adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Saturday, September 15, 2007


31 hours to Turpan: part 2

Again, the pictures are unrelated to Xinjiang. Don't worry, we'll be there soon enough :D It's a good way for me to blog pics that I like but don't really warrant a blog entry on their own, at least.

Coming at you all the way from Chongqing, 重庆盆盆虾("Chongqing Crayfish") specializes in delicious, mouth-numbingly spicy Sichuan-style crayfish. The restaurant provides you with gloves so you don't burn your hands, I guess.

Although our train didn't leave until midnight, we got to the station several hours in advance. Now, there's no security at Chinese train stations apart from a mostly unattended X-ray machine at the entrance, but we were hoping to get a good position in the queue to board the train. I never understood before why people would stand around and queue an hour before the train left, but it made sense now: if you want to upgrade your ticket, you have to be the first one to jump on the train and run to the upgrade desk. On Chinese trains, you can upgrade your ticket to any class as long as there are spots available; you pay only the difference between your ticket and the higher class.

There were plenty of people sitting around on newspaper outside the train station, as usual. Why the newspaper? You see, people in China hate getting their butts dirty, and have a thing about sitting on the ground or even public benches. I remember one time we all decided to sit down in a park gazebo, and a friend handed out pages from a newspaper to everyone. I guess I looked pretty daft when I sat down and started reading the paper while everyone else used it to protect their butts. This is probably why squat toilets are so much more common than sitting toilets in public restrooms - I'm personally a fan of the squatters, I never did like having to sit on toilet seats everyone else has been sitting on! But anyhow, given the amount of spitting and littering that goes on in most Chinese cities, you'd probably want some newspaper too.

Waiting to get on the train to Turpan. Something tells me we aren't going to get those sleeper upgrades...

I was confident that three hours in advance would be enough, but it wasn't. The entire waiting room was packed full of people waiting for the train up to Xinjiang. We set down our packs and wondered if we would get any sleep for the next 31 hours. But looking at tickets people around us were holding, we realized we were lucky – many people had standing-only tickets all the way to Korla, over 40 hours away! If there are no seats left or you can’t afford it, you can buy a standing or “no-seat” ticket. You can even buy a platform ticket – which you’re supposed to use to get on the platform to see people off – and jump on the train and ask for an upgrade, at least according to the folks at Ask Baidu.

Since we'd been so busy packing and getting to the station early, we hadn't eaten. I went out to get us something to eat, only to find a literal wall of packed people trying to get on another train. It took me literally 20 minutes just to walk about 20 feet through the densely packed crowd. Needless to say, the train station food vendors were out of the question, hidden behind the masses of train passengers. I finally got out of the train station, only to find there was nothing to eat around - nobody selling fast food from carts, or anything. And so, I did something I never imagined myself doing, and went into Dicos, the only open restaurant in the vicinity of the train station.

Dicos is a fast-food restaurant chain selling the usual chicken burgers and other American-style fast food. What's special is that it's a homegrown Chinese brand, although you would never guess by looking at it - it looks like any other Western fast-food chain, and is just as expensive! Western fast-food in China is just as expensive as it is in the US, so when you consider the average Chinese person’s purchasing power, it's ridiculously expensive for what you get (and another reason why the Big Mac Index is bullshit, although I guess nobody actually takes it seriously). I mean, who would pay 30 kuai(about 4 dollars) for a burger and fries when you can get a big bowl of beef noodles for 4 kuai(50 cents)? At any rate, people here still eat it, especially spoiled kids (and their parents) who have been brainwashed by foreign corporations into believing that anything Western must be good.

After picking up two combo sets of chicken burgers, I went to buy us some fruit for the trip before heading back. Sitting on our packs in the train station, we had our first (and only) American fast-food meal in China, which was pretty unremarkable. That’s the other weird thing about American fast food in China: the most popular entrée is chicken burgers(like McChicken). Peering in the windows of McDonalds, it would seem they don’t actually sell beef burgers. Even KFC seems to only be selling chicken burgers, as opposed to actual pieces of fried chicken. I might be wrong, though, as I have never eaten there.

Up on the Xi'an city walls. The city walls surround the entire city center and are about 13km long.

The time to board the train finally came. From my internet research about upgrading tickets, I read a few accounts written by foreign backpackers who claimed that they wailed about not having a sleeper, looked helpless, and were assisted by concerned railway personnel who positioned them just right on the platform so they'd be first to board the car where you upgrade your tickets. Yet another example of the privilege foreigners get in this country - of course, this does not apply to American Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, or anybody else who isn't obviously foreign. The "preferential treatment" foreigners get (and I don't) is one of the things I hate the most about this country, but I wasn't about to complain if we could exploit it to get sleepers - after all, Rebecca is pretty foreign looking.

After getting on the platform, though, it was an entirely different story, as masses of people rushed to their train compartments. We tried the "help us, we're foreigners who can't take hard seat" spiel, but the most help the rail attendants could offer was telling us the compartment number were you could upgrade tickets. The guy in charge of that compartment simply barked "I'm telling you, we don't have any sleepers!" and told us to board at the compartment our seats were in. After all, Xi’an was the starting point of this train, so our chances of scoring a sleeper from someone who canceled at the last minute were highly unlikely.

Missing your Korean homeland? Kimbap Sarang (at the Jiaoda campus SE gate) has you covered with lots of varieties of kimbap and the icy cold grapey goodness that is Bong Bong grape drinks. There are a couple of other Korean restaurants in the campus area. Note: I'm not Korean, though I'm often told I look like one!

The train car was terribly crowded, and there was a scruffy-looking guy sitting in our seats.
"Hey, mister, these are our seats."
"Show us your ticket!"
After much convincing, the guy begrudgingly obliged and took a standing position among the tons of people in the aisles who hadn't bought a seat. The train pulled out of Xi’an station. Only 31 hours left to Turpan…

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