Lawrence Hamilton pushes himself beyond the brink to find the meaning of travel in a misadventure that spans across central China.
China has punished me yet again. Perhaps it was my bitchy letter last week, perhaps it was my snootiness at the plush backpackers at the YHA hostel, or maybe my constant moaning over the grey skies. Either way, China decided it had enough and was going put me in my place.
It all started at as a lazy Sunday. A group of teachers at my university had organized a trip to Xian for the weekend. The premise was simple: a weekend getaway, a World Heritage site, and all the creature comforts (i.e. coffees, beers, and bars) that poor little Kaifeng just can’t seem to muster.
I was intrigued about the famed Terracotta Warriors, even though I know Chinese tourist sites can be hit or miss. I love hiking, and walking the old walls of Xian sounded like fun. However, I genuinely hated the idea of going to Starbucks or spending a night in the hostel bar. Luckily, I found a kindred spirit in a fellow Kiwi teacher. Our smugness overwhelmed us as we prided ourselves for ‘being in and amongst it’ while everyone else was devouring the creature comforts so common in the expat teaching community.
This was really our fatal mistake. While we were smug, we failed to see the other side of the coin. Those same people we turned our noses up at had also been in China long enough to understand their way around. While they may have been ordering overpriced pizza, they also knew the basics of the language and could at least order a taxi.
After a nice morning of walking the old walls and a late lunch we started to head for the metro to catch our train home. It was at this precise moment that things slowly started to unravel. It is strange for me to write this but basically I don’t know what the fuck happened. We had a map and we were on the street for the metro but, inexplicably, we couldn’t find it. Every direction we asked turned out to be a bum lead, we started to argue, we got more confused. As it was Sunday afternoon in Xian most of the weekenders were out in full force, and the streets were jam packed with every China Mobile shop either having a concert blaring with static laced speakers or they were throwing cheap gifts to large swathes of people who were all raising their hands.
What followed next was 15 hours of travel hell, which consisted of a potpourri of bad decisions and even worse luck. Our smugness was pretty much beaten out of us by this point. I have to stand here a man who is a shitty traveller and, at least on that fateful Sunday, unable to find an exit out of a Kleenex Box.
Our train was departing at 5.11 pm, and I was about to live this timeline of frustration:
4:40 – 5:15 pm
My traveling partner and I eventually find the metro but it is insanely overcrowded. Somehow I managed to squeeze on the train while she didn’t make it. This, for some reason, at the time seemed insanely emotional and wasted a solid five minutes. We eventually met up and made a mad dash for our train platform, but we missed boarding by 2 minutes. (I should add that this was a high speed train and would have us arriving in time for dinner and a beer and a good night’s sleep.)
6:00 – 8:21 pm
Feeling dejected, but slightly stoic, we changed our tickets for the slow train. It was to arrive at Zhengzhou at 4:54 am. Of course, it departed from the other station across town. So back to the metro we go.
On the way across town I daydreamed that we were dead and it was our purgatory to forever be criss-crossing Xian, trying to get a train out and always arriving at the boarding gate two minutes late. I relayed this to my companion.
“It’s plausible,” she grimly replied.
8:21 pm – 4:54 am
Seats 115 and 116. Both hard seats. We sit up all night amid tons of chain smoking travellers. This was actually quite fun, although in the back of my mind I was worried about my poor students. At the best times I can be a finicky sleeper, and I worried about teaching them contrast markers after a night on the train. To take my mind off of that we played stupid word games, listened to music, and contemplated the meaning of existence. This all happened on dirty blue chairs with dirtier white linen with hundreds of curious, scared, and happy eyes watching our every move. Random toys were sold, music came out of dodgy smartphone speakers, loud salesmen sold Beat headphones and the occasional food cart passed by. By 3 am, however, most everyone was asleep, with their heads on the table in front of them and peanut shells scattered everywhere.
5:00 – 8:00 am
We arrived in Zhengzhou at five am. We decided to pay the money to get a taxi back to Kaifeng, guaranteeing our arrival in time for work. Kaifeng is roughly an hour away, so this is no mean feat, but waiting on the train seemed too risky. We had to be in our classroom by 8 am. This plan backfired stupendously, and we spent the better part of an hour just finding a taxi. The first one drove us in a circle. He stopped and called someone on his Iphone. A groggy voice told me the driver will not take us any farther. He kicks us out after driving two blocks.
Somehow can’t find our way back to the station. We are starting to get delirious. Are we in the Truman show? Eventually we find some army officers. I hold up a box and make choo-choo sounds. I don’t remember what my companion said but her eyes called me a fucking idiot. He walks us through a shopping center and eventually shows us the railway station.
Despite the early hour the place was buzzing with activity. Small food stalls were near the exit and dastardly grey electric carts hummed around dropping off the large sacks of wares to be sold. The aisles were filled with monstrous multi-colored plastic sacks. It was surreal, strange, and beautiful. It felt as if I was having an acid flashback or I was stranded on Tattoine. Leaving the shopping center we emerged into the dawn, light pouring in from behind the skyline. It is hard to grasp the scale of China, the massive square, the towering skyscrapers, the sheer melancholic grey that shades everything. The emotions are just as complex, I felt exhausted, confused, stoic and something akin to romantic sadness, whatever that is. In the square directly in front of Zhengzhou station I felt I could put my finger out and the world would ripple like a pebble hitting the water. I am grateful to be here. It dawns on me that this is an adventure and I also wonder if I am hallucinating.
We make it back to the train station and we finally have a breakthrough! My traveling partner finds a woman who speaks passable English and she writes down all the useful Chinese phrases to get us back to Kaifeng. Unfortunately, the next two taxi drivers were illiterate.
We find a driver and offer to pay far too much. The bastard got greedy and drives around in a circle for half an hour trying to find more customers. This time he fucked with the wrong stooges. He stops to ask people for a ride and we just hop out. We were tired, stressed, and sick of it all. He screams like a lunatic and acts like he is going to throttle me. Spotting a metro we run and stand under a security camera. Our exhaustion complete, we start arguing with each other.
7:30 – 8:30 am
We finally find a drive who takes us. We get a hold of our boss. I don’t remember the words I used exactly, but I know I texted a co-worker and said something about knee deep and shit. Of course, the driver takes us to the wrong place and starts yelling at us. Though we are back in Kaifeng we are literally at a dead end on the wrong university campus. There seems to be no end game. The driver is furious and I am afraid he might spit on us. We both start laughing. Nothing left to do but smile.
My friend luckily calls her Chinese friend and the directions are passed on and we make it back to Henan University. The driver demands sixty more yuan. I was too tired to care. I opened my wallet and saw that I had about three one yuan notes, I really don’t remember. I handed him the crumbled bills and told him to keep the change.
We go our separate ways and shower. I have a strong cup of coffee. We meet again and trudge off to class. Our final humiliation is that somehow we get lost on our way. I am really not making this part up. For fuck’s sake.
I am a dumbass. I pride myself on being a veteran traveller and a vagabond, but basically my ego got the best of me and it led to a ton of ignorant mistakes and I was punished accordingly.
However, all is not lost. Nobody died and no one was hurt. It was a long night, I was late for work, and I was fucking tired. If I was merely a traveller, that would be business as usual. The only thing that burned this time was making an undignified appearance at work with my tail tucked firmly between my legs.
Despite it all, the whole experience was worthwhile. My only real regret is I didn’t take more of it in. I didn’t need the Terracotta Warriors or any other signs of progress, I just needed to be pushed beyond my limits to show me the beauty that was right in front of me the whole time.
In the end that is what travel is supposed to be about: finding the boundaries, both spiritual and physical. This trip was complete with missed trains, taxi cheats, disgusting toilets, in depth conversations, and thousands of new faces. It ranks right up there with some of my more extreme travels, and it might very well end up my most enduring memory from these ten weeks in China.
I will leave you with what I wrote on the board for my students when they asked about my weekend:
“Taking the high speed train was fun. However, the slow train was more interesting.”