Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jumping into the deep end...

(In Xi'an now, after stops in Datong and Pingyao. This entry covers our exit from Beijing before that. We will hopefully get caught up soon. )

Over the past 36 hours we had three incredible experiences giving us a hardcore immersion into the culture of today's China.

Brian had been intrigued by descriptions of Taishan, one of the 5 sacred Buddhist peaks in China. So we decided to take a one-day detour east before heading west out of Beijing towards Xi'an and then on to mountain country. Our plan was ambitious: take a night train from Beijing to Taishan, arrive in the morning, climb up and down the peak, then take a night train back to Beijing and on to Datong, which is where we needed to be that evening. However when we went to the train station in Beijing to make our tickets, they would only sell us the tickets to Datong. They kept insisting we could only purchase any return tickets there in Datong. While I still remain convinced that there must be some way to arrange round-trip tickets, we clearly weren't getting that communicated. Brian really wanted to climb Taishan, so we decided to buy the tickets there anyway, optimistically believing that we would be able to get tickets back. [this dear readers, is called foreshadowing.....]

No Beauty Sleep For Us

Our tickets from Beijing were in hard sleeper class, one of 4 kinds of train classes (along with soft sleeper, soft seat and hard seat). We had been travelling by soft sleeper so far, which is like (or slightly nicer than) the couchette cars in Europe: 4 bunks in a cabin with a table, thermos of hot water, and fake flower. Hard sleeper could be best described as a dormitory in a train car. There are bays of 6 beds (3 stacked) around a table, but open to the corridor instead of in a compartment. And there are probably 5 sets of those in the car. Soft seat is just like a normal nice train car with seats and Hard seat (according to what we'd heard and the pictures we seen) were like wooden park benches.

Hard sleeper is a perfectly fine way to travel and is in fact the preferred choice for most Chinese and budget traveller as they are usually significantly less than soft sleeper and about the same price as soft seat. However they are definitely a different world. You have no privacy and are privy to all the slurping, hocking, spitting, eating, trash dropping and smoking going on around you. I was a little concerned about it simply because we would only be on the train (from boarding to getting off) for 7 hours and I was hoping for some sleep before climbing. We had the bottom bunks so we stuffed our bags down under the beds, grabbed eye masks, and tried to snuggle down into bed. This was a little bit of a challenge as people were walking up and down the aisle (and talking) for most of the time (especially during the 6 stops we made during the night when people got on and off) and because the lights stayed at least partly on all night. We were roused by the conductor at 5:30 am and got ready to hit the ground running.

As soon as the train arrived we got into line to get tickets back to Beijing that night. Silly, silly rabbits. (To be fair, we had actually figured the odds to be 3-1 against). Nothing tonight or the next night??? Um...what about hard sleeper?.... Meanwhile the line behind me full of folks looking to buy a ticket on the next train was getting exceedingly restless. So I stepped out of line, wrote up another piece of paper with characters and dates and tried again. Still no escape from Taishan. Brian and I powwowed a bit and then got back in line again. Finally we were able to find that there WERE tickets back to Beijing; it's just that they were hard SEAT tickets on a night train. Given the choice of a potentially miserable night or falling 3+ days behind on our itinerary we opted for the band-aid removal strategy: get the pain over quickly.

So with (undesirable) tickets in hand we stashed our luggage at the station and headed up toward the mountain.

Working Out On Nature's Stairmaster...

The climb itself was a neat thing to do. We arrived in early morning and started up the path along with many other Chinese of varying ages and apparent purposes. Some seemed more like tourists, some like pilgrims. We also ran into a steady stream of people on the way down who had been up at mountain top for sunrise. (We had actually considered doing that, but our tight schedule didn't allow it.)

The climb is in two halves, covering 7.5 kilometers (~4.5 miles), 1300 meters (~4300 feet) of elevation gain, and 6660 steps. In the middle there is a complex with hotels and a cable car up to the top peak (which on principle we couldn't even consider). The second half is much steeper and more intimidating than the first half, especially the final section, "The 18 Bends". You feel like you are climbing straight up into the sky and can get some good vertigo going when you look back down.

The path up was paved the whole way, and led through forests and rocky mountainsides. All along the way Chinese characters representing poetry, epigraphs, wordplay and other sayings were carved into rocks and cliffs to inspire and entertain. Vendors and bathrooms made frequent appearances as well. While it was actually quite pretty, I think both of us were a bit disconcerted about "climbing a mountain" on a fully paved path. We're much more used to the rougher mountains of N. America and Europe. On the other hand, without stairs we would have had a tough time making it up the last section.

The people watching was great. We were astounded by how many people made the climb up and down in their best clothes, including suits and ties, dress shoes, and heels. Crazy. But it did impress on us the importance of the place for many people. We made 3/4 of the climb together with 3 Chinese college students who chatted with us and tried to translate some of the rock carvings for us. They were very cute and friendly and glad for the chance to practice their English. Between our dictionary and phrase book and their electronic dictionary we were mostly able to make ourselves understood.

The only sour note of the climb was when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by 75 American college students studying abroad in Shanghai who were out on a field trip. We decided to slow down and let them all pass, as we a) didn't want to be confused as being part of their group and b) preferred to observe the locals to 20-year-old Americans.

The complex of temples and restaurants and hotels at the top is a little overwhelming, but we did find a neat Tibetan-influenced temple that was very different from what we've come to expect from SE Asia. We're looking forward to seeing more of that as we travel west. From the top (1520 meters) there is supposed to be a spectacular view. On a clear day you can see over all the way to the sea. Unfortunately, we had so much smog and pollution that we couldn't even see the town of Taian at the bottom of the mountain. :-(

The way up, though tiring and a little tough was actually easier than we expected and we made it in less time than we thought it would take. Confidence buoyed, we headed back down the mountain in high spirits after picnicking and exploring the temples on the top of the mountain. About an hour into it our knees and calves and assorted other muscles were letting us know that this was WAY more stairs than they were used to. And we still had two more hours to go...). Three days later we're still sore.

We capped off the day with a fantastic dumpling dinner in a little local dive. We had been told that 1/2 jin (about 0.25 kg) was about right per person so we tried two different 1/2 jin portions. When the food came there was no way we could eat it all, even after climbing up and down Taishan. Meanwhile the two petite Chinese girls at the table next to us each ate a 1/2 jin and an entree. Unbelievable.

When Push Comes To Shove

As our departure time approached Brian noticed that I was getting my Sunday "I'm already thinking about work" look again: hunched shoulders, tense neck, stress on face etc. I realized he was right. I was just dreading how bad the ride had the potential to be: 8 hours of hard wood benches, seatmates chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, rice bags taking up floor space and people piled everywhere. In reality, it was nowhere near this bad, though lord it wasn't good.

Our first clue came as the departure was called out and people filed through the gate to get their ticket checked. As soon as they were past the gate they RAN down the gangway to the platform. We could see how this was going to go, but we were too tired and too sore from the climb to play along. When we eventually gimped our way to the edge of the platform we saw a huge crowd already forming quasi-lines.

As soon as the train pulled up the lines disappeared as 50+ people frantically tried to push and shove their way onto our train car. Now this is a car with assigned seats, so I was a little confused by the rush (though not surprised). However as the scrum continued, it started to dawn on us that we might have trouble even getting on the train. Just then I noticed that they had opened the doors at the other end of the carriage and raced down to that end with some of the remaining crowd. I just had a chance to see Brian's hat disappear up into the train before I focused all my attention to shoving and pulling my way up into the doorway.

Once I got up into the car I realized the magnitude of my error. I had just been focused on "get on the train" and then I figured I could walk through the car back to Brian and find my seat. What I hadn't reckoned on was the fact that the car and seats had already been full and now 50+ people and their luggage had just been stuffed into it. I was smashed against 10 other people in the entryway and didn't foresee myself moving any time in the next couple of hours. And without any way to contact Brian (who was probably similarly smashed on the other end of the car) I was worried that he'd be worried that I didn't make it on the train.

After a bit we surged forward a little and I was just able to see down the aisle over heads if I stood on my tiptoes. All of a sudden Brian's head appeared as he stood up on a seat evidently looking for me. I grabbed our phrase book and waved it above my head hoping that he'd at least be able to see that.

After 15 minutes or so the people in front of me began pushing and shoving forward towards the aisle as other people were trying to force their way back towards us. Evidently what was happening was the people with seat reservations were slowly displacing the opportunists from the far end back towards us as my group was trying to get in to get to their seats. Over the next 25 minutes I moved an inch at a time, getting bashed by luggage and shoulders and elbows and dragging my bags behind and in front of me. People were surprised to see me (a foreign woman) and tried to help me out a little or at least shared a smile and laugh with me. (While Brian was waiting for me, he struck up a conversation with a Chinese student who said, "First time in hard seats? Quite an experience, isn't it?") A couple of times they tried to lift my bag up so that it would pass more easily, but that pretty much just put the backpack on my head or neck, which didn't work so well.

I did eventually and with much relief make it to Brian, who had quickly found and claimed our reserved seats (he choose the right door to enter), and discovered that the scrum in the aisle had been so crazy, that my watch had been torn off my wrist. Ah well, one more thing to replace.
(ed. note: while I will be the first to admit that I did indeed choose the right door to enter, I was only able to actually board the train after grabbing on to one of the bars on the outside and with both bags attached somehow execute a modified Iron Cross while leaping over two people trying to board the train then convince the drunken businessmen in our seats that they were indeed ours).

The rest of the trip was uncomfortable and long, but nothing that extraordinary. The seats were upholstered, not wooden, and there was room for the big bags above. And thankfully, most people went out into the entrance way to smoke. The lights did stay on all night and we were on seats with very upright backs so you couldn't really find a way to sleep on them, but at least we had seats. At least 30-40 people spent the 8 hours standing and falling asleep on their feet.

All in all, not necessarily a 36 hours we would care to repeat frequently, but a great chance to experience things that are part of everyday experiences for many Chinese.

Westward ho!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am really, really enjoying keeping up with the 2 of you on your around the world adventure. Can't wait for the next installment!

Amy B :)