After years of traveling in China, I stepped up to the boarding gate for my train and found myself in line alone. Trains going south from Shanghai were cancelled because of a typhoon.
I was in front of the gate, alone. This is an odd feeling to have here. The absence of a mob where a mob should be means something’s f’cked. I looked around to find what had happened, and it didn’t take long until I gazed up at the electronic board announcing my train’s status. There were big red characters that read 停运, where there should have been bright green ones that said 正点.
They said “ting yun,” or “stopped,” but they don’t mean the train is stopped somewhere on the tracks and will get going again soon. I’d never had this happen to me before. In all my years of traveling in China I’ve never seen those ominous red characters ominously teetering next to the same train number that’s printed on my ticket. I’ve seen them on other people’s trains, but I’ve always figured myself immune. In my experience China’s high speed trains have always run to the minute.
A mousy young women stationed at the gate to inform us of our train’s status. She wasn’t much help.
“What happened to my train?”
“Ask over there.” She pointed to the ticket return booth.
“Is it going to leave today?”
“Ask over there.”
“Is it delayed or cancelled?”
“Ask over there.”
She coquettishly tried to sidestep giving me any information about my train’s delay, as though she expected to be personally blamed and whomped for it.
“Please just tell me if it’s leaving today or not?”
“It won’t leave today.”
“What should I do?”
“Ask over there.”
“Typhoon,” a voice from behind me pipped up.
I’ve been on more than a hundred train journeys in CHina, and not a single one has ever been canceled. The worst I’ve ever faced has been an hour or two delay — but even these are rare. China’s rail system is almost unbelievably reliable, which is something that’s easy to take for granted: as disorganized and fall apart-y as everything often seems here, when it comes down to it things work.
I realized then that I could be sunk. Normally, I would shrug, get another ticket, and enjoy some more time in Shanghai. But in a few days I have a very expensive flight leaving from Hong Kong. I know that since China began forcibly transitioning to high speed rail in this part of the country, the trains going up and down the Shanghai – Shenzhen corridor are packed even during normal operation, so the the cancellation of around a dozen trains was not a good sign that I would be getting out of here anytime soon. Entire trains of people (i.e. thousands and thousands) would be needing to get new tickets. The lines would be running at double capacity — and who even knew how many days they would be out of operation for. I realized that I could be stuck in Shanghai for a while.
I did the math for the bus. There was time, but the bus lines down the coast would also be likewise canceled and booked up solid once they began running again. I could hitch it — but what if I didn’t make it on time? I’d feel rather lame standing on the side of the highway in some desolate stretch of nowhere China with nobody picking me up as my flight flies overheard without me.
When things like this happen little networks of mutual aid quickly spring up as little groups of strangers temporarily buddy up and work to get out of the situation together. Chains of information would soon be flowing, as one person tells another what they heard another person say . . . . I needed to get in on this.
I turned around and looked for the most desperate looking person I could find who was on the same train as me. I saw a young father who had a pair of kids and a worried looking wife. This guy was surely going to do all that it took to get back to Xiamen.
“We are going the same place, can you help me?” I kitten pawed him.
Even a linguistically competent foreigner is going to be the last guy on the grapevine here.
I followed the guy over to the ticket exchange window. He was nervous, jittery. Chinese people tend to get excited like no other group of people on the planet that I’ve been around. They can get intense fast — go into hyper-focus mode, start twitching, moving fast, talking extremely loudly as they frantically spread and receive messages, make decisions, and come up with solutions. These are people you want to be around when situations get rough — they will come up with some way out, that’s guaranteed.
As we were standing in the ticket exchange line an old janitor walked up to guy I was with. They had a chat about trains and when the next one out could be. The janitor then walked away. I thought nothing of it. But soon he came rushing back. “There are tickets for the day after tomorrow, get in that line!” We rushed over to the ticket purchase line. As we waited the janitor returned again with a small handful of train tickets and ID cards and handed them to my man with the implied instructions that he was to exchange those tickets for other passengers. The guy who sweeps the floor and empties the trash was quarterbacking the situation. He was going back and forth, getting people tickets, telling everyone when there were openings on what trains. I have no idea where he was getting his information from, but he was right.