Thursday, September 25, 2008

Travelling during a public holiday in China (my first, and last attempt)

So the October Holiday is almost here and the talk of the town is: 'Where r u going? When r u leaving? How much were your tickets?' Like usual, I am planning on staying put during the holiday. My bf is off to India anyways for a work trip, and seeing how sick I still am I don't think travelling alone would have been any fun. I am actually not a big fan of those holidays, because the cities get so d*** packed with people as EVERYONE wants to travel at the same time. I understand the need for those holidays (it is basically to insure that Chinese people will get some holiday during the year as their employer isn't obliged to give them annual leave. Or, even if they are, most companies won't do it) but u can't get away from the fact that it's a mess out there, especially on the trains.

Earlier this year I did my first (and probably last!) attempt to travel during a public holiday week, namely the CNY. I was planning to go to Seoul, and in order to avoid being crammed with millions of people I left a little bit before the holiday.

This might have worked if it wasn't for the fact that this year, it started snowing in China. It started snowing, and it kept snowing. And snowing. And with the snow came the chaos.

I needed to get from Suzhou to Shanghai in order to fly to Seoul from Pudong's international airport. Although I already had my train ticket organized, I felt a bit worried about the taxi situation since the streets were covered in snow and ice, and very slippery. I therefore ordered myself a private taxi (or a 'black car' as they call it over here) and left my flat 2 hours prior to my train was supposed to depart.

Getting from my place to the train station (which normally takes between 20-30 min depending on traffic) took about 1.5 hours with the black car, and this turned out to be the smallest problem during my journey, even though I didn’t know that then. The closer we got to the train station, the slower we had to go, as there was a major traffic jam around the station. In the end, I got scared of missing my train, so I decided to ditch my car and decided to walk the last bit.

Walking the last bit proved to be a bad choice. There were pools of melted water everywhere and since they are doing construction work at the Suzhou railway station (building a metro) all the roads were basically mud, covered in dirty snow. I was soaking wet up to my knees within five minutes, and kept slipping on the ice. I dragged my heavy bag along (forget about rolling it) and thought that as soon as I would make it to the train station things would be easier. That was, until I saw the train station.

My initial though was that it looked as if there was a riot. Outside the entry they had put up a fence, and there were several police men, soldiers (?) and guards surrounding it. Around the fence, were hundreds of people screaming, waving their tickets, and trying to push their way into the station. I just stood and stared for a while. How on earth would I get into the station? The police men kept hitting and pushing people that tried to get in and the people outside the fence kept pushing to get in. An old Chinese man walked by and gave me a puzzled look, before he turned around and asked if I wanted him to help me with my suitcase.

-No thanks! I said. I will do it myself.
-You will never make it by yourself.
He said. Just look.
I did look, mouth open, for another 20 seconds.
-Still don't want any help? he asked.
-Eh... if it's no problem maybe you can help me?
He laughed briefly before he picked up my bag.

Who was this man? This old, thin, but very strong man? I have no idea! Why did he help me? Still no idea! I just know he completely saved me! He never asked for any money. He was just simply kind enough to first push my bag through the throngs of people, and in the end THROW it over the fence, Then, he turned around and grabbed me (who had fallen on the ground as a result of a slippery ground and people pushing me from everywhere) and did the same with me (no, actually, he never threw me over the fence, but he pushed me forward until I hit the little opening gate where a guard stood to check tickets -although they barely checked tickets because they didn't let anyone in-). The old man yelled something to him, I waved my ticket and I was let through. When I turned around to thank the man he had already disappeared in the ocean of people. Amazing! I nowadays refer to him as 'the nice old man who saved me during that winter day at the train station.'

I thought that at this point, I should be good, although my train was departing in five minutes, so I collected my bag and set off to find out what platform my train was leaving from. As soon as I walked inside the train station, however, I realised why they were so reluctant to let people in. The train station was already packed with people. They were standing everywhere. In the stairs. On the grounds. On the chairs. In the toilet area. There were no open space, and a board with departing train information revealed that all the incoming and departing trains were delayed. My train, who was supposed to leave in 5 minutes, was not even listed on any board. A minor feeling of panic hit me, as I was looking around. How was I supposed to get to Shanghai? There were so many people inside the terminal, and so much luggage and stuff lying around.

I decided to do what 50 other people were doing and go to the information desk and ask. At the information desk I saw a guy who had a ticket to the same train as me. I decided to pair up with him. He was kind of young and looked terrified when explained (with my broken Chinese) that I was planning to follow him around in case he found out a way to get to Shanghai. The information desk wasn't helpful so we started walking around. (Although he was kind of fast and with my gigantic suitcase I had difficulties keeping up with him). We went into one waiting lounge. No news. Into another. Packed. Into a third.

In the third waiting lounge the gate to the platform was open and two women were yelling 'Shanghai, are you going to Shanghai? Hurry hurry all of you that are going to Shanghai!'

Me and the young boy exchange looks before we set of running. We ran through the gates and then up some stairs, down some stairs (don’t ask me how I did this with my mega suitcase? It’s still a mystery to me) and then we hit the platform that had a train just standing there, waiting to go to Shanghai. We threw ourselves on the train that to my big surprise was half empty! The people inside gave us some strange looks but I was too relieved to care. I was just so happy to get on that train. Ten minutes later it left and I even got a seat in the middle of a group of Chinese men who spend the whole hour of the train ride smoking, but I didn't care. I don't think I've ever felt happier to be on a train?!

Yeah, so that's my horror/happy memory of travelling in China during a public holiday. Obviously this was a special case since there was snow on the ground, and normally there isn’t. I know that many people were not half as lucky as me during that CNY. A lot of people, especially in southern China, were stuck in train stations or on trains for days.

I have one old and one young man to thank for my trip being so 'smooth.'


Anonymous said...

That's an incredible story. And you're right, the extreme weather just made it even worse than it normally is, although October holiday won't be as bad because not everyone has to get back to their home town.

I wouldn't go anywhere near a train station at CNY, you were a brave girl!

And the old man part was quite heart warming, to know that there are nice helpful people around.

Jonna Wibelius said...

WERE a brave girl. Yes, WERE. I'd never do it again. Also, I don't know if 'brave' is the right word for what I was... I'd more like to call it... 'naive'... ;)

But yeah, the fact that the old man was nice enough to help me still amazes me.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree. The part with the old man was smile worthy. Good stuff :)