After summer project, it was time for vacation. Of course, I had already been free from work obligations from June 10th to July 10th. However, now that I was officially DONE with PC requirements, all of China was my stomping ground. We had quite an ambitious trip itinerary, but it was seemingly doable.
We had been planning on going to the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia (IM) for some time. This was something that my travel cohorts and I had been postering since last October. We went casually to get our tickets along with another volunteer who needed to buy his train ticket to his summer project. There is only one 40 hour train from Chengdu to Hohhot. It suddenly made sense to me why my students with hometowns in Inner Mongolia always, ALWAYS go to Beijing to get to their homes in IM when the lady at the ticket counter said "meidei" (Chongqing’s delightful local dialect for "meiyou"= we don’t have that). Ugh. This was all to familiar to what we encountered last time we tried to put this plan in action. There was no way we would be going to IM on a 40 hour hard seat. No thanks! The friend that we were with suggested trying some different routes, specifically from Chongqing to Xian and then Xian to Hohhot.
We weren’t ready to give up yet, so instead we pushed back our trip dates, went to the train ticketing office 10 days in advance right when they opened, in fact before they opened, at 7:45. As we approached the counter with positive energy and a back up plan, we were instantly denied. Man. Will this ever happen?! We put our back-up plan into action and got tickets from Chongqing to Xian. Of course, the train we got was non-air conditioned, but we had beds. Next step was getting tickets from Xian to Hohhot- guess what…still no beds! Okay, time to regroup across the street over a cup of Mickey-D’s coffee, which would not be the last time over the course of our travels.
At this point we felt defeated and decided we should just suck it up and look for flights into Hohhot. And so the beginning of our transportation calamities began.
We found good deals on flights from Xian to Hohhot and snatched them up ASAP. It looked like our original itinerary from Chongqing to Hohhot would now have a stop over in Xian. This was a fairly positive development since, hey, Xian is a pretty important historical city in China and now I’d be getting to see it too!
We spent a couple of days in Xian eating delicious Muslim food (including one of the best sandwiches I have ever had in my life) and generally milling about the Muslim area. We decided that it was best not to go and see the terracotta warriors since it would be an expensive day trip and lies about 2 hours outside of the city. Instead we took it upon ourselves to walk almost the entire city wall, which we did. Although there was rain, it was a nice little stop over and, hey, look at that, I’ve been to Xian!
City Wall, Xi'An
Some Terracotta Solider's on the Wall, Xi'An.
We got on a shuttle to the airport, boarded an airplane, experienced some turbulence and emerged in dry Hohhot.
We had arranged someone from the hostel to pick us up. He greeted us at the airport and led the procession to the ride to our accommodations. Now, from the looks of things, it seems like the Hohhot International airport doesn’t get a whole lot of coming and going. The parking lot was huge and for the most part, empty. However, the lack of a sea of cars didn’t seem to help our frazzled driver find his ride. We marched around the seemingly empty parking lot for close to 10 minutes before this guy found the car. A prelude to the inability of the hostel owners to be efficient.
Walking into the hostel was a strange scene. There were, no exaggeration, 3 other guests there. They put us in our room, complete with handmade 2×4 bunk beds and walls plastered with calendar pictures of horses. My friend and I felt a little unnerved by the location of our room, the strange crowd, and the lack of any other options in terms of lodging. We dropped our stuff off and went out to the front room. The 2 lackeys running the joint decided that since it was such a small crowd they would take us all with them to go out to a local bar that has live Mongolian music. We all joined because, well, if we hadn’t we would have been left there alone to essentially manage the place, and my friend L thought this a great opportunity for vacation weirdness.
While walking to the bar we chatted with some of the guests who were both really amazing. One was from Hong Kong and the other from California, both were volunteer teachers with one year contracts. They were really interested in what we were doing as Peace Corps volunteers and so we had some common ground. As I was engaging in conversation, I was also keeping track of our path just in case I would want to drag my weary self back to the hostel sooner rather than later. Dao le (we arrived)!
We descended (yes, the place was underground) into the essentially empty bar. We sat at a table and felt obliged to order something since all eyes were on us. Our table had a tambourine on it and it was passed around to all the guests. We took turns, some more enthusiastically than others, playing along to not only Mongolian music, but also to renditions of Tom Jones’ "Sex Bomb." Conversation was limited due to the demands of the performers that the audience (us) pay attention. Finally people were tired and the performers decided it was quittin’ time, so we got outta there and headed back to our hostel. Mid-point our responsible hostel-keeps decided they wanted to continue the evening without a motley crew of foreigners following them so they asked us "You know the way back?" Affirmative. They threw us the keys to the place and we were on our way. We let ourselves in and headed to bed.
Our time in IM was pretty good, but let’s just say this place is not a hot-spot. We often had trouble finding food and there just wasn’t a whole lot you could do without the assistance of tour-guides. We thought about leaving for Beijing early, however, when we got to the train station they meiyou-ed us again. We had planned to take an overnight to Beijing, get a sleeper on the train so we wouldn’t have to pay for lodging for a night (poverty-stricken!) and were denied. We took the next best thing which was a 12 hour day train to Beijing on a hard seat. With the end of our time in IM in sight, we did some awesome (and a little pricey) things like going to the grasslands to stay in a yurt, riding Mongolian horses, and seeing the un-cared for Great Wall between IM and Shaanxi province.
Wall between Shaanxi & Inner Mongolia
The Deserted Horse Racing Track, Hohhot
My overall impression of IM was that it is incredibly beautiful, the people are much milder than those who inhabit "spicy" Chongqing, and that it’s being damaged because resources are currently being extracted by the government.
Grassland Accommodations, Inner Mongolia
Yurt Alert! Inner Mongolia
Next stop: Beijing! Since we had spent more money in IM than initially expected, we figured we’d do "Beijing on a budget", which was entirely possible and pretty awesome. But…first we had to get there.
We had been warned, during our initial training that the busiest travel season was during Spring Festival. They failed to mention how insane the month of August also is. Our train arrived at the station and along with droves of other people we made our way to the platform. It didn’t seem so bad on the platform, but this was not the originating destination, it was just a stop along the way. The train was already teeming with people, most of whom were standing. The people at the station did not want to wait for everyone to cram on the train, so they began pushing us on. As the train started moving, me and my friend, M were shoved in the train and they had to push M’s bag in extra hard so they could close the doors.
It took us 20 minutes to make our way to our seats, at which point we found them already occupied by two old people. We told the two that they were in our seats and then received sad, expectant eyes from them. We asked them to move, which they begrudgingly did, and we took our seats. The old man (whom we referred to as Grandpa) began busting out the snacks, complete with baijiu, and a processed hard boiled egg. At one point, he took off his shoes to climb up on the back of the seat to stand. I guess he wanted to stretch his legs? It was bizarre, but the train was so obscenely full that there was no other place to stand.
Later in our journey, we were joined by a belligerent drunk guy. He wanted to sit, so he just took his seat without any regard for the person already sitting in that seat. He smelled something awful of baijiu. Even Grandpa knew this guy was beyond the point of return and promptly stowed his baijiu away when it is commonplace to share one’s spirits on a train. The guy all of the sudden, dropped his head down and began heaving. M and I jumped up on our seats in anticipation of lots of baijiu infused vomit. He ended up just heaving for awhile and emitting lots of spit and snot from his person. Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised, but also hoping he would disembark prior to Beijing. Lucky enough for us, he did end up reaching his stop fairly soon. We encountered some more characters, if you will, on our long journey. In fact, I have never had so many characters on one train prior to that point and since.
When we finally arrived we made our way to our accommodations in one of Beijing’s famous hutongs. With a little confusion and a lot of help from a friendly passerby we got to the place. We settled in and then went out to drink beers on someone’s stoop. Our trip was full of free/price friendly events such as, Tiananmen Square, the Olympic Village, the 798 Art District, and BICYCLES!
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
The Bird's Nest, Beijing
At this point M’s sister joined us and they were going to stay in Beijing for a little while longer than the rest of us while L, B, and myself were going to head over to Qingdao. Our train tickets to Qingdao were purchased in IM and were for an overnight standing ticket. It was all they had and we were determined to make beer festival. We got to the train station in Beijing, purchased collapsible stools and shuffled with the masses to the platform. That train ride was really stressful at first because again, there were so many people crammed on to the train that there was no way to move. I got separated from L and B, began freaking out and texted L. L and B enlisted some friendly train people to literally pull me through the crowds so that I could join them in their cubby. We set up camp by putting our little stools down and the rest of the train ride was fairly uneventful.
We arrived in Qingdao, beautiful, beautiful Qingdao to find out that beer festival does not start on Friday, but instead on Saturday. We were bummed, but managed to catch up on some rest, some personal hygiene and check out the infamous beer street where we enjoyed what L dubbed "sippy cups" of Qingdao’s dark beer.
Tsing Tsao Brewery, Qingdao
The next day we got off to an early start as B had to leave later that afternoon to go back to Chengdu. We arrived at Qingdao’s International Beer Festival and began our marathon. The beer was pretty pricey and what was surprising was that Tsing Tao was the most expensive beer at the festival. We went from tent to tent (another strange thing was that you cannot take the beer out of the tents) drinking whatever was the cheapest brew available, which at points was an awesome Belgium or German beer. B had to leave to catch her 2:30 pm train, so L and I were left to continue on in her spirit!
Let us drink from the cup, Qingdao
This is where things really began to take a downhill turn. We were having a wonderful time and had met some expats from the likes of Hong Kong and Beijing and settled in the Tiger tent drinking with them. I stepped away for a moment and when I returned, I was met with a wide-eyed and upset L. Her purse, which had been sitting right next to her the entire time, was taken. Okay, that’s bad, but what’s worse is that her passport was in the purse. Fortunately, the people we were with were incredible and so helpful. One of the guys had an international calling plan so L was able to cancel her bank cards immediately. The more amazing thing was that we were with a girl and her boyfriend who was both fluent in Chinese and English and they both accompanied us to the police station. She was with us for at least an hour helping L file a police report. When we finished, we bid them farewell and decided it best to head back to the hostel. We got a taxi and the cab ride was 40 RMB, I paid, the guy gave me the wrong change back, I called him out on it, he gave me some more back. It was dark and so I walked over to a more well-lit area only to realize he STILL had not given me the right change back. I then proceeded to chase after his cab trying to get him to stop. It seemed like a good idea at the time, L’s purse had just been stolen and now this crummy cabby was also ripping us off. Of course, he didn’t stop.
L had spoken to our Safety and Security Officer at the Peace Corps and he told her that we would need to go to the police headquarters on Monday so that L could get some official form she would need to get another passport from the consulate. We had a day to spare so we went to the beach and had two of the most delicious meals I have ever had in China, the first consisting of huge baozi filled with mushrooms, leeks and vermicelli and the second meal consisting of seafood barbeque.
On Monday, we had planned to go to Dalian by boat, but now we had this much more important task to take care of. We got up early, headed to the police station where we were met by the most surly, unhelpful officers ever. They kept us there for 3 hours. At one point they told L she had to stay in Qingdao for 3 days so they could do a background check on her. Obviously unacceptable, so we called up our amazing Safety and Security Officer, he set things straight after a whole lot of yelling and "Ni ting, wo shou"s (you listen, I speak). We were finally out of this place and on to the next one. It was really terrible that our time in Qingdao was so stressful because it is an incredibly beautiful city with so much delicious food and we weren’t able to enjoy it to the fullest.
Upon pre-trip research we found that the bus from Qingdao to Yantai (where you board the ferry to Dalian) was only a 2.5 hour ride long. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong! We got on the bus, harried from our time at the police station and settled for what was to be a quick jaunt to Yantai. 5 hours later we arrived in Yantai. We had hoped to get on one of the early ferries from Yantai to Dalian, but due to our substantial bus ride, had to board a ferry at 9 pm.
We purchased the tickets, seats (we didn’t get sleepers most likely due to the sub-par travel accommodations, which at this point we had become accustomed to, and I think we were just so jazzed to even get a seat with the way our luck had been with previous tickets. This is one of my biggest regrets from the trip, those little cabins were super kitsch) and waited to board. We headed down to steerage with all of the other thrifty travelers and were quite pleased with our surroundings. The seats were big, we were right by a porthole, and there was an on board movie which kept our presence as the only foreigners on the boat fairly under wraps. As the night progressed the excitement of this new form of transportation wore off and we began to get cold and sleepy. We went up to the deck, both L and I, and in a state of exhaustion laid down head to head and went to sleep on the floor of the boat. I think it’s safe to say that for L and I, it was rock bottom. At one point L woke up to wish me a happy birthday. Yes, I spent my 28th birthday sleeping on the deck of the Bo Hai Jin Zhu while sailing the South China Sea.
Sailing across the South China Sea, Yantai
We finally docked around 4 am in Dalian as zombie versions of ourselves.
Prior in the day, while on the bus, I received a text from M, who had arrived in Dalian with her sister and was going to meet us there. Our approach for lodging on this multi-legged trip had been for each person cover a leg. I was responsible for the Dalian leg and chose the hostel that was closest to the beach, made reservations via email at least a month in advance and gotten a confirmation-toned email reply from them. Well, apparently it was not a confirmation because the message from M was that they were out of beds and the ill-equipped folks at the hostel settled on charging us the dormitory rate while housing us in the employee dormitory. This room, without a door, only a beaded entry way was stocked full of stuff, hoarders style including things such as; a box of carrots under one of the beds, drying sheets, tons of papers taped to the wall; and also featured some things like a sleeping ayi sans pants and random cats. Well, L and I arrived there only to wake up the sleeping ayi and misplace her from one of our beds. I know 50 RMB isn’t a lot, but shouldn’t it only be 25 if I have to share my bed with someone?
In an agitated, Lesley Gore type state I went to deal with the hostel people. At this point I was maybe not the most culturally sensitive and took the American approach by telling them they could either charge us less for our current accommodations, find us an equally priced room elsewhere, or give us the room that they promised us. They found some really wonderful Chinese guests who agreed to stay in the employee dormitory and we moved into a room with a proper door.
The whole reason we had gone to Dalian was because its supposed to be a really nice beach city and its supposed to be one of the most livable cities in China. Well, it was raining all day. There was some big storm which was blasting the entire east coast of China, Dalian included. Since it was definitely not going to be a beach day, L and I decided to brave the train station to see about getting back to Chongqing. Having been chewed up and spit out over the course of the trip, we went into ticket buying with trepidation and some alternate routes. We got up to the counter (there was a surprisingly short line) and were denied all of our requests. Swear to god, if I never have to hear meiyou in a train station again it will be a day too soon. We decided our best option was to take the day train back to Beijing on a hard seat and once we got to Beijing we’d work it out.
The next day in Dalian ended up being a really terrific beach day and we took full advantage of that. At this point, S had joined us (who was delayed in Beijing at the airport for 2 days and one night because of this same storm). He is an excellent Chinese speaker and reader of Chinese, so courtesy of S’s Chinese level, we had another delicious meal and called it a night. Our time in Dalian was up and so L and I headed back to the train station.
Dalian to Beijing was uneventful, so to speak. We got in super late, made last minute reservations at a hostel that was cool with L’s whole no passport thing. Our game plan was to wake up early and get to a bus station that we knew had a bus running from Beijing to somewhere in Sichuan. We got there at 7 am and upon talking to the ticket lady she told us the bus went to a place in Sichuan that we had never before heard of. Since Sichuan is a large province we declined that ticket to heaven-knows-where, China and opted to go back to the train station for some more rejection.
We got in line, got up to the counter and the woman at the counter (who spoke English!) told us there were no immediate tickets to Chongqing and the soonest tickets available were for a standing ticket in 3 days. Beijing round 2! We snatched up the tickets and then it was round 2 of centering ourselves at Mickey-D’s! We went across the street to Mickey-D’s to get some coffee and work out the whole "place to stay" thing. We found a place to stay and to our surprise it was in the same hutong we were in the first go ’round.
We rested, gorged ourselves, met some interesting people, and generally physically and mentally prepared ourselves for our 26 hour standing ticket back to CQ. I don’t think we left the hutong once while we were there. It was just what we needed.
All too soon we were back on the train to Chongqing. We had a nice little spot next to the boarding doors. The only problem with that spot was that when we would pull into a station we would occasionally have to get up so more people could get on. Our travel cohorts were friendly, had our backs, and were so miserable that they didn’t even notice we were foreigners with standing tickets (which can be a real shock for most Chinese train travelers). In fact, on this train, around hour 22 someone took my collapsible stool while I stepped outside for a moment to get some fresh air and one of our train buddies gave me his stool to replace mine! Good people.
We finally arrived back in Chongqing. Needless to say, I rested for a couple of days at L’s house then made way back home via bus.
To summarize, our transportation consisted of; 1 non air-conditioned sleeper, one flight, 2 day time hard seats, Mongolian horses, bicycles, 2 overnight trains with no seats, a unexpectedly long bus ride, a ferry across the South China Sea, and a reasonable bus ride back to Fuling. A transportation sampler is what I like to call it.
The trip was actually really wonderful and so ambitious. We got to see such a different side of China then what we’re used to at our little Peace Corps sites. Even still, 4 months later I can’t say that I’d do it again, but can’t help feeling that I’ve earned my travel badge. And, sometimes I still dream about one meal I had in each of those cities.