Just go with the flow

Luoyang Construction

Luoyang Construction

Important lesson I learned in China: Prepare as much as possible before heading out on the street. But when things go wrong, because of not preparing enough or bad luck, just go with it. To illustrate this lesson: Story Time!

July 16, 2012
My twin brother, Aaron, and I were heading from Zhangjiajie to Luoyang (the city I had been teaching English at for the last four or five months).

We thought we were pretty well prepared. We had been traveling by train around China for the last couple weeks without any help from tour guides. We were heading to a city I knew really well, so I felt confident that things would be fine. I even had a friend who was going to pick us up when we got to Luoyang.

Our tickets indicated that we were leaving Zhangjiajie and would be arriving at Guan Lin: the one train station in Luoyang I wasn’t familiar with. I figured it would probably be somewhere in the middle of the city like the other ones. Red Flag #1

I had the thought that I should probably put some more money on my pay-as-you-go-cell phone. But I remembered my brother had a cell phone too. We would be fine. Red Flag #2

Aaron said he was running low on money and thought we should hit up the ATM before we got on the train. I was running low on money too but I figured we could travel cheap via bus or stop by an ATM at the train station. Red Flag #3

What basically ended up happening was we arrived at the train station around midnight and discovered it was located in the outskirts of town where new construction was being done everywhere. It was a very small train station without an ATM. There was also only one taxi and one van to give people rides, a stark contrast to the normal droves of taxis fighting to pick up anyone getting off of the trains. The taxi driver didn’t know where we were trying to go, and didn’t want to deal with giving a ride to two Americans who clearly didn’t speak very much Chinese. The driver of the van said she would try to get us to where we needed to go, but she wanted 40 yuan (which was roughly four and a half American dollars). With our money combined we only had a little over Y20.

It’s okay though, I had my friend that I could give a call to. Psych! My phone didn’t have enough money on it to make a call. Good thing my brother had a phone too. Double psych! He lost his somewhere between the Zhangjiajie hostel and the Luoyang train station. I had enough money on my phone to send a few texts to her. Later I would find out she fell asleep and didn’t hear the text alerts.

We didn’t have enough money for a ride, we didn’t have any way of contacting anyone, and we only had a vague idea of our destination. This may have seemed like the perfect time to panic. But that would have been one of the worst things to do. Instead we figured we’d just go with the flow. We put our backpacks on and started walking down an empty streets in the direction we thought we should go.

End result: We walked for about an hour before a lone taxi passing by stopped and offered us a ride. He knew the place we were trying to get to and he only charged us Y16 or Y18 for the trip. We didn’t die, get robbed, or end up sleeping on the sidewalk. Things usually work out if you just have a good attitude and go with the flow.

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Train: Seats and Ticket Deciphering

Train Ticket

There aren’t too many things in this world that are more difficult then deciphering a train ticket in another country. (To understand how to understand the Train Number go to this previous post). Here’s the quick break-down of the kinds of seats (or sleepers) offered.

Seat Type: Hard and soft doesn’t necessarily refer to how hard the seat or bed is, but instead it refers more to the amount of room you will be given. Soft sleepers have four people to a compartment, stacked two beds high, with a door that closes to the hallway. Hard sleepers cater to six individuals, stacked three high, with an open compartment. Soft seats resemble tour bus seats (all facing the same way) and hard seats resemble school bus seats with two or three people sharing the bench-seat, facing another bench full of people.

  • Soft Sleeper 软卧
  • Hard sleeper 硬卧
  • Soft Seat 软坐
  • Hard Seat 硬坐

Bed Location: When taking a hard sleeper understand that all of the beds have pros and cons. The upper beds have a little more privacy, but you will be required to do a lot of climbing in tight quarters whenever you need to move around the train. The bottom bunk is easy to get to and has the most space in between it and the bed above (more head room), but people are friendly and you will probably end up with strangers sitting at the foot of your bed throughout the trip. The middle is a little crammed, but requires less climbing and bed sharing.

Upper Bed 上
Lower Bed 下
Middle Bed 中

The seat has been picked and now there’s no going back. You’ll find out pretty quick whether or not it was a wise idea to pick a hard seat for your 25-hour train ride.

Train Numbers (and why the letters are more important)

Train Ticket

Before you go buying any old ticket from the ticket booth, it’s very important to know what all the characters and numbers all over your pink, or blue, ticket mean. Following is an explanation of the train number and the different classes of train.

The most import part of the train number is not the numbers, but the letter. The letter informs the passengers of the speed and quality of the train, as well as the amount of stops it will most likely make.

  • No Letter Trains: These trains are numbered with no letters, just four numbers (2374). They are slow, because they stop at every station they pass, and they often don’t have air conditioning (usually they have heating in the winter though).
  • K, T, and Z Trains: These trains start with either K, T, or Z followed by 2 to 4 numbers (K18, T382, Z1533). They make less stops, making them faster, with making the most stops and Z making the least. These trains have air conditioning.
  • D Trains: These trains are similar to the previous with the exception that they are built to go 125 mph (200 km per hour). They are commonly called bullet trains.
  • G Trains: These trains are similar to D Trains, only faster: 218 mph (350 km per hour).
  • L Trains: These trains are temporary, usually running during holidays.

Now that you understand this you can make a better decision as to what kind of train you want to use. Keep in mind that just because there are many different types of trains doesn’t mean that all of them are offered in between each different location. With this in mind, it may be more important to you to look at the seat type and the price.

The next post will go into more detail about the sitting/sleeping accommodations.

Trains: Ticket Booth Advice

Your face is turning red. The line behind you is getting longer with every passing moment. The person behind the glass is confused and just wants you to leave. What do you do? Remember your training. You can do this. You can buy a train ticket in China.

Following are the steps to make buying train tickets in China as simple as possible:

  • The first thing to do when you’ve figured out where it is that you want to go is to write down the two cities you are coming from and going to. Write them down in Chinese characters and Pin Yin (Romanized characters).
  • The second thing to do is make sure you always carry your passport and/or visa with you. No one will sell you a ticket without it.
  • When you get in the line, do not leave no matter what. If you, or the person behind the glass, get confused or embarrassed just stick it out. If you leave you won’t get your spot back and you’ll just have to get back in line.
  • Understand that you will need to buy tickets at the ticket booth, not online, and most only sell 10 days in advance from the day of the train’s departure. Either try buying all the tickets at once, if you are going to be city hopping, or buying the ticket for your departure as soon as you enter the city. Don’t leave the train station before making a stop at the ticket booth.
  • Travel China Guide shows train schedules for each city. Train times are the same each day.

Plant your feet and don’t leave that line until you have that ticket-prize in your hand.