16 February 2007

Second Floor, Second Floor!

It is now 11:38am on our first full day of train travel from Beijing, China to Lhasa, Tibet. We’ve been on the train fourteen hours and thirty-eight minutes. I’m sitting on my lower bunk right next to the window, the computer resting on our little table. For the last hour or so we’ve been shifting between tunnel travel and gorgeous stepped landscapes. Small streams weave their way through never-ending fields and mountainsides covered in lush green crops. People are scattered throughout, bobbing up and down as they pick whatever it is they’re growing. An older man is herding three or four buffalo along the main stream. It’s serene, calm and a welcome change of scenery after six months in uber-urban Shanghai. The scene inside the train is much different.

They’re blasting Chinese rock music in the hallway right now. The last song was to the tune of Prayer-a-jaques-a (I know that is spelled wrong). The current “off the heezy” number sounds a lot like “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Maybe they’re trying to create a mood? The music is a welcome escape from the comedy (I use that word lightly) radio show – laugh track and all – that had been playing non-stop since 8am. The hallway is full of people “listening” while dozing off with their faces plastered up against the window. Mind you, they all have beds. Oh my god, they have just outdone themselves. The music just changed to a Chinese version of Sean Paul’s 2005 smash hit, “We Be Burnin’.” Awesome.

Robin & I were lucky enough to get the two lower bunks of our four-person cabin, and we're fully stocked with snacks! Each space is equipped with a TV offering six (all-Chinese) channels, a hanger for clothes, an oxygen outlet, toiletries cubby, two down pillows, a down comforter, and a power outlet. Space is tight, but not as tight as the people sleeping six to a room (three beds high) in the next car, or the folks in the rest of the train who are riding in seats six-wide for the entire 48-hour journey. We managed to stuff most of our bags under the bunks, which means there is plenty of room to spread out, play cards, and half-offer some sitting space to our cabin mates. Robin’s top-bunker is a French guy whose four friends are in the cabin next door. I cordially greeted him in French, to which he replied: “Hello. You must be American.” I guess I won’t be practicing my French! My top-bunker is Tibetan and barely made it to the train. In fact, he showed up to the room after we had pulled out of Beijing West Station, dripping with sweat. He then explained that he had actually run all the way to the train from his home, about four miles from the station. He spent the next two hours in the hallway trying to air-dry himself.

Thankfully, we left for the station a good two hours before departure, otherwise we would have probably been in the same boat. After loading our bags we slid into the back seat and told the driver our destination, Bejing West Train Station. He pulled out and began driving east. And driving east. And driving east. Ten minutes in I leaned forward to confirm our destination. He assured me that we were indeed going to the WEST train station. Some more time passes and we turn due south, continuing on this trajectory for another ten minutes before finally turning west. At this point we must have back-tracked a good fifteen miles, but at least we were moving in the right direction! Twenty minutes and fifty kuai later we had arrived at what looked like a train service entrance. I hoisted my gigantic backpack onto my shoulders, Robin double-fisted our two rolling suitcases and we charged into the terminal.

Only, it wasn’t a train terminal. It was an underground waiting area for a slew of train numbers, none of which matched our train number. I pulled it over to ask a police officer. Pan to the sea of non-ethnically Han people staring at us. Not a single foreigner in site. I’m guessing we’re in the wrong place. I show the officer our tickets and explain we are lost. He looks them over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points down the corridor. We continue on. The end of the corridor arrives and there is no second floor in sight. I ask a second police officer. She looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points further down to what looks like an underground plaza. We continue on. About 500 yards later we come across as escalator, which looks promising.

We get to the top and once again, there is absolutely no signage at all indicating where we should go. Our train number does not appear on any of the signs. I ask a third police officer. He looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points to the left. We continue on. Another 1000 yards or so (I’m still wearing my over-stuffed backpack) and we are once again in a place with no signs at all. I ask a fourth police officer. He looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” and point to the right. We continue on, and eventually come across another escalator. It has now been twenty minutes. Our train leaves in about forty.

Ok, Jewel (the real Jewel) just came on the radio. Seriously? What’s next? Tony Bennett?

Anyway, we take the escalator up and now find ourselves in front of the train station. There is an enormous sign here that reads “Entrance” and lists several train numbers. Ours is, of course, not there. Super. To the left of this entrance sign is a smaller poster that reads “Ticket Office.” I’m thinking this is our best chance of success. We weav our way through the crowd of what must have been literally 20,000 people and enter the ticket office. I see another police officer (our fifth) and ask him where we should go. He looks the tickets over, says “ar lou” and points to a mob of people in the middle of the room. Actually, he was pointing to the circular desk inside the mob of people, but I didn’t realize that until I was much, much closer. I left the bags with Robin (who was, like me, having hot flashes at this point) and “went native,” diving into the crowd while waving my ticket in the air. A few elbow-throws later and it was my turn. The small woman grabbed my tickets, looked them over and said “ar lou.”

My jaw dropped. Rage began to build inside. I tried to find my words in Chinese but it just wasn’t coming. Whenever you get angry it seems impossible to speak in a foreign language. I am reminded of Desi Arnez as “Ricky” on “I Love Lucy.” Whenever Lucy did something outlandish Ricky would give her a heated, patriarchal talking to, but it would just come out in Spanish. Likewise, I began to spout off in Chinglish, which I didn’t even understand. The woman waved her hand in the air. I assumed she was calling the police over or something to take me away, but instead a lovely woman wearing a very official hat showed up. The lady working behind the counter handed her our tickets and indicated that I should follow her. What happened next is an example of why I continue to be completely and utterly confused by this country. This woman WALKED US ALL THE WAY TO OUR DEPARTURE GATE! On one hand you have five police officers pointing me this way and that, acting totally inconvenienced by my need for assistance and on the other you have this woman personally walking the confused and overwhelmed foreigners all the way to their train.

So now we’re in the waiting lounge and all is well, right? Wrong! We approach the ticket checkpoint, the woman looks at our destination, spouts off at 100 miles an hour in Chinese (I can understand quite well, but at this point I was completely exhausted and doing that thing where you just aren’t paying attention and telling yourself in your head “I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention. Wow, that silver railing is really shiny.” Then she handed me two forms that apparently needed to be filled out before we could board. The only problem was, they were COMPLETELY IN CHINESE. I told the woman I couldn’t read them. She shrugged her shoulders. Enter crisis mode.

I ran back to Robin, explained the situation and began soliciting people in the waiting area for help. “Ni hui shuo Ingu ma?” (Do you speak English?). Again, not a single foreigner in the room. I think my desperation was scaring people, and few even answered my request. Eventually, a man said yes, and kindly talked Robin and I through the entire form, front and back. Relief. Now fifteen minutes until our train is scheduled to depart, we regrouped, loaded up all of our stuff, flashed our Chinese forms (which the woman couldn’t read anyway. In reality, we could have written anything on the forms and she would have let us pass. Note to self for next time) and boarded the train, sweating profusely and breathing heavily. Our tickets were taken and exchanged for a small plastic card that indicates our bed number and must be carried on our person at all times. This card is taken from us before we arrive and our ticket is given back. Why? No idea!

Then passport control came in and reviewed our countless documents, including the flimsy sheet of white paper scribbled with some words in Chinese and stamped with a big red star that serves as our official documentation for entering Tibet. Finally, he asked us for our ID forms (those pesky Chinese-only forms we had frantically filled out in the train station). I handed them over. He laughed to himself, opened his folder and pulled out the same forms, only his were written in English…

1 comment:

Big Kirk said...

hey Kyle
I just want to get in on the action so.....

ar lou!

I feel more complete now. Sounds like good times over there. Keep up the great writing.