01Mar2013

Our China Odyssey – Part 1: Shenzhen

Sign offering the choice between Hong Kong and toilets, Shenzhen, China.

Despite the pleasures of Hong Kong, I am beginning to panic absolutely bloody terrified about the impending arrival of Chinese New Year.

Folk in Beijing have been struggling to find a hotel in Harbin for Chinese New Year; the beginnings of festive transport chaos are evident; and we’ve got over 3000k to travel and a house to find.

Further, everywhere in Harbin that’s in the guidebook or the obvious online spots is already fully booked; and, while I have money coming in, our funds are quite seriously depleted.

We need, frankly, to get a place rented, somewhere, before Chinese New Year fully kicks in, or we may, quite literally, be on the streets.

A good way to think of Chinese New Year in China is: Christmas + summer holidays x 1,600,000,000 people.

A good way to think of Chinese New Year in China is: Christmas + summer holidays x 1,600,000,000 people. It’s the biggest chunk of time off the Chinese get all year, and it’s pretty much compulsory to go and see family too.

My original plan was to check out Harbin, Jilin and the ski resorts of Beidahu and Yabuli, and then decide which one to live in, which means, in the case of Beidahu and Yabuli, discovering if there’s even a town there, let alone one big enough to support a middle school for Zac.

Then I’d get Zac into Chinese school for the last week of term, when hopefully even in China they’re basically making Christmas decorations New Year lanterns and money envelopes, ergo, an easy entry to the challenging world of all-Chinese education, then do a bit of skiing over the hols.

Even reviewing it now, that doesn’t, actually, sound like a bad plan. A bit inchoate, granted. But not a BAD plan.

I’m in serious danger of running out of money. So I put panicky thoughts of work and money to one side, and focus on part one of this project.

But, thanks to quite a hideous concatenation of crap that started on December 18 when flights backed up out of Lukla and appears to be snowballing nightmarishly onward, we’ve already missed the end of the Chinese school term.

And right now, just getting to Harbin, our jumping off point for the other locations, seems pretty bloody difficult.

And, while I have money coming in (though as a freelance writer, it is unwise to count such chickens until they’re in the bank), this unplanned trip to Hong Kong has proved expensive.

Yeah, I’m in serious danger of running out of money.

So I put panicky thoughts of work and money to one side, and focus on part one of this project.

Item 1: get to Harbin from Hong Kong, laden with 35kg of cold weather gear, none of which I am willing to abandon, since a) we will be skiing and b) I can think of all too many possible situations in Northern China where my son will actually stab me if I have let our -20 rated sleeping bags go.

We jump on the Hong Kong metro, jump off at the border post, and wander to the border into China proper, me practising my speech about what we’re doing in China in my head.

The guy looks at the visas, looks at the pictures, looks at us, back at the pictures, back at us, back at the visas, flicks through a few more pages…

My speech about our plans for China is fully primed. I can DO THIS!

Stamp, bang, stamp, and we’re through.

Into Shenzhen. Into China. Fully legal! Booya! Things are looking up!

I am haemorraghing money. And, in the nature of being a freelance writer anything travelling, I am haemorraghing money because shit is going wrong,.

Now, there are many interesting things to do in Shenzhen, the richest city in China, and arguably the epicentre of Guangdong (Canton), for many decades China’s trading hub.

But we need to get north, over 3000k north, from temperatures of 20 above to temperatures of 30 below, from rice paddies to Siberian birch, from the tepid South China Sea to the icy fringes of Pyongyang.

Nothing’s booked. Nothing’s organised. Because, until I knew we had the visas, I couldn’t do jack.

Zac is enthusiastic about a bunch of stuff in Shenzhen: museums, an art district, a mini-themepark. He’s been reading our guidebook and picking the best.

“Look,” I say. “We need to be north before Chinese New Year hits, otherwise we’re stranded. If we can’t get a train ticket, we’ll stay the night, and as many nights as we need. Right now, we just need to get as far north as we can.”

We hop on the mainland Chinese metro to the station we came in to, Shenzhen, the terminus of our 2000k+ train ride south from Beijing.

They can’t sell tickets to Harbin, because there are no direct trains there. Which is odd, since the website I’d checked seemed convinced there were.

The girl at the ticket desk recommends we drop £200 on the fast train to Beijing, and figure things out from there.

Aaargggghhhh! I am haemorraghing money. And, in the nature of being a freelance writer anything travelling, I am haemorraghing money because shit is going wrong, which means I’m not able to make any money, because I’m trying to fix the shit that’s going wrong.

The slow trains, which, what with our depleted budget, are now making a great deal of sense, leave, it appears, from a different station, Shenzhen West.

Which isn’t marked on the bilingual metro map. Bugger.

Zac and I stare, and stare, and stare at the English. Shenzhen Station, where we are, is clearly marked. We run grubby fingers over the panel, tracing our search outwards. Shenzhen West is nowhere to be seen.

As it is – all I know is that we need to head west on the green line. But to where? West on the green line… To where?! Oh god!

I grab a passing station cleaner and explain where we want. She looks at me as if I’m mad and explains, rapidly, that we’re at Shenzhen station already.

“No Shenzhen train station! This Shenzhen train station, I know!” I say, in rubbish Chinese. “I want Shenzhen West train station. Shenzhen WEST strain tation. No Shenzhen train station. But I no know metro station Shenzhen West train station name of.”

She pulls up the touchscreen on the map, and points to the name of the stop we require. It’s written, of course, in Chinese characters, because she doesn’t read English characters.

But my Chinese literacy isn’t nearly good enough to memorise the characters, and my Chinese fluency isn’t strong enough to reliably hear the station name that she pronounces and recognise it when it comes up over audio on the green line that I can visually see we need to take and understand we need to take westbound.

Maybe if she were used to foreigners, and to speaking slowly for them, I’d get it.

As it is – all I know is that we need to head west on the green line.

But to where? West on the green line… To where?!

Oh god!

“You are very strong!” she says, as I load up. “Not really!” I say, inadvertently swinging around and narrowly avoiding taking out an innocent Chinese pensioner with the duffel.

A saviour! A Chinese girl, who speaks reasonable English, is visiting Shenzhen on business, and needs to go to Shenzhen West. She’s going to the station. She’ll help us!

She’s sure they have trains to Beijing.

She eyes me, fielding 35kg of badly distributed winter gear: one backpack, one large fake North Face, pseudo-waterproof duffel and one tote. “You are very strong!” she says, as I load up.

“Not really!” I say, inadvertently swinging around and narrowly avoiding taking out an innocent Chinese pensioner with the duffel. “No, no, this is nothing!”

We head across town, on this anonymous metro, fast, fluent trains, a metro the size of any European capital, and, miraculously, we make it to Shenzhen West.

OK! This is good!

We thank our friend, take her card and say goodbye.

China has 1.6billion people and the largest railway network in the world. It’s like asking someone in Lisbon to get me to Istanbul, only worse.

At Shenzhen West, the queues are backing up out of the ticket office as folk try and secure places, be that lying, sitting or standing, for the annual great migration.

I dump Zac on a bench with some money, all our bags, his Kobo, my Chinese mobile number and some sweeties, and join the queue. I hit an English speaker. Result!

“No trains to Harbin,” she says. “What train do you want?”

Of course, I don’t know my train number. I want a train that gets us to Harbin, dammit!

“Do they have trains from Beijing to Harbin?” I ask.

She can’t, of course, sell me tickets from Beijing. Only to Beijing. And she can’t, with the queues backed up, research routes from Beijing to Harbin.

That would be ridiculous. China has 1.6billion people and the largest railway network in the world. It’s like asking someone in Lisbon to get me to Istanbul, only worse.

It’s almost exactly the same level of WTF?!

While small rural train stations in the middle of nowhere might sort a laowai out with a simple connecting train, it’s not the business of a busy ticket office in Shenzhen West to plan our 3000k+ odyssey across China.

“You need to check online,” says an English speaker behind me.

Jesus. I should KNOW this! I DO know this!

Right. I need to find a way to get online and find out how to get to Harbin.

A place to live requires one month’s rent, plus deposit, plus agent’s fees, plus some spare in case of emergency. No. I can’t do anything but the slow trains.

I wend my way through elaborate station forecourts and tunnels lined with mini-marts to a station hotel with the sort of restaurant signage that looks like it might have internet. “You have worldwide web of?” I ask, in my rubbish Chinese.

They have! And it’s not one that requires a China Unicom roaming account either! Double result!

I grab a sorely-needed beer, plug Zac into some food, some fizzy pop and the internet, dump the bags on him, and begin to figure out the least horrid route up north, one that will minimise our chances of getting stuck somewhere random and having to spend Chinese New Year there, AKA one routing through a bearable city.

Our shortest conceivable route is 38 hours.

Great.

But until some of the money that I have coming in actually, well, comes in, I really can’t splurge on the fast trains, let alone planes.

I’ve spent around $1000 on Chinese visas alone in the last month, not to mention a bunch of money getting to Hong Kong and being in Hong Kong, not to mention our flights from Nepal to Beijing, and I can’t settle down and focus on bringing in more money until we’ve got a place to live, not with Chinese New Year transport madness already starting and China’s train system on the verge of freezing up.

And a place to live requires one month’s rent, plus deposit, plus agent’s fees, plus some spare in case of emergency.

No. I can’t do anything but the slow trains.

The last thing I want to do is inadvertently end up in Tianjing, Tianqing or Tianjin-but-with-different-tones, if such places exist, which, this being China, they probably do.

There are endless permutations on Shenzhen to Harbin, most of them routing through enormous cities that I’ve barely even heard of, places the size of London and larger.

I diddle around for a bit. Tianjin seems to have a tonne of trains to Harbin. It’s 26 hours from here, and around 2400km, which means we’ve broken the back of the journey, and it’s also far enough north with enough connections for us to be able to find a bunch of alternative routes to Harbin if it comes to it.

And it’s not Beijing, which means, I figure, that there won’t be too many expats clogging the trains with their desire to see the ice festival.

We might get stuck in Tianjin for a bit, but it sounds nice enough – it’s quite possibly the fourth largest city in China – and we definitely won’t be stuck there for weeks.

So Tianjin it is. I write down the train number, copy down the Chinese characters, and double-check the tones. The last thing I want to do is inadvertently end up in Tianjing, Tianqing or Tianjin-but-with-different-tones, if such places exist, which, this being China, they probably do.

Another advantage of Tianjin, FYI, is that it’s large enough for people to guess that’s where we’re headed even if I do go off with the tones or the j-consonant.

This happens. After failing to check the correct tones for Qianhai ice skating lake in Beijing, I had to spend some time explaining to the lady I asked directions from that, NO, I really wasn’t looking for Shanghai.

The girl looks at me like I’ve asked if she has wings, and flips her screen round. The sleepers are booked solid for over a month and there are precisely three seats left on tomorrow evening’s train.

“Where you going?” asks a street sweeper, one of many locals who’s been enquiring about our plans with vigorous enthusiasm, but a nice one, rather than a train station shark looking to scam the stupid laowai, or yet another person inviting me to a discount fashion outlet.

“Tianjin,” I say, in my absolute bestest Chinese pronunciation.

“No train today!” he says, rapidly but helpfully. “Train tomorrow evening. Every ^*&^*%%^, no train today! Tomorrow evening!”

How does he know that, I think.

He asks where my son is, and where my husband is.

I tell him, and then head to the ticket office.

The ticket office confirms he’s right.

They have seats. Whew!

“No sleepers?” I ask, feebly.

The girl looks at me like I’ve asked if she has wings, and flips her screen round. The sleepers are booked solid for over a month and there are precisely three seats left on tomorrow evening’s train.

I STFU, hand over our passports and secure two out of the three remaining seats.

Zac, I figure, is not going to be a happy bunny about 26 hours on a train with nowhere to sleep but his seat – hell, I’m not a happy bunny about 26 hours on a train with only a seat — but at least we HAVE seats, rather than standing room, which is how it’s going to be if we don’t get north quickly.

And 26 hours lying on our bags in a corridor is not a fate I’d wish on my very worst enemy, let alone my son.

Zac doesn’t seem entirely whelmed by this. “What’s the bad news?” “The train’s going to take 38 hours,” I say. “And the first leg is 26 hours.”

Wearily, I establish that the station hotel whose internet we are using has three separate parts, all at different price points, that the mid-range one has rather nice rooms, and secure us a place in it.

I return to my spawn, who has built a little empire of bags, cables and fizzy drink cans in a corner of this relatively upscale station restaurant.

“You want the good news or the bad news?” I say.

“Good news first,” he says.

“I’ve got us a room in this hotel,” I say. “It has WIFI!”

Zac doesn’t seem entirely whelmed by this. “What’s the bad news?”

“The train’s going to take 38 hours,” I say. “And the first leg is 26 hours.”

“That’s OK,” he says. “It’s a sleeper, right?”

“Ummm, no,” I say. “There are no sleepers.”

“Not even hard sleepers?” he says.

“No,” I say. “No sleepers. Full stop.”

“What do you MEAN, no sleepers?” he says. “Isn’t there another train?”

“I took two of the last three seats on this train,” I say. “We just need to get to Tianjin. There aren’t going to be sleepers on anything until after Chinese New Year now.”

Zac sighs. “I don’t think you’ve planned this very well.”

In which, gentle reader, he has a point.

8 Comments

  1. Yvette says:

    … So my move yesterday is turning into more of a hassle than I’d planned (landlord lives in Singapore, previous tenant was here 5 years, so a lot of basic stuff is worn out/ needs replacing/ his idea is just getting me to do it), so thanks for continuing this series just a little bit longer. ;-)

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah, it’s going to be misery all the way. Though I might bring some of the nice stuff forward, because to everyone who’s not a ghoul like you these things are just depressing ;-)

      • Yvette says:

        Hah well that’s the nice thing about people writing a month or two after the fact- when bad stuff happens I don’t have to swoop in with sympathies. ;-)

        • Theodora says:

          That’s why I’m kinda enjoying writing this retrospectively. Because my core followers assume everything’s OK by now. Which, in fairness, it is.

  2. Kerwin says:

    Why were you so hardset on getting to Harbin? Sounds like you had no reason to panic hehe… BTW, why did it cost that much to get visas?

    I love reading yours and Zac’s adventures hehe…

    • Theodora says:

      Because they’re long visas, 6-month visas, and they require, umm, special arrangements…

      And why so hardset to get to Harbin? Because the entire nation’s transport system freezes up at Chinese New Year as 1 billion people take to the trains and buses, and accommodation gets booked solid.

      Glad you’re enjoying this saga…

  3. Debnath says:

    Fascinating read, Theodora!

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