Saturday, March 15, 2008

Xi'an trip: Challenges

I've decided to respond to our friend mmm.chocolate's comment about our Xi'an trip in a new post because 1) it leads well into my next Xi'an topic and 2) we can't leave 'comments' due to restrictive government measures. She said:

Brian and I considered a trip to Xi'an on the train before we came home. But, then, we bagged the whole idea because we were planning to take all three kids with us and we were just too nervous about the possibilities of a bad hotel and not knowing what to expect from the train, etc. How was your experience in those regards? Do you think you could have done it with Ellie? Or, maybe I should ask, do you think you would have wanted to do it with more kids? I've always wondered if we should have just gone for it. Seems like an awesome trip.

China is Mafan
I don't remember if I have defined 麻烦(mafan) for you before (though you've read plentiful examples, like the hospital system), but this word pretty much sums up the trip (and often, the China experience as a whole). Mafan means troublesome. It means jumping through ridiculously tiresome hoops to do something relatively simple. It means drenching your patience from a consuming swim in Lake Arbitrary, with nobody capable of an explanation or even a towel to sop up the mess. Mafan brings uncertainty, confusion, and unmerciful time-wasting (but a lot of soul-searching to kill the time).

Item #1: Trains and travel
Let me add to the list of Chinese railway inefficiencies that I have mentioned in prior posts. Here in China, for some reason, you cannot buy round-trip train tickets; you can only buy tickets to a destination from the city of departure. That also means if your city does not offer direct train access to your destination, you need to blindly buy a ticket to a third city [maybe Beijing or Shanghai] in order to make way to your final destination. Once you arrive, you will buy the next available ticket to your choice destination, hopefully sometime during the same day. Also, this makes confirming travel plans extra nerve-racking. Making short trips anywhere becomes extremely risky; what's the point? Mafan.

You also can't buy tickets more than one week in advance, except at certain travel agencies that extend the time frame to 10 days. This makes planning logistics a bit more complicated. If Transportation Bureau only extended the one week in advance rule and connected the computer system with other cities, it wouldn't be nearly as awful as it is now.

The unreasonable process doesn't seem to bother the average Chinese, though, at least the two people I recently talked with in the Tianjin train station; they've accepted the fact that nothing will change, so why burst your britches over it? (I think they sit complacent because they don't understand that things can be different... just like that whole 'eedomfray' of speech thing that Big Brother restricts so well[encrypted pig latin]).

Well, to complicate our journey, we wanted to leave from Beijing because we would be there that weekend anyways and didn't want to backtrack (plus the Beijing trains to Xi'an are up to 10 hours faster). So as soon as we arrived to Beijing on Saturday, we ran to the ticket office to buy our continuing ticket to Xi'an on Sunday. The only tickets available the day before were in the expensive first class train that reaches Lhasa some 40-odd hours later (remember, we were forced to buy our tickets in Beijing, so the selection was reduced). We dished out the cash, determined to ride economy on the way home, but only after the ticket lady confirmed that Tiff and I were in the same compartment (which we later 'de-confirmed' when we got to the train and saw that we were separated).

First class is fun!

[Disclaimer: While Xi'an held many similarities with other cities that we had seen, we have never witnessed consistent crowds--at all times of the day--as nasty as Xi'an's, which was exceptionally mind-boggling to us. Xi'an is tiny in land size compared to other 'big' Chinese cities, but has a large population stuffed in there. So, our experience is not necessarily typical to China in that aspect...]

Xi'an: buying tickets home to Tianjin
We arrived Monday morning in Xi'an in good spirits, excited for our cultural excursion, but it didn't take long for the mafan to kick into action, which pummeled our spirits like whole grain being crushed on a mill. At the railway station, the unreasonable crowd jammed into the large ticketing office and spilled outside making it difficult to maneuver with our luggage and baby Erik on my back. It seemed like we waited for an eternity as we listened to the police yell at anybody out of queue. It was here where we got our first hint that we wouldn't have done well if Ellie had been along; she would have been absolutely restless, adding a whole new level of stress to our experience.

After the extended wait, we made our way to the ticket office and learned that there were no tickets available to Tianjin on Tuesday!!! (Blast that cursed no roundtrip ticket system!!!) I began to freak out; I had to leave on the Tuesday night train to get back for work by Thursday morning. There was only one available train to Beijing, and it was the ultra-first class, which cost more than it would to fly home. With intensifying pressure surrounding us to make a quick decision, we opted out of this mess to search for a cheaper flight home.

Erik's backpack; strollers are impossible in Xi'an's crowds.

Cheaper flight home???
I realize I'm already being long-winded, so I'll try to stay on the point= mafan. We spent all afternoon and into the evening trying to buy a flight home which was comparably as mafan as the train station. It turned out being a little more expensive than the ultra-first class train tickets, but at least we would make it home, right, and in a matter of hours! We were missing our sweet Ellie (we obviously had forgotten what a terror she can be at her age) and wanted nothing more than to be with her. In order to buy the tickets, we had to fax stuff here and there and make copies of stupid other stuff... our multiple credit cards or grips of cash were not enough (they of course needed to confirm that we didn't illegally enter the country-since that's easy to do, right?). Well, it was late in the evening, so all the [less-than-24-hour] generic Kinkos that line the road were closed for the day. We were forced to give it up and hit the city for some fun (which we enjoyed). In the morning, the flights were already taken.

Cheer up, lil' camper.

Item #2: Xi'an transportation
Xi'an is so densely populated that it's hard to get anywhere, by bus or taxi. To find an empty taxi requires almost as much time to run a half-marathon, so why not walk? The other choice of transportation, the buses, seemed even more humorous to me. Crowds of people, sometimes 5 people deep or more, stretched down the block at almost every stop. The amusing part of the situation was that people willingly put their life in jeopardy whenever their bus came, by jumping out into the road and running the 100-meter-dash along the side of the bus, just get on. The competition was fierce, but it was always the strongest people who conquered the crowds (utilizing the Heisman pose), leaving the elderly and the wounded stiff-armed at the curb. Though these athletes seemed to make it on board unharmed, the bus undoubtedly soiled their slacks as it skillfully slid past the pushy mob that brushed up against the machine (I really am surprised that we didn't see any injuries).

-The only bus stop picture we got was this- it doesn't capture the magic but maybe it helps you visualize it a little better??? The actual 'bus stop' is where the four white signs are located on the right, behind the trees. The crowd continues on the other side of the signs, too.

Going home
After calling friends in Tianjin for advice, we learned that we could buy "standby" tickets, and hopefully take the place of people who didn't show up. The only problem is that, if there weren't any beds available, we would have to stand for 11 hours straight back to Beijing. YIKES!!! Being desensitized to any mafan at this point, we somehow agreed that this plan was a brilliant one indeed.

As an answer to our prayers, we chanced upon small ticket agency Tuesday afternoon to buy our standby tickets. Just to humor myself, I inquired about sleeper tickets that evening. The ticket lady quickly responded "No," but checked the computer anyways. To her surprise (and ours) she found two tickets on the same first class train we rode two nights earlier, as it returned to Beijing from Lhasa. Tiff and I looked at each other tickled with glee, ran and got enough cash from the machine down the road, and bought them just as she closed shop (she denied service to the people standing in line behind us as she hastily closing the ticket window as she ran off)! We said another prayer of thanks that we didn't have to stand for 11 hours on the train that night with a fat, but adorable, sleeping baby on our backs.

Xi'an Station: Woody's Round-up
Though I've long lost the count of all the times I felt like cattle here, the similarities to livestock were particularly frightening at the Xi'an Railway Station in the evening. The masses were funneled into two big gated area which gradually pushed you into single file on either side of the entrance. We couldn't actually see the entrance because the farm-like flood lights ahead blinded us into submission, and somehow made us forget how far away we were from our train. We were so tightly corralled that we were body to body with the strangers around us; if you were to fall, you would not be able to get up. Again, we were glad Ellie was not with us; this time for safety reasons.

After some time of not moving and wondering if we would make the train at all, an officer began yelling at us, wanting to see our tickets. Fearing that this could potentially mean more mafan, we quietly handed them over. He called us out of the herd and told us to walk to the front of the line! For a few moments, we had free grazing rights in our own emptied pasture before we made it to the barn. We still don't know why he did this: it could have been because we had a child, or a first-class ticket, or just because we were foreigners with a train leaving in a few minutes (they are trying to set a good impression to the world). Regardless of the reasons, it was somewhat bittersweet; we did feel somewhat guilty from receiving special treatment--I'm sure there were many others who had a train leaving soon but were forced to wait the cattle-shoot through the end.

Inside the small station, the crowd control wasn't much better than on the outside-but at least you could actually see evidences that you weren't roaming free on the range, but at a train station! People pushed their way through the standing-room-only masses to in hopes to catch their train. To add to the worries, we couldn't find our train number on any of the platform signs, even though we were leaving in a few minutes. The station workers were unhelpful to us because they were too occupied hypnotizing the crowds with their piercing bullhorns. We eventually figured out that there was a special enclosed platform for first class trains, filled with leather sofas and soothing music. Upon entrance, we felt guilty again, but were mostly grateful that we would make it home.

-This picture does no justice either--look down the hall and you will see how many people they can jam in there. If the camera could capture 360 degrees, you would see that every platform and surrounding areas were this packed...

...except for the first class platform.

Beijing West Station- the biggest in Beijing

Beijing West Station to Beijing Station
After arriving at the Beijing West Station, we rushed across town to the regular Beijing Railway Station to buy our tickets to return to Tianjin. Because the subways were full of people going to the center of the city during the morning work rush, there was no room for two foreigners with their luggage and infant- or even a small Chinese. Inside, it was so packed that when the subway doors opened, the riders against the door exhaled in relief for 15 seconds before they sucked in their stomachs as the door slid closed again. Because five or more subways passed with nobody getting off or on, I saw one friend help another by ramming him with a linebacker-esque shoulder push before the doors closed. WOW! Fearing rush hour injury, we rode the tracks the opposite direction [farther outside the city] to beat the crowds. (It took about 20 minutes in the other direction before we could beat the crowds toward the center of the city.) Eventually, made heard the refreshing words "Arriving at Beijing Station" being announced from the automated announcement, and we got off.

Tickets to Tianjin
We ran to the special Tianjin ticket booth inside the station where we quickly snagged tickets for the next available train: in 5 minutes!!!

We ran. Didi smiled as he bounced on my back.

We barely made it on the train when I noticed our ticket seat number was "无坐," which means "no seat". I thought, well, standing for one hour is much better than 11. Luckily, a nice lady led us to take a seat in the dining car where we traveled quite comfortably, sharing a table with two strange men who kept staring at my kid.

Though this entry highlights the negatives of the trip, we really did have a wonderful time--one that we will never forget. Lessons learned in my Ancient Chinese History class at BYU began to make a deep impression in my mind as I pondered the greatness of China's rich past, and marveled at artifacts as evidence of that greatness. I also learned a lot about modern Chinese culture and society, both negative and positive aspects. I learned a lot about myself, which was probably the most valuable point of the trip. Challenges bring growth, eh?

Would I do it again, mmm.chocolate? No way.


Marilyn said...

Kyle, your desription of your trip has worn me out. You're a very good writer. I am as frustrated as if I had been there. My only comment is, Tiffany, I see you cut your hair. It is cute long or short.

blaine and michelle said...

Wow. After that, I guess you can handle just about anything the American travel system will ever throw at you when you get back.

Kristen Wilde said...

Oh my gosh, you guys are living in China! What an adventure!!! I just found your blog through my sister Jana's, and will definitely be back.

Amy said...

Wow, I feel so flattered to have an entire entry devoted to my comment. And, you most definitely answered my question. I guess it's easy in retrospect to think, "Gee, why did we let ourselves miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime." But, I'm sure right at the moment we made the decision, we were worn out from all the mafan in our lives. Loved this post!

Karrot Soup said...

That's an amazing epic story, which I think wlll be popping into my head on all sorts of occasions to make me feel grateful! For example, just getting 4 kids and a stocked-up Sunday bag into the van on time for church sometimes seems like an ordeal, but will definitely seem less so for a while at least. What memories you guys have made, though -- thanks for sharing with us!