Friday, September 11, 2009

Train to Pingyao

Having been out and about for the past three days, we decided to take it easy on Thursday. We had an overnight sleeper train to Pingyao scheduled for 7:00 PM that evening and didn't want to over do it during the day. We had done the grueling Great Wall hike the day before, and my calves were just killing me. I spent most of the day reading a novel, researching future potential hostels to stay at, and wandering a bit around Maya's neighborhood.

One funny thing about her apartment building is that it is just around the corner from the Russian Embassy. Consequently the neighborhood is inhabited by.. well.. Russians. And not just the diplomats. They brought their high-heel wearing, perfume drenched wives as well. And their kids! Maya's favorite grocery store is a little shop that caters to the Russians. It's great because you can get a lot of foreign food products, but at much lower prices than some of the other "Western food" stores, which as I mentioned are often a total rip off. This particular store also had a vast colletion of import name-brand liquors. What confused me was that in the vodka department I could only find Absolut and Skyy. They weren't even going to carry Stoli? I turned the corner of the aisle to point this out to Mimi when I came across perhaps the largest collection of Russian vodkas I've even seen. There were maybe 30 of them all lined up along a shelf, and I hadn't heard of any of them. The owners of this establishment clearly understand the needs of their clientele.

We had done a big load of laundry the night before, and by the late afternoon on Thursday, we were still waiting for some things to dry (no dryers in China, it seems). By 4:45 in the afternoon, the last pair of undies had finally dried. We packed our bags, said goodbye to Maya, and then took the subway over to Beijing Train Station West, a slightly smaller station with a reputation for being crawling with pickpockets. I wasn't particularly sad to leave Beijing. We had been there for nearly five days and I felt that I had gotten a good taste of the city. We hadn't made it out to the Summer Palace (another classic tourist destination), but I had wandered the streets, seen the Great Wall, and had a couple of delicious meals. And besides, we were really excited for our next destination, the ancient walled city of Pingyao.

The train station was approaching chaos by the time we arrived. Rush hour had just hit and the place was packed. The place seemed to be heavily patrolled by the police, but I paid close attention to my wallet just to be safe. As always, I kept the main portion of my stash and my passport in my money belt. We eventually made it over to the appropriate waiting area, which had a line nearly out the door. We opted to line up at what I like to call a tributary -- an unnoficial second queue that branched off from the first one at about the halfway point.

After staking out our territory and making prelinary preparations for the battle that would be boarding the train, I left my bags with Mimi and went to find the bathroom. The following anecdote isn't exactly required reading, but its another example of how China -- despite lurching towards modernization in every conceivable way -- still has its own bizarre habits that I simply don't understand. If you don't like reading about pooping, stop here and skip to the next paragraph. Consider yourself warned. Most public toilets in China are of the squat variety. As I mentioned, Chinese people love to squat as a resting position, so why shouldn't they prefer to squat when using the bathroom? It was no big deal, really. In fact, I had completed my first squat poop no more than 36 hours prior. In some of the Hutong (alleyways) public bathrooms, however, the squat toilets didn't have private stalls. On one occasion, I had entered one of the quite smelly public bathrooms, only to find a Chinese gentleman squatting before me, reading the morning paper as he did his business. As I said, no big deal. But something strange was happening at the bathroom in the train station. There were maybe six squats with stalls in them, all occupied. As I waited for a urinal to open up, I noticed that a custodian or janitor of some sort kept popping open the squat doors and yelling stuff at the squatting men. He must have done it to three separate stalls, and on all three occasions the man in the stall remained calm and composed, despite what I would perceive to be his compromised privacy. Unable to speak Chinese, I was never able to find out what the hell was going on in this bathroom. Why was he popping open the stalls and yelling at the pooping men? Why were they so unphased? Somethings, I suppose, are better left unknown.

Anywaaaaaays, about thirty minutes before departure, the gate opened and the battle began. People were out for blood. Almost instantly, I was separated from Mimi. I felt the crush behind me, from the sides, and inexplicably, from the front as well. Why is everybody pushing, I thought. But I was prepared this time, and began pushing back, using my rolly polly as a blocking device, just as I had seen the old ladies do in Shanghai. We eventually made it onto the train, which from the outside appeared a bit older than the one we had taken from Shanghai earlier in the week. The inside was basically the same, but had a slightly different layout in terms of the baggage storage. As before, we had the middle bunks. Below us sat an older Chinese couple. The woman was holding a 3-year old girl, and after fifteen minutes of "Where's my daddy?!?! I want my daddy!!!" we concluded that the grandparents were taking of their granddaughter for a while, and the baby girl was not too happy about it. She missed her daddy. I am proud to say that I was able to understand what the girl was saying in Chinese. I kept hearing the word "baba," which is the casual word for "dad" in Chinese. This is easy for me to remember, because Baba is what I call my grandmother! So Mimi and I both have Babas; they're just a bit different from each other. Anyways, directly above us were two non-descript women who spoke a dialect that Mimi couldn't understand.

The train voyage itself was pretty uneventful. We ate some instant noodles that we had bought earlier in the day, as well as left over peanut butter and jellies. We were scheduled to arrive at 7:30 AM the following morning, so we tried to get to bed early. I had a very rough night of sleep and kept waking up everytime the train stopped at a station, which, despite being the middle of the night, seemed like every forty-five minutes or so. I was also paranoid that we would somehow miss our station, a fear which turned out to be completely unfounded. The conductors make absolutely sure you get off, because on crowded trains your berth will often be reoccupied by a new traveller further along on the route. After a restless night, we arrived in Pingyao at about 8:15, well behind schedule. We were tired, but very excited to be in a new and foreign city, a bit deeper into the interior of China.

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