“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” -Lao Tzu
I didn’t know I was traveling until the train pulled out of the station. But suddenly, I was on my way to Dalian, a coastal city in Northeast China at the Bohai Sea, five non-stop hours away from Shenyang, where I was teaching English. Sometimes travel happens by accident.
My stay was only 30-days-old and I had come to terms ― if not yet embraced ― my daily trials: learning Mandarin by the thimbleful; eating foods that may or may not fall within basic food group guidelines; waking up to students “sounding off,” deep into military exercises each morning. But accidental travel? This was too much.
I was still digesting my new reality, acclimating to life in big-city Shenyang (population 4 million, located about 12 hours by rail northeast of the capital Beijing) when my neighbor, Howard, a British expatriate who had been in China a year, came knocking. He had three ladies in tow, all foreign teachers like us: two Americans teaching English, and Izumi, from Japan, teaching Japanese. They needed help with the language (some) and luggage (mostly) and so, I was brought on as labor. David, another American, joined us and that made six.
We trotted off to the train station and, big spenders that we were, purchased the one-Yuan (US$ 0.20) platform tickets necessary to enter the boarding area with the ladies. We muscled their luggage through the train’s narrow doors, down the skinny aisles and onto the top baggage racks. Happy when the grunt work was done, Howard, David and I didn’t immediately step off the train. As we visited, chitchatting easily, learning about each other, sharing some laughs, I noticed outside the window attendants were waving green flags. Hmm, being newest to the group, I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries, so I stayed quiet. My first mistake.
“Oh, oh, thank you, train moving,” Izumi said in delightfully worded English. It took her to finally speak what we others slowly realized, but didn’t say.
Sure enough, the train began to move, as trains eventually do, and though the others were seasoned travelers, this was my first ― albeit unplanned ― rail trip in China. We scrambled for the onboard attendant to resolve the situation.
Traveling by rail, whether it be planned or not, is a popular mode of transportation in China.
Can we stop the train?
No, there is a schedule to keep.
Could we get off at the next town?
No, it is an “express” without a stop until we hit Dalian.
Can we speak to the supervisor?
No, he is back in Shenyang.
No, no, and, no. Three strikes.
The only solution was to pay for tickets and then purchase return tickets once in Dalian. This was a problem since we boarded the train purely as chivalrous gentlemen.
So we had only pocket money which, when pooled, registered in the shallow end, 75 Yuan (US$ 15). It was enough to buy one and a half tickets of the lowest budget ride ― hard seat, with the comfort level exactly how it sounds. One-way. No return fund.
At the time, some pricing standards reflected official policies; others, let’s say, were less official. Chinese paid one price; non-Chinese paid another (often double), or might be told that premium-level tickets were all that was available.
There was yet another price for non-Chinese working in China. So, for foreigners working in China to travel most economically, we needed a red card (work unit); a yellow card (working status); a green card (resident); and a passport optional (it has its own list of emergency uses). We three kings of the Occident had none of these.
If lack of money or proper papers weren’t enough of a challenge, we had a few more to add to the pot. Six of us combined knew enough Mandarin to hold a sticky 10-minute conversation about the weather. The college in which two of us lived had security measures that monitored the foreign teachers comings and goings. If the teachers go missing overnight, the Foreign Affairs Office tends to get upset, as we found out.
All said, our plan was a simple one. Get the ladies to fund our way and use their documents to get us the best prices. They were surprisingly easy to convince considering the loan used up nearly all their resources, and though we’d be able to return on the next train back, they were determined to stay in Dalian for a few more days on meager funds.
In the month I had spent in China, the hospitality was impressive ― almost embarrassingly so. Now here, tagging along with some whom I’d met for the first time, the good karma was galvanized. That was not the end of the goodwill, though. When we arrived in Dalian, we continued to visit the sights that were on the ladies’ original itinerary, though we didn’t have the money to enter any of the attractions that required fees. We spent the day at Laohutan (Tiger) Amusement Park, a full bargain of entertainment showcasing an aquarium, intricate sculptures and bird shows. Having left Shenyang’s gritty cityscape, it was a pleasure to see Dalian celebrating its natural beauty.
Unexpected friendships form at Tiger Beach in Dalian, a coastal city in Northeastern China.
At Tiger Beach ― Dalian’s best swimming waters ― Fortune opened her stingy purse just a sliver. Some Chinese Navy officers on leave were visiting the city as well. They adopted us (they must have been at sea a long time) and generously hosted us with the loose promise that we do the same when they come to visit us in our home cities or countries. (Unlikely course of events, but enough for us to save face just the same.) Incredibly gracious.
But all things come to an end. Time was nearing for our impromptu trip to close. This time the roles were reversed and the ladies saw us off. They sent us on our way with a bottle of water, a few apples and whatever we had left in our pockets, mostly lint.
It was late and the train ride back was the cheapest available, the “Red-Eye Milk Run.” It stops at every village, allowing enterprising recyclers aboard the train to scurry and scavenge amid our feet and under seats for bottles and returnables to supplement household income.
Capitalism never rests, though, as vendors pushed wares through the open window with one hand while the other was palm up for payment. Feigning sleep did not dissuade the persistent.
There’s really no way to describe one particularly tenacious chicken salesman who pounded his barbecued goods against the side of the train trying to rouse us. Really, at 3 a.m., do I honestly want to eat a drumstick that had been pummeled against a moving train window at g-force?
Actually, yes. We were reduced to the barest of rations. Prison inmates convicted of the most heinous crimes ate better than we did that night.
The train moved through space and time at a glacial pace, but we eventually alit on Shenyang firma at 4 a.m., in the northern station. We lived, of course, but a quick pedi-cab ride from the only other Shenyang train depot in the southernmost district. We had no option but to set off on foot aiming for morning classes at 7 a.m., with a wisp of hope that we’d not been missed.
Despite the hustle and bustle of big city Shenyang, beauty can be found around every corner.
Right. When we arrived back at the college, the Foreign Affairs Office had already alerted the police. Much translating and gesticulating went on, but we explained as best we could that the whole thing was a simple misunderstanding and nothing more. We had certainly never intended to ride the rails like hobos, drooling over other passengers’ box lunches, relying on the kindness of strangers to see us through Dalian and the night.
When all had settled and proper authorities were placated, classes over for the day, the adventure behind me, I slept. And I dreamt fondly of many subsequent train trips to far-reaching points of China. Some were even on purpose.
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