No More Train Tickets: Winging it to Western China
At the End of Her Rope
Liuan laced into our host. He claimed he was just a middle man.
I call him our “host” because I don’t know how else to describe his strange role in our adventure. It was not in the plan to be this man’s guest. We should have been on a bus half way to Yangshuo, in the scenic Guilin region, by now.
I felt bad for our host. Nevertheless, I took pleasure in watching my wife rip into the poor man in his mother tongue. I couldn’t speak Mandarin, otherwise I would have been glad to do the honors.
We stood on the front step of our host’s home, which was barely larger than the wedge of space beneath a flight of stairs.
It was eleven o’clock at night. The full moon overwhelmed the meager light from the cold buzzing fluorescent bulbs. The front door opened out onto the only street in town, crammed with stores and small homes like this one. In the dark, it looked like the set of an old Western film.
Earlier, our host fed us each a bowl of noodles. He told us about his daughter, whom he put through college in the U.S.. That seemed financially improbable given his circumstances. I looked around at his meager home for some sign of wealth. But Liuan assured me that this was common in China. A family of little means saves a huge sum through thrift and determination to put a child through college or help a family member start a business.
The man was likable enough. But we had no clue where we were, who our “host” was, or when we were ever going to leave. I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that we had been scammed. Even worse, we were at their mercy.
The Shenzhen Railway Station
The day started out promising.
We made our way to the Shenzhen railway station from Hong Kong by metro and taxi. Now it was early afternoon.
We had spent our first few days with Liuan’s cousin in Hong Kong getting acclimated and overcoming jet lag. Now we were embarking on the centerpiece of our three week honeymoon, backpacking in the Guilin region in Western China. Liuan had been hyping the breathtaking landscape for months and we were giddy to be on our way.
The plaza in front of the Shenzhen Railway station looked like an enormous patio. I picked a corner of the plaza and guarded our backpacks under the intense midday sun. Meanwhile, Liuan went into the station to purchase the train tickets. We expected to arrive in Yangshuo late that evening.
Liuan came back with bad news. Tickets were sold out… for the next two weeks.
“What are we going to do now?”
“We’ll find a way,” Liuan replied, putting a brave face on it. “I guess we should have booked ahead, though.”
Shooting from the Hip
No sooner had we resolved to trudge off and look for an alternative when a man approached and asked where we were going. Screwed tourists must give off a scent.
I was hesitant to go with this guy since he was the one who sniffed us out and not the other way around. A big red flag. But he said he could get us to Yangsuo. Given our situation, we had to give him a chance. This might be what “finding a way” looks like, I supposed. In any case, I was on my guard.
The man led us to a tiny stall adjacent to the plaza; a humble travel agency office. It had a small desk with some papers tacked up behind it.
He and Liuan hammered out the price and details. He scrawled out two tickets and we forked out the cash.
The bus to Yangshuo was leaving in forty minutes. He said we could sit in the office while we waited. There were two chairs and a couple of magazines in the cramped space.
I wondered where the other passengers waited.
The price seemed expensive for China, $50US per person. So they gouged us. If that was the scam, then whatever. As long as there was really a bus in forty minutes we had gotten off easy.
Forty minutes later the man apologized. There was no room on the bus for us.
Didn’t I know, deep down in my heart, this was going to happen?
“But you sold us tickets!” Liuan said, agitated. “We want a refund!”
“I know, I know. Don’t worry. There is another bus you can catch in another part of the city. We’ll take you over there.”
We loaded up in the back of a windowless white van. Now we were really winging it.
Walkie talkies chirped in the front seat. As we put distance between us and the railway station, a known location, I wondered if I should be worried.
In the United States, getting into the van would be a clear violation of common sense. But in China, things never worked quite the way I expected. Once I walked on a manhole cover in a crowded area that started caving in (“never walk on the manhole covers, you stupid melon!” Liuan’s aunt scolded. As if this was common knowledge.) Exposed wires in bathrooms were not an uncommon sight. So why not this?
We arrived twenty minutes later at our destination.
The bus hadn’t arrived yet. Strange as this sounds, I was relieved when they told us to wait in the van. I was more afraid of them discarding us in some random place with no one to help us.
Alas, there was no bus. The squawking radios informed our drivers that it too was full.
We spent that latter half of the afternoon in the back of the van, driving to one bus stop after another. I lost count of how many buses we chased.
It became evident that we would not be making our evening arrival in Yangshuo. We watched the sun set through the van’s front windshield as we waited for yet another bus. Would we sleep that night? How long could this possibly go on?
Long after dark, they dropped us off at a man’s home: the “middle man”, our host. We were no longer in Shenzhen. We we had no idea where we were. This was the boondocks.
Stranded God Knows Where
By now it was around eight o’clock in the evening. Our “host” treated us as if we were old friends. He made us dinner, a bowl of noodles each. He told us about his life. His daughter was in college in the States. We told him about our travel plans.
It made no sense really. Was this man a paid employee? His job was what exactly? Entertain foreign scam victims?
Another bus came and went. Full. No room for us.
Despite the uncertainty and just plain weirdness of our situation, I tried to enjoy it. Here I was having one of those priceless moments. Spending time in the home of a local and learning about a life that couldn’t be more different than mine.
He said he would find us somewhere to sleep. We weren’t buying it. We wanted to get a move on.
There was another bus coming at 11:30pm. We were getting on that damned bus, we told him.
At 11:15pm our host got a call on his cell. We already guessed it before he told us. The bus was full.
We didn’t care, we told him, we wanted to get on.
This escalated into a shouting match. Liuan did most of the shouting. Our embattled host said that being Americans, we might not be able to deal with the cramped conditions if we rode this bus. Liuan pulled out her most hostile tone of voice to get her point across. We were not going to take no for an answer this time.
In the end, our host relented and made a call on his cell. When he hung up, he told us the bus would stop for us.
Packed Like Sardines
The conditions were indeed rough. I took a seat in the aisle, the only space left. My back pressed against someone else’s knees. The aisle was already more than half full. Liuan sat in front of me, her back to my knees.
As we settled in, passengers all around stared at the strange sight of a non-Chinese person on the bus. I could hear them whispering, and caught the phrase, “Waiguoren” (外国人)—foreigner. The young women in the sleeper beds next to us started peppering Liuan with questions, including how much we paid. When Liuan told them, they gasped. We had definitely been screwed over.
We sat like this, immobile, literally packed like sardines. The aisle was narrower than the width of my shoulders. This is how we were going to spend the entire night.
Nobody slept. Liuan tried, by using the head of the girl in front of her as a pillow. That only worked for a few minutes before she was jostled off.
At two or three in the morning I needed to use a restroom in the worst way. After several hours of waiting, the bus finally stopped. I unfolded my stiff body and exited the bus. Delirious, I speed walked toward the small strip of stores and homes.
Suddenly, I stopped cold. Where was I going to find a bathroom? Nothing was open. It was three in the morning in and this was a tiny village. I looked for the other people that had gotten off the bus with me, but they had already disappeared into the shadows.
I saw a light on. An old man was preparing food. I approached and delivered my most practiced Chinese phrase: “where is the bathroom?” He let me use his.
I quickly finished my business and, relieved, sauntered back to the bus. Liuan, meanwhile, was desperately pleading with the driver not to leave. This was not a bathroom stop. Just a place for people to get off. OOPS!
At dawn, enough people had gotten off that I could lay all the way down in the aisle. A relative comfort. A sleeper even opened up in the last half hour of the ride.
Through blurred vision we noticed that the landscape was indeed breathtaking. The morning sun glared through the windshield. On the horizon unearthly steep mountains rose up and poked the sky like fat fingers and thumbs.
We had arrived. With relief and excitement putting wind in our tired sails, we chattered about the days ahead.
More Questions than Answers
There is still so much I don’t get about what happened.
Were we scammed? Did the travel agency that sold us the tickets not know what they were doing? Or were they just making the best of inadequate resources? Does it make a difference?
If we were scammed then who benefited? Surely not the travel agency. If you tally up the man hours, the gas —and I guess the noodles—I don’t know how they profited. On the other hand, they cheated us: they sold us a seat that didn’t exist. But then again, they went through hell and high water to fulfil their end of the deal and get us on a bus.
Does this happen all the time? It’s hard to imagine. How could they possibly stay in business?
Yet asked the other way—was it a one time ordeal?—that also seems unlikely as well. If that was the case, why do they have a “middle man” on hand to receive bus riders at his home in the middle of the night?
And who the heck takes a job receiving pissed off customers at their home in the middle of the night!?!? Was that really his entire job description? Or was this just a special ask? Maybe he did it for the work-from-home benefit?
And who loads up a couple of clueless foreign tourists into a windowless van, drives them to the middle of nowhere, and doesn’t extract a hefty ransom!?!? (Not complaining, of course).
None of it makes sense, and yet it happened. But then again, the unexpected is just a day in the life when traveling in China.