for the shoving match that would ensue to the crowded platform. I slowly trudged with the mass until it was time to push the ticket into the automated machine that lights up green and opens its doors for all those with the correct ticket. I inserted my ticket with a nervous confidence and waited. A mere second later the machine lit up red and horned out a harsh noise like the buzzer of a basketball game. My heart sank. The machine spit back my ticket and I tried once more to put it through with heart-wrenching futility. The result was the same. A crowd behind me began to accumulate, and I fought backward through the horde to an attendant. China train travel "Wǒ de piào bù hǎo," I said. My ticket is not good. She took the ticket from my hand and flipped it over to inspect it. "Hongqiao," she said, and pointed to the left side of the card which read the departure location: 上海虹桥站—Hongqiao Railway Station. She then forced the card back into my hand and walked away. I stormed out of the train station, fuming. How could I have been so stupid? All I had to do was ask that lady if she too was going to Beijing. But I had not. I had sat across from her and read my book for forty five minutes. Now what? Hongqiao Railway Station is at least forty five minutes away from Shanghai Railway on the subway, and I was in no position to spring another 550 yuan. I decided to go back to the ticket office and walk straight to the English speaking counter. This was no time to practice my Chinese. I threw my now worthless ticket through the glass hole and hopelessly uttered, "I went to the wrong station." I knew how pathetic I looked—the stupid tourist who didn't even bother to read his ticket. The booth attendant picked up the ticket and stared blankly at it for a long moment. All of a sudden, just when I thought all hope was lost, the man stuffed his fingers into his ears and began singing—like when a child tries to drown out a parent's nagging voice. He then smiled and looked up at me. "Okay, I'll help you. This one leaves at 15:46." I tried to utter a thank you—xièxiè, anything. But I was too astonished to say a word. He threw the new ticket through the hole. "And go to the right station this time." There are four railway stations in Shanghai: Shanghai Railway Station (Shànghǎi Huǒchē Zhàn, 上海火车站), Shanghai South Railway Station (Shànghǎi Nánzhàn, 上海南站), Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station (Shànghǎi Hóngqiáo Zhàn, 上海虹桥站) and Shanghai West Railway Station (Shànghǎi Xi Zhàn, 上海西站). The author of this story made a mistake not uncommon for the more linguistically-challenged visitor: though you can buy tickets for the high-speed trains at the Shanghai Railway Station, they (generally) depart from the Hongqiao Station across town. While you should always triple-check your tickets (this is a good resource for Shanghai. The Hongqiao Station is the main hub for high-speed trains leaving from Shanghai, though some traditional trains leave from there as well.The majority of the long distance slow trains leave from the Shanghai Railway Station (predominantly northbound trains) and Shanghai South Railway Station (predominantly southbound trains). The oft-forgotten Shanghai West Railway Station serves as the hub for the new Shanghai-Nanjing high-speed train, which services Changzhou and Suzhou as well. Remember to always check your ticket, and don't hesitate to flail your arms and flap your gums like a confused foreigner if you get in a jam—hey, if you've already missed your train it can't hurt, right? Hongqiao Railway Station photo courtesy of 2-mas
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