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Choo Choo to Qufu by Lynley Smith

05 October 2012


I thought it was about time to update you on my latest cultural experiences here in the land of the invisible sun. This time it's train travel - the only way to go if you truly want to experience the Chinese way first hand.

I must say I have been on more adventurous train trips than the one I took 10 days ago, the most notable being the trip from Longridge in northern New South Wales to Cloncurry in central Queensland many years ago (I don't want to count them up) on the train aptly named the "Midnight Terror". This train traversed territory otherwise uncrossable during the summer monsoon season, dropping off bread and other staple necessities to outback farmers whose black clay access roads had become skating rinks. It was an all- night trip, very slow of course, with many stops, but yes, there were bunks! We had bare board bunks along the walls of the carriages, with open windows (no glass). Bit like riding in a cattle truck without the cattle (although I confess I have never actually tried that.)

This trip, from the small coastal city of Rizhao in Shandong province to Qufu (pronounced Choo foo), the birth place of Confucius, was by comparison travelling in the lap of luxury. What made it so interesting was the peek it gave me into the lives of ordinary Chinese and how they do this travel thing. Travel is VERY important to the Chinese as they must, every Spring Festival time (late January or early February), all travel back to their home town, to visit their family, not matter where they are now living. For most, this means a 10 or 20 hour train trip, and for some it can mean two or three days in transit. At such times it is only the very foolish foreigner who tries to travel by train in China.

My little journey was a measly 3.5 hours but it was enough to enjoy the quirky nature of this unique form or transport.

It all started with trying to get tickets. Now this would seem simple enough in the West, but in China, nothing is simple. With a Chinese friend, Richard, who has very good English, I headed for the main train station to try to get tickets. They can be bought online, but he told me he had tried and it was "too complicated" (read he didn't want to do it that way). We lined up in the long queue. There are always long queues for everything and people show incredible patience - or is it resignation? Anyway we made our way to the front of the queue. I had my passport ready as every foreigner must show their passport when buying travel tickets or any other type of ticket. As we reached the front of the queue, I realised I had forgotten one important thing. I also wanted to buy a ticket for my teacher friend Laura, who was to travel with me, but in China you cannot purchase a ticket for someone else..... Richard's solution - he would buy a ticket using his Chinese ID card for her and she could use it along with a photo copy of his ID papers. Your ID number is printed on your ticket so it can't be used by others. He said others did this swap thing when necessary, but I later found out the others were all Chinese. Laura was Australian and would have some difficulty passing for a Chinese male if they checked IDs.

I was somewhat dubious about this, because first of all it wasn't honest, and secondly, it probably wouldn't work.

Fortunately Laura was able to get down to the station after she finished work, about three quarters of an hour before the train left, so was able to purchase her own ticket. Amazingly there were some seats left. Each station has an allocation of seat tickets (with numbered seat) they are allowed to sell, irrespective of the actual number of travellers on the train. They cannot go above this limit. After that they sell 'standing' (no seat) tickets, which are half the price. Apparently they can sell large numbers of these and some of my students have 'stood' (squatted on the floor) for trips of 30 hours or more.

To complicate matters, the Railways, always with an eye to profit through some sort of contra deal, allocate about half the available seats/berths to travel agents, who hock them off for exorbitant prices to those who want to be sure to secure a seat or berth, before the permitted sale period starts (10 days before travel). So trying to get a ticket is pretty much like taking a Golden Kiwi lottery ticket for the average traveller, especially on holiday weekends. Only recently has the Railways permitted travellers from smaller cities (ie not Beijing or Shanghai) to buy their return ticket before they leave. So the process had to be repeated at the other end - too bad if you were staying less than 10 days as the seats would all be taken on day one of availability.

A friend, American student Danielle, lost the lottery, in her effort to travel with another friend to Jinan the same day as we were leaving. She had booked online but they had written her passport number incorrectly on her ticket. When she went to pick up her ticket and the ID didn't match, they forbade her from using that ticket and even from purchasing another. She had to give up her travel plans!

However, there was no such conundrum for Laura and me. We were all set. We found our train without problem and our seats - just having to turf out one 'standing' passenger who had chosen one of our seats. Off we went and enjoyed a comfortable trip. We left at 5pm and of course this is dinner time. So our fellow passengers quickly got out their picnic dinners and began eating. Trolleys were wheeled through the carriages selling all sorts of Chinese savoury dried foods and snacks as well as pottles of noodles. You just go to the end of the carriage where there is a hot water dispenser and add hot water to your noodles and "voila!' you have your ready-made dinner. I was impressed with the number of people traipsing through our carriage, mostly 'standings' looking for vacant seats. Everyone was very friendly and if it wasn't for our very inadequate Chinese and their strong Shandong accent, we would have had a very sociable time with our fellow travellers.

We had an enjoyable time in Qufu, staying at the only youth hostel, in a six bunk dorm. They told us the hostel was very busy and crowded but somehow Laura and I got to have our dorm to ourselves. Nothing is as it seems in China! We visited Confucius' temple and mansion (laid out very like the Forbidden City in Beijing) and then took a 'bungbung', which is a 3 wheeled motorbike converted into a taxi to Confucius' cemetery, where any member of the Kong family can still be buried. I don't usually take bungbungs and I now know why I was initially warned against them. The driver informed us the fee would be 5 Kuai (yuan) which is OK. When we got there it had morphed into 5 kuai each!!! A trap for young players and for naive tourists! We paid 5 kuai and walked off.

I was really surprised at the lack of foreigners in Qufu. I had thought it would be on most people's tour itinerary, but the only foreigners I saw were those staying at the hostel. The city is not very big but is full of history. It has an old city wall with many many ornate gates. Horse drawn carriages offer rides to the (Chinese) tourists, as do push bikes with seating on the back. I felt very sorry for the riders of these bikes - most of them seemed quite elderly and it was clearly very hard work in the 30 degrees plus temperatures we experienced during our stay in Qufu.

We were due to travel back to Rizhao the next evening, so went to the station in the morning for Laura to get a return ticket - I already had mine, a standing ticket. I wasn't looking forward to 3. 5 hours of standing, especially after quite a long, hot and exhausting day walking round the huge Confucius site grounds and cemetery - we did the whole circuit of the cemetery which was probably a few kilometres. But at least I had a bit of previous knowledge about how to do the 'standing' thing.

Queuing for tickets was probably the most interesting experience at Qufu. The station is really tiny for China and there was only one ticket seller. Unfortunately Laura had forgotten to bring her passport with her to the station so we had to ask the taxi to return to the hostel to get it. By the time we returned, the queue was way out the door and moving very slowly. We waited in very hot temperatures. Someone gave out little bamboo fans to everyone which advertised something or other. A beggar man who was hanging around at the front of the queue to pick up discarded soft drink bottles collected any fans travellers would give to him. I have no idea what he planned to do with them. While Laura waited in the queue I thought I'd go into the next room, through which you had to pass to get onto the platform, to check out what the security was like. The security (police) were examining carefully every ticket and ID (Chinese have an ID booklet or card and foreigners a passport). I saw one obviously poor guy walk up to the security people with his ID card in his hand overlaid by a 20 yuan note. I watched as he talked volubly to the policeman, who was obviously rejecting his efforts to bribe his way onto the platform. Apparently police often allow people on the train who don't have tickets, but today this man was out of luck. He was sent away. Maybe his story wasn't good enough!

I returned to the ticket lobby and now Laura was getting near the front of the queue - wonderful! Then suddenly the lone ticket seller pulled across a curtain and disappeared from the ticket office. We were rather confused by this until someone showed us the ticket office opening hours on the wall. It was the ticket seller's 40 minute morning tea break! Sooooo... we all had to stand there for 40 minutes until she had finished her cup of tea and ciggy and had a chat to her friends and ....

But, and I think God provided for us here, we had entertainment to while away the time. Two young students travelling to Qingdao, just behind us in the queue, were doing something that looked very suspicious to me. They had obviously come prepared for the trip. They had a sharp knife and a glue stick! My eyes nearly popped out of my head as I watched them carefully slice the central pages of their official ID booklets out in full view of everyone, swap them and carefully stick them into the other booklet. The Chinese around noticed my amazement and were laughing in a conspiratorial way.

We managed to find out with a mixture of Chinese and English that one of the girls had a sticker in her ID booklet that allowed her half price travel as a student, but the other did not have this. Presumably they were buying a ticket for the other girl who wanted the discount. Simple solution!! Apparently commonly done!

Fortunately, we made it to the front of the queue before the ticket seller's 3 hour lunch break, which was only about 40 minutes after her morning tea break finished, and Laura managed to get a standing ticket to Rizhao.

We returned to the station in plenty of time for the train - a very important thing if you have a standing ticket, you would think. And so the Chinese think! But actually it doesn't play out that way.

I warned Laura that this was going to be something like being in the front row of a scrum and to sharpen her elbows and be ready to MOVE! When the sign went up for our train, everyone made a mad dash towards the barrier and formed a raggedy line there ready to show their tickets and be let onto the platform. No need at all for the mad dash! Of course the usual group of queue jumpers hung around at the front of the queue. When the train had nearly arrived, we were let through the barrier and ran at full pace to the assembly points (two points, one for seated people and one for the riff raff like us). There we were commanded, like army interns, to line up in very straight lines (you got yelled at if you were not directly behind the person in front of you) at two separate locations on the platform. The train pulled into the station and we noticed some empty carriages towards the rear. As soon as the train stopped, the people broke rank and made a mad dash for carriage doorways, the 'army style' security people completely losing control of their lovely lines.

However, they were prepared for us, with security on each carriage doorway, barring anyone from getting onto the empty carriages - I learnt later these carriages were assigned to passengers at stops further down the line, even though those people also wouldn't have allocated seats. So we had to sprint, along with everyone else, further up the train and clamber on at the first carriage that we were allowed to enter. Of course we then just walked back through the train carriages to reach a carriage which had a lot of spare seats and sat down!

I must say I felt quite exhilarated by our experience of boarding the train as standing passengers. I felt like I'd just won a race. That set the tone for the trip back to Rizhao. Our fellow standings were very friendly and full of information about the trip. They probably all felt like me that they had done really well to have paid half price for their ticket and then come victoriously out of the maul, to recline in seats just as good as the seated passengers. There was a certain camaraderie there!

The rest of our trip home was uneventful - probably just as well as I was beginning to feel a little tired after all the activity of the past 24 hours.

In summary, train travel in China is fun, entertaining and very educational, but only for those stalwarts who don't mind the long drop squat toilets, the rugby maul tactics and have a LOT of time to spare.

Lynley Smith

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