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Browsing Posts published on June 5, 2008

Hobo Train

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I started writing this post on the 5th, as it’s labeled. I actually finished it late at night on Tuesday the 17th.

Chinese train ticketLast Monday, May 26th, we went from Dalian (well, Wafangdian station) to Tangshan via train. Living in Japan for so long, trains are nothing new to me. I ride trains everyday, and occasionally take the long-distance bullet trains. But the train we took this time was nothing like what I’ve experienced before. This was a 9-hour ride from hell on a train half-filled with hobos. I’m not exaggerating either when I say that; the Orient Express this was not. To illustrate my point, there was a hobo right near us that had a crazy burnt-out (probably a cataract) eye and a crazy laugh, and his buddy was a younger hobo who enjoyed a meal consisting of a handful of raw vegetables and a long chicken’s foot. He munched on this food with his blackened hands and gray teeth during the last leg of the ride.

Earlier in the day, we had finished up things with our client in Dalian at lunch with the bugs and other unmentionable food. On the way back from the restaurant to the client’s office, he pulled over about a block away from the office and started talking to these 2 shabby looking guys. I of course have no idea what they said, but minutes later when we arrived at the office to pack up our luggage, those guys were there with their motorized cart to help us out. They helped haul our ridiculous amount of suitcases and boxes of lab equipment all the way to the train station. Their help didn’t end there. These two guys were pretty old, I’d say at least in their fifties, but since they were (assumingly) hired by our client, it was their duty to haul our stuff all the way. The one guy took our 2 huge cardboard boxes, tied a thick rope around them, and hauled them on his back. The other guy got it easy with two heavy rolling suitcases. They not only hauled the stuff into the station, but after waiting with us for the train to come, they went through the gates and hauled them all the way down the long platform with us. I felt bad for the guy with the boxes, because he was struggling and sweating up a storm. Check him out:

Old dude working as a pack mule for us

Before I go any further, I should describe Wafangdian station. Like many places in these smaller towns in China, I felt like I was in the 1920’s or 30’s. The station felt like an empty warehouse, with tall ceilings, lots of sunlight, very little electronic presence, no air conditioning, and hordes of poor-looking people. There were no electronic ticket gates or signs. They had these big signboards showing the train number and location, swapping out panels for different trains. The gate was just a metal bar with a guard/attendant standing near it, who would open the gates when it was time to board the train. It reminded me of some kind of cattle ranch, with steer waiting to move from one area to the next. So yeah, not a very favorable image of the station.

What decade is this!?

Pretty much that entire day I felt like I had time warped back about 70 years.

Now to the train ride itself. After having our two slaves load our stuff onto the train, off we were for Tangshan. Except the train didn’t really speed along. Ever. In fact I’m pretty sure if you would take a bouncy rubber ball and kick it along the tracks, you would be going faster than the train. It never felt like we were moving fast, which probably helps explain why the ride took 9 excruciating hours. Unfortunately Tangshan has no airport so we were told that train was the best way to go. However we also found out later that there are faster trains we could have taken, instead of suffering for 9 hours on the Hobo Express. Of course our guide person never told us about these options, and we were stuck with the value travel plan. Each ticket only cost 94RMB, which is like $13 USD. This low price also probably attributed to the many hobos and other poor-looking and sour-smelling passengers.

The first half hour or so wasn’t that bad I guess. We were able to somehow fit our many suitcases on the overhead racks, and sat down. Again, I felt like I was in the Great Depression era. Then our guide was nice enough to tell us that we’d have to stand up at the 4th station, because we don”t have reserved seats. Yeah. A 9-hour train ride and our guide didn’t have the foresight to pay the extra few bucks to get us seats. So once we hit that station, people got on the train and claimed their seats, beginning our 8 hours of standing on a train that was going at the speed of Jell-O.

It’s tough to write about this train ride now, because honestly I think my mind has blocked out most of this traumatizing day. The area between the cars had a little bathroom, a sink area, and standing room for people to smoke. I don’t know if this is really what the area was designed for, but that’s sure how it was used. There was constantly a crowd of about 20 people on either end of the train car smoking, ensuring that the entire train would be filled with smoke at all times. Oh, and the bathroom? My god. Not only was it the Asian-style squat toilet, but there was an added bonus with this one. It was literally a hole, going outside of the train, onto the tracks. Talk about primitive.

Squat toilet on the train.  和式トイレ

At some point in the last few hours of the ride, our guide ended up getting us involved with the people sitting around our standing area. It was a real mixed bag, with the 2 hobos I mentioned earlier, some middle-aged guys, and 2 people about my age. Of course me and my dad can’t speak Mandarin, and the guide is only interpreting maybe one in every ten sentences for us. Not enough to understand what’s going on. The people were nice though, letting us sit down for a bit, still in awe that not only were we not from Beijing, but we were all the way from America, which to some of these poor local people, might as well be Mars. More than a few people at first just thought we were from southern China, which I don’t know is because of the way we look (family roots are there) or because we just didn’t fit in with everyone else.

Of those 2 people my age, one was a girl who could actually speak some English. I was pretty tired of faking conversation with these people, especially when I don’t speak the language at all, and I was getting a headache from standing up on a slow-moving train for an entire day. I made some small talk with her though, since she was the only other passenger who could communicate with us. It was funny when at one point she looks at me and says, in English, “You’ve got a big ass.” What!? I look at my dad sitting across the aisle to see if he heard what I think I did. “I think she said you’ve got a big ass.” I was totally stunned, wondering how in the world to respond, when she starts pointing at her face. “Yes, you’ve got a big ass” she repeated, pointing at her eyes. Ooooooooh! She was saying I’ve got big eyes. Haha. Thank….you…?

And that was pretty much the only moment of entertainment on the entire 9-hour train ride.

After the big ass incident I had about an hour or two left on the train. I spent most of it either napping or fake-napping (Ari no jutsu) so I wouldn’t have to act friendl
y anymore.

Second Dinner

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There are still a lot of stories to share from China, but for now I want to show everyone tonight’s activities. We got back late this afternoon from a 1-night trip to Shanghai, where we did some fish work out there. Unfortunately, with less than 24 hours in Shanghai and all of those hours spent either working or sleeping, there wasn’t any chance to see the city or go out at all. But I guess I can at least say I’ve been there. I’m back in Beijing now and should be here until Sunday the 8th when I head back to Japanland.

The hotel breakfast this morning (Wednesday) was some gross eggs, tofu sausages, and 2 weird bricks of toast. Our lunch was plane food – a small dish of noodles, 5 cherry tomatoes, and a roll. Since we had such awesome meals all day, we headed out for early dinner around 5, going to some restaurant in a different hotel nearby. We had a half Peking Duck and some dim sum, which was really good. We were pretty full, but still ready to check out the night market in Wangfujing around 9PM.

王府井大街We had walked around nearby this area our first night in Beijing last week, but somehow we didn’t see the night market selling all kinds of food. I don’t know how we missed it, but as soon as our taxi pulled up tonight we knew we were in the right place. It’s just one stretch of road, about 3 or 4 blocks long, lined with carts selling food. All kinds of food. Most of it is on skewers and either grilled or deep-fried, but this isn’t just regular stuff like chicken or beef. While of course they have those, this night market is famous for having weird foods. Starfish, sea horses, blood cake, bee larvae, centipedes, and tons of other animals and animal parts were available for purchase. It was pretty interesting, and of course there were a lot of other tourists walking around, freaking out at seeing some of the offerings. We decided we should definitely try something new, and it took us a full walk down and up the street before we decided what to start with. Unfortunately, at 9:45 the main string of lanterns all down the street went off, prompting the cart workers to start shutting down immediately. A fire evacuation would have taken longer – these guys know how to pack up and go home! So we only had about 30 or 40 minutes to walk around and eat a little bit.

The “weird” things we ate tonight weren’t really that weird, so I want to head back at least one more time before I leave. We started off with deer and ostrich skewers, which were actually both really good. Neither were gamey at all, and the flavor was nice. I’d had deer before, but I think this was the first ostrich. We also ate some dumplings and candied strawberries, to ingest some non-strange stuff. The weirdest thing of the night was right at closing time:

Scorpion from Mortal Kombat II

Haha, that’s right!

eating scorpions in China

We got some fried scorpions on a stick, which really weren’t bad at all. But not really so great either. They’re fairly small, and deep fried, so there isn’t much taste or texture. But they are kind of expensive, mostly due to the tourist attraction-ness of it all. 3 small scorpions on a stick was 15 RMB, so just over 2 bucks USD. For 50 RMB, you can get the huge scorpions, but I didn’t feel like putting up that much money or biting into a giant scorpion.

Next time I definitely want to try some seahorse and/or perhaps centipede. Maybe the homeless guy with gangrenous legs will be there, and my dad can give him half a skewer of strawberries again.

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