Wuhan and the Sleeper Trains that got us there
10.13.2007 - 10.14.2007
Deciding that we did not have enough time to make it all the way to Shanghai and then back to Hong Kong, we decided to go straight to Hong Kong. When we arrived in Wudang Shan we did not yet have our tickets to leave and so went to the train station to purchase them. Based on our own limited research, we thought we could get a train from Wudang Shan directly to Hong Kong, but once we got to the ticket window, we found this was not the case. Most likely because this was a such a small town, the ticket attendant did not speak English, and my Mandarin was so broken that it ended up being a long process sorting this out. I had my whole "speech" prepared, and words and phrases earmarked in my little dictionary, as I walked up to the window. As soon as I realized she was telling me we could not take a direct train everything fell apart and I didn't know what to do. As I began to flip through my book to find a new phrase to ask, other local patrons behind me in line began to step in front of me and wave their money through the ticket window.
I had to laugh, and my friends laughed as I was quickly surpassed by eager ticket buyers. If you even THINK the word hesitation, someone else steps up and you're outta there! After several rounds of waiting to ask a question, and then having to step out to regroup and allow others to use the service, we got a ticket to go to Wuhan, and then from Wuhan to Shenzhen the next day. Shenzhen is the closest Chinese city to Hong Kong without actually being in Hong Kong.
We have been very impressed with the train system here in China. I believe it is entirely government funded and run, and is the most cost effective and efficient way to travel the country. The ticket offices have all the high-tech equipment and the computers are fast. In fact, this is the only place that caters to the locals where I have seen such advanced technology. Even the travel offices in the high end hotels, that we've snuck in to use, have had equipment that looked to have been born circa 1990.
While on our six hour train ride to Wuhan, we met a couple from Germany who had been traveling for over two years. Apparently, they sold everything they had and just left. Talk about feeling free. They had been everywhere, and still had new places to see and explore. Since we were only going to Wuhan last minute, we didn't know much about the city and were glad to have other travel companions who seemed to be much more travel savvy. Not only were they extremely nice, intelligent, and fun to talk to, but they basically saved us from mental brakedown upon arriving in Wuhan at about 10:00pm that night. We had no accomodation nor onward ticket booked at this point. Not only that, but the Wuhan train station was under construction and also happened to be about the size of Manhattan, so we were already exhausted by the time we found the exit. The roads outside were large, filled with feisty vehicles, and muddy. And there were no sidewalks or crosswalks as far as we could tell. My body and mind were starting to go numb at this point, so we just followed our new German friends, who seemed to have an idea where to go. They did. It was an eternal 15 minute walk, but we found the ticket booth and bought our tickets to Shenzhen to leave the following afternoon. After dangerously negotiating our way across the street, we found a hotel and haggled a price. This was not the optimal situation in which to haggle, as it was already late and we looked tired. They had us, but we got them to drop the price a little bit. The rooms were nice, and we had a full bathroom with a western toilet. This feeling of comfort was all negated, though, when I found a cockroach on my bed. Luckily it was a small one, but BLEH!!!!! Knowing that this was something we were going to have to deal with as we moved southward, we became more diligent about closing our bags tight and sleeping with the bathroom light on. This probably doesn't make any difference, but it made us feel better.
This is Wuhan the next morning, outside our hotel and right by the train station, and a light traffic moment:
In the AM we met up with our new friends and went to get a bite to eat down the street. Breakfast was steamed buns and a thick mealy soup. Both were rather bland tasting, but filled us up. Then, we were off for our scheduled adventure: Walmart. Our friends had seen a sign as we were pulling into the train station the night before and wanted to go to buy provisions. We were kind of curious what a Chinese Walmart would be like, so we decided to join them. Easy, we thought, we'll just ask the person working at our hotel how to get there. Well, Wuhan is a large city (big surprise) and the Walmart was on the other side of the river. We had to take 2 buses to get there. She wrote down the numbers and pointed to the street outside when we asked where to catch the bus. This felt somewhat like someone pointing at the earth from an airplane and saying, "don't you see that tree?" But we politely smiled and thanked her and walked out to attempt to cross the road again. We found the bus stop, which was in the middle of road filled with many lanes, if you can call them lanes, and traffic that was not moving. This did not look promising. We watched at least fifty buses go by without the number we wanted, and finally asked someone next to us about our travel plans. This consisted of pointed to the general Walmart area on a map, then pointing at our bus directions, and then shrugging our shoulders. She knew a few phrases in English, and we were perplexed when she indicated that we did not have the correct directions. She then proceeded to walk us out of the chaotic bus stop and tried to find a taxi for us to take. Because we were five people, most did not want to drive us. Even though this girl had already gone completely out of her way, she started hailing minibuses that were driving by to ask them for help. We thanked her profusely and tried to tell her that she did not have to spend so much of her time to help us, but she insisted it was no problem. We eventually found a van to take us. It was a little costly, but we were pretty sure the bus was not coming any time soon, and this was much faster. In every city we've visited, I've been so wonderfully surprised by people's kindness and consideration.
And we were off to Walmart. It was everything we had hoped for and more. First of all, it was in the basement of some shopping mall, and it was huge. American style huge. We found everything there: socks, food, soap, travel mugs, toilet paper, candy, and the list goes on... At one point I was looking for face lotion, and then I stumbled upon the face lotion aisle (yeah, the whole aisle). I was browsing the different bottles, trying to decide what I wanted, when I realized that the lotions in this aisle were face whitening lotions. All of them. I know that lighter skin is culturally more desireable here, although the Chinese have such beautiful glowing skin that it saddens me that someone might try to alter it. I was also struck by the alternative scenerio in the USA, where everyone wants to darken their skin tone with a sun tan, and particularly by the popularity of skin tinting products and lotions. We each covet each others complexions.
After getting lost in the store for over an hour, we reconvened with our friends at the checkout and went to McDonalds for lunch. If the day was going to lean West, might as well go all the way. I actually didn't get anything to eat as I wasn't hungry at the time, but the layout and decor is the same, and so is the menu (and at western prices, too.) We somehow managed to take the bus back to the hotel just by getting on one going in the right direction. During our ride back, while standing in the crowded aisle, a girl who was seated next to us offered to hold Ellen's bag of groceries for her. She spoke English. I suppose it's possible that she was trying to steal our stuff, though it did not seem that way. Ellen politely declined, saying that we were getting off soon. A minute later the girl said again, "I want to hold your bag for you." Not sure what to do, Ellen thanked her, but again insisted we were getting off soon, and we did get off within a few minutes, but the whole exchange was a bit strange. While I'm sure she was well intentioned, it was odd to us because it was completely unsolicited, something we are not really used to at home. If someone offered to hold my bag on a bus in Chicago, my first response would be to hold it tighter and step away. I felt like this girl felt compelled to offer her services to us based on the status of our nationality (or skin color, I'm not sure which) not just because we were other patrons who happened to be standing on the bus juggling bags, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. This was a priviledge unearned. Perhaps, though, I was mistaken, it's hard to be sure.
It turned out to be unbelievably difficult to get around in Wuhan, though this was probably somewhat circumstantial. Regardless, while we were sitting around the lobby of our hotel, waiting to go catch our train, I just couldn't relax, and I suddenly realized that this past week of traveling had made me very anxious. We were moving around so much, and nothing was settled for us ahead of time. We were constantly unsure of what was waiting for us, or how we were going to deal with it, though this was also part of what has made this trip wonderfully exciting. But I was ready to go to Hong Kong for a respite. More specifically, I was ready to stay in one place for a few nights. I can't remember now how long our train ride was, but I think it was something like 18 hours. We left Wuhan around 5:00pm and arrived in Shenzhen around 11:00am. We made friends with our bunkmates by smiling and nodding. One woman offered us slices of pomelo (kind of a giant mild grapefruit) which we greatly enjoyed. She then proceeded to light up a cigarette under the No Smoking sign and we felt like we couldn't now ask her to move away after her recent gesture of kindness. Drrrr... We also met a nice young Chinese gentleman on our train, who was currently living in Boston and getting his PhD at Harvard in some subject I could hardly wrap my head around, much less repeat here. We talked for a while about his culture shock in Boston (which I'm sure was primarily related to the driving there ... only joking) vs. our culture shock. We couldn't believe how many people there were, he couldn't believe how many people there were outside running, for EXERCISE.
Several sleeping pills and many hours later, we pulled into Shenzhen. As thrilling as it was to see a new place, it was bittersweet to leave China. Technically, Hong Kong has been returned to China, but it's essentially a different country from the mainland in culture and feel. China was a fascinating place with so much energy and life. I am lucky to have seen it when I did because, being there, you can sense the change that is coming. It's in the air. The people have been wonderfully welcoming to me, have taught me more than they could know, and I am grateful. I am so lucky.
Hong Kong, here we come...