3,000km, five locations of interest, 7 provinces, 2 provincial level municipalities, 8 days, sleeping on trains, reporting from a bicycle, investigating China’s ghost cities. I’m currently at the halfway point of this tour, and what I’ve found is perhaps more intriguing than any city without people could be. But I won’t offer a spoiler here, full reports will be delivered on a city by city basis, and a short, rough cut documentary and a long-read article will soon be published.
I’m just tossing a bone here to let readers know what I’m digging into out here. I’m currently in Taiyuan, waiting to take the night train to Inner Mongolia. Perhaps I will find more than a media hoax out there — maybe even a real ghost city.
There are two things about traveling in China that are easy to take for granted: 1) That people will go out of their way to be thoughtful and help me out, and 2) That things work here.
Last night I was riding a train from Zhengzhou to Taiyuan. I lost my bottle of water, so I went to fill up my thermos at the hot water tap. Perhaps I was groggy, perhaps I didn’t know what I was doing, but I took my fill before the water was fully boiled. There are lights on these water purifiers that let you know when the water is potable, and I missed the fact that the big light that was right in my face was yellow and not green.
“Too fast! Too fast!” I was caught, and good thing too. The train attendant in my car — whose job it is to essentially babysit us passengers — whisked away my thermos to another part of the train, and a few minutes later returned with it full of properly boiled water.
If you’re a foreigner in China everyone seems to be on the lookout for you to do something stupid. It’s like a pastime or a social sport here: everywhere you go, you’re watched, and just before you do something absolutely moronic, someone will jump in and save your ass. This can be irritating sometimes — like when you’re simply doing something they way your culture does it rather than the Chinese way, or when you feel you’re being patronized or someone is looking for a good “dumb foreigner” story to tell their friends — but other times it is a genuine ass save. However you cut it, it’s says something about a people so eager to watch your back.
So I didn’t feel good drinking that thermos of water that I’d previously dumped untreated water into. The chances of getting sick from this are almost nil, but coming down with a stomach issue while on a train or riding a bicycle through some no-man’s-land was not something I aim to experience very often. For 30 cents I could get a bottle of water from the dining car. So I went there and tried to order a bottle.
“We don’t have any, we’re all out.”
I became slightly irritated. How could an entire train be out of bottled water? But I hopped on this train in the middle of the line, and this often means that it’s heading on a downward spiral of service, supplies, and cleanliness until it hits the last stop on the line. I returned to my bunk.
Some hours later I was looking out a window while waiting for the train attendant to clean out a toilet that somebody missed their mark all over. The train cop then came rushing towards me. I prepared for the “I don’t understand what you’re saying” routine, but just before the words got out of my mouth I stopped short. He was asking me if I still wanted a bottle of water. Apparently, the word spread through the train that I was thirsty, and as soon as the vendors resupplied I was tracked down.
Nobody had to care, but they did.
It’s one thing for a person to assist you when asked, it’s another when they take the initiative themselves.
This is the story of traveling in China. Small incidents like this happen almost everyday — so much so that it’s easy to start taking them for granted, as you just start expecting people to be overtly helpful and go out of their way for you. This is perhaps the best thing anyone could say about any culture.
Another thing that is remarkable here is that things work. You have no idea how they work, as you get to know this culture’s often haphazard, disorganized, and unplanned way of doing things, but before you can pat yourself on the back as being culturally superior you recognize that things really do work according to plan and on time throughout this country. Public transportation is an incredible example of this.
China probably has the most extensive network of ground transportation on the planet. Thousands and thousands of rains and buses criss-cross this country daily, and baring a major obstacle like a traffic jam or accident, they almost always run pretty close to on time. These transportation networks are giant organisms of millions and millions of people filling their roles for a common end — and it works.
The bus stations here resemble factories: even ten minutes a bus is loaded from a gate and shipped out, just to have the next bus pull in and do the same right behind it. Multiply this by a dozen or two or three gates and then again by thousands of stations, and you have a lot of people being transported with insane efficiently.
It’s absolutely amazing to me that a train can travel 1500km across the country and make it to the station I’m at virtually at the moment it’s suppose to arrive. If there are delays, they are usually not over an hour. When I go to the train station tonight to board a train that’s going to take me over 700km away, I’m confident that it’s going to be roughly on time. I don’t understand how this works, but it does, and I’m grateful for it.
There’s not too many countries that I can say this of.
So I’m continuing on with this ghost city project. What I’ve experienced so far has been dramatically different than what I initial conceived, but it’s also vastly more layered and complex than I could have imagined. Look for this series of articles to continue publication next week.