Wednesday, April 11, 2012
To Take The Train? Or Not to Take the Train?
If you've ever considered travelling by train in China, I hope the following will be helpful as you make your decision.
As promised about 2 or 3 weeks ago, the following post is about our experience riding the train in China. We took the fast train from Beijing to Taiyun and again from Taiyun to Zhengzhou. Each time we rode "first class," which was only a few, maybe $10 dollars, more than other tickets.
If you asked me, "Did you enjoy taking the train?" I would say, "I'm so glad we did!" If you asked Stan, "Did you enjoy taking the train?" he would say, "I will never ride the train in China AGAIN."
The train ride was MUCH cheaper than flying, less than $50 for an adult ticket, whereas airline tickets can be around $200 each. I enjoyed the experience, just so I could say I rode the train. I enjoyed being surrounded by Chinese people, travelling the way most Chinese people travel longer distances. I enjoyed watching the people. I didn't mind "being watched."
Our first experience was in the train station in Beijing.
After having been there, I would NEVER consider the train without a guide to help me find my way. If you are quite adventurous, you may feel differently. We, however, did not have to worry about asking for directions or following signs. Our wonderful guide Charlotte helped us. If you think you might like Charlotte to help you in Beijing, I will send you her email.
Charlotte purchased the tickets for us, for a small fee. (I do know a family who purchased theirs themselves.)
She shared with us that guides are not allowed in all train stations. At the Beijing train station, however, she simply showed her "tour guide" ID badge, and she was allowed in. She waited with us until we boarded our train. She was even allowed onto the train with us as we found our seats.
The first drawback of the train ride, I would say, is that you have to take all of your luggage with you. I had been told about hiring a porter, so I asked Charlotte if she could help us with that. She found the information booth, to the right after you enter the train station. There we were able to pay a very small fee, can't even remember how much. For this fee, someone took all of our luggage on a luggage carrier tot he train for us. We were also allowed to wait in the VIP section, which entitled us to enter the platform earlier than other passengers. The porter took our luggage to the train for us, be he was not allowed to enter the train with us. Once on the train, we had to pull our luggage through the aisles without assistance. We managed okay, but it was good we were allowed to board early.
The train ride, though, was uneventful. The seats are more comfortable than those on a plane. And, there is much more room.
I was looking forward to watching the countryside pass by, but I was somewhat disappointed. Once we left the city of Beijing, we mainly passed one industrial area after another. After a couple of hours, I finally fell asleep, so I don't know if the view ever became picturesque.
The primary inconvienence came when we arrived in Taiyuan. Here when we got off the train, we had all of our own luggage on our own. We didn't know where to go, but all we had to do was follow the crowd.
We had four big bags, so Stan and I each pulled two bags that were attached with a latching luggage strap. We each wore our own backpacks. Josie-TAtum pushed Ellie in an umbrella stroller and hung Ellie's backpack from the handles. It was not bad..at all...until we went through a turn stile and down escalators.
All of the CHinese people were pushing past us....as is the norm in a country with 1.3 billion people. They were also staring. Mind you, I don't mind stares. And, I didn't mind the people pushing past us. (Stan did, sort of....well, a lot.)
We had Ellie hop off. (All of teh Chinese people were continuing to push past us.)I grabbed her hand, and Stan picked up the stroller. I was getting worried when we neared the end of the escalators. I was beginning to lose control...and I can't remember what happened to cause it.
But, from all of those stares, came a lady. She had been watching us. Ellie was always quite the sight in China. Chinese people with disabilities are not commonly seen in public. There were 2 ladies who seemed to be pleasantly fascinated by her. One of them turned around and helped Ellie off the escalators and back into her stroller. When I told her, "Xie xie," she smiled softly and said, "Mai guang xi," which really means, "No problem," she turned around, and joined the crowed of Chinese people pushing their way out of the train station. (I think she may have been an angel.)
I was ever so slightly worried about finding our guide in the train station in Taiyuan. (I didn't tell Stan that.) We had been told she could not enter the train station but would be waiting on us outside. We heard her, however, before we found her. As we neared the end of the sea of people and saw some light at the end of the tunnel (there really wasn't a tunnel), we heard a heavily accented, "Hello."
There was our guide Helen standing behind the turnstiles, holding a sign that read, "Mattox." We didn't have to look for her at all. She found us, and all was well. The train station in Taiyuan is quite a different experience than the one in Beijing. In Beijing, we pulled up in lanes much like those in an airport. In Taiyuan, we stepped outside to broken pavement and cars parked haphazardly around. Our guide, though, was quickly able to locate our driver who hurriedly came to help us carry our bags.
When we left Taiyuan, just 48 hours later, we found another unique Taiyuan experience. We parked, and again, had to carry our bags across the broken pavement, and some areas of no pavement at all. We got in some sort of line, if you call that slowly moving mob a line, and began our way to the door of the station. Helen left us for just a minute and came back to tell us she was going to be allowed into the train station with us. (She said sometimes they let her and sometimes they don't.)
We had to present our passports as we presented our tickets to be allowed into the door, and then pass our bags through security, not quite as high tech an operation as the airport. As I was trying to put my bags on the conveyer belt, I hear a Chinese woman yelling, "Kola," which you must hear to understand the difference in intonation that distinguishes it from the pronunciation of Americans shouting, "Cola."
Stan was not happy with me.
I am always trying to save a few dollars, you know. And, we had a can of coke that we had yet to drink. I had placed it in the side pocket of his backpack. It had sprung a leak and was spraying all over the Chinese lady behind Stan. She was as polite as any of us would be with Coke spraying all over us.
Did I mention: Stan was not happy with me?
When we made our way into the train station, we were quite the attraction. It is apparent the people who frequnet the train station in Taiyuan are not accustomed to seeing Westerners, especially those with 3 Chinese children in tow, all the while spraying Kola over the natives.
Once again, though, our guide was able to find help for us. I'm not sure if it was becauses they were afraid to leave the stupid Americans on their own, if it was because we were willing to pay a few extra dollars for help, or if we were travelling with a child with disabilities. But, Helen took us into a room where the sign mentioned something about helping people with disabilities. Again, we paid a small fee for a porter. We were allowed to wait in this special room until our train was approaching.
Here a lady came out. It was another special experience we would never have had if we had not ridden the train. The manager of the station came out to talk with us. Through Helen, she shared with us that she has found many babies left behind at the train station through the years. She was pleased to see our children who had found a home. She often thought of the children she had found.
Getting to the train, again was not difficult. We were given the VIP treatment, our luggage was delivered. We were allowed to enter the platform early. We were the first people on the train, so we could easily find a place to store all of our luggage.
The train ride this time did not disappoint. We saw some AWESOME sights. If only my camera were more advanced. If only it was not so cloudy. (It had been snowing.) WE passed through some beautiful mountains, some rising up right outside our windows. It appeared that some had been mined. (Shanxi is known for its heavy coal mining.) I could have taken photos forever....but the 6 hour ride made me sleepy.
I think these might have been retaining walls built to protect the tracks from mud slides.
The train makes a few stops along the way. Some passengers get off, while others get on. I sat up and took notice as we approached this station. This is the town where our Zhuang Zhuang was found...at the bus station.
Arriving in the train station at Zhengzhou was quite different than our experience in Taiyuan. The station is new. Thank goodnes, our guide Helen had written for us the name of the exit we needed to locate. THis time we couldn't simply follow the crowd.
Everyone had taken a nice long nap. Only, I don't think Stan's nap was good enough to get over his Cola experience.
We were doing okay until we approached a LONG flight of stairs. Not escalators, but stairs. Remember, we had 4 BIG bags. I helped the children down the stairs, while Baba the work horse, tried to carry all 4 bags down himself. Somehow me missed my saying, "STand right here and I'll help when I get the children down."
I was somewhat afraid one member of our family might be arrested for making such a spectacle. But, I finally was able to go back up and help him get the bags down.
And, just as in Taiyun, when we finally made it to the exit, our guide was waiting.
We left the Zhengzhou station in a covered garage...again more like an airport. And the world was good again.
So, if you ask me, "Would you take the train again?"
Absolutely...if Stan is not with me. ;)
But, really, if my children were old enough to pull their own bag up the stairs, I would ride the train again in a heartbeat.