The accidental tourist

Above the clouds – during the flight from Chengdu to Nanchang

How I didn’t spend my summer vacation: teaching. Let me explain.

I’d barely been back in Chengdu for 3 1/2 days before it was time to leave again. I’d had my Tibetan Adventure, and now it was time for some work.

I’d signed a contract to teach at a 4-week English summer camp for middle school students at Gannan Normal University, in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province. Two things happened at the last minute that made me think this trip would be bad luck. First, the trains were all booked; I had to pay for an expensive airline ticket. Second, my computer crashed two days before leaving, making it impossible to read any last-minute messages. I had a funny feeling inside. I did notify the school of my impending arrival, from another person’s computer.

On Wednesday morning I flew from Chengdu to Nanchang, provincial capital of Jiangxi. From the airport, I took a bus directly to the bus station, and bought a ticket for Ganzhou. By the time the bus left for the 5-hour trip, I’d spent exactly one hour in Nanchang.

My seat mate on the bus, who spoke English, assured me that Ganzhou was a beautiful city. This was the first bus I’d ridden in China that had seat belts (oh, could I have used one during my ride from hell to Tagong!). We were also served water and snacks, watched movies, and rode in the clean, air-conditioned bus (with restroom!) along perfect highways. We arrived in Ganzhou at 9:30 pm, and I found a hotel, then had dinner. It had been a long day of travel. I visited a bakery and bought some cakes, then went back to the hotel for a shower.

A knock on my door startled me. It was the hotel security guard; in his hand was my small notebook, in which I kept my Chinese vocabulary list. I’d left it at the bakery, whose owner had tracked down the mysterious foreigner. At least some of my good luck was working.

My only photo of Ganzhou – from the 6th floor of my hotel

In the morning, after a cold and sticky hotel breakfast of dumplings and fried things, I went to a nearby internet cafe.

Imagine my shock when I read an email message from the school: they claimed to have sent me several emails, and assumed that I wouldn’t come. You see, summer school had been canceled due to lack of enrollment. I was PISSED. IF my home computer had worked; IF I had thought twice before spending so much money to get here; my self-recrimination knew no bounds. I sincerely hoped that my teaching contract had a “golden parachute” clause.

What to do? I replied to the school, expressing my outrage and demanding at least partial reimbursement for my expenses. They later replied that they would pay for my train ticket to Chengdu. Otherwise, they didn’t seem too concerned about my trip for nothing.

There was no need for me to visit the school in person; I just wanted out of here. The city was hot, and the part of it I stayed in was ugly and depressing. I paid for my hotel room for another night, then took a taxi to the train station. I bought a ticket to Chengdu for the next morning at 2:30 am, Standing Room Only. Oh boy, another travel adventure.

I wandered around the city. Where were the the ancient city walls, the temples, the historic buildings I’d seen on the internet? Where was the beauty my friend on the bus had talked about? I’m sure it exists, but I didn’t see it on this trip and I never will.

Ganzhou seemed to be full of young men sitting on motorcycles on street corners doing absolutely nothing. Were they looking for work? Were they cruising? Were they part of some civic beautification project? I never found out. Their eyes seemed to follow me when I passed. Maybe they were channeling Marlon Brando.

I had some really bad jiao zi for lunch, then took a taxi back to the hotel to sleep. I slept until 8 pm, then went out for dinner. I bought provisions for the 28-hour train ride ahead of me. I remembered to return to the bakery, to thank the owner for my notebook and to buy some more cakes. Back to the hotel for some tea and packing.

This, then, for what it’s worth, is the diary of my first train ride in China, Ganzhou to Chengdu:

MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (Or, to be more, precise, 2:36 am)

11:00 pm: Checked out of Yun Shan Fandian. Sat for an hour in lobby reading The Count of Monte Cristo.

Midnight: Walked slowly through dark streets to train station – 45 minute walk. Sat outside the station until 1:45 am. Ate a banana.

1:45 am: Went into the waiting room. Train pulled in at 2:31 am and an emplyee opened the gates for a mad rush. People pushed and shoved their way into the overcrowded train.

2:36 am: Train started moving. I sat inside the door in the small lobby at the end of a car, perched on my rolling suitcase, and wedged between other people. I was almost comfortable. Most of the people without seats appear to be students. People occupied every inch of aisle and floor space. This kind of crowding would be illegal in the U.S., as potentially dangerous and a fire hazard.

Occasionally a blast of air-conditioned air would reach us.

Went thru many tunnels. There was a cool rush of air, then heat again.

About 5:30 am: First signs of daylight thru the window in the outside door.

Every once in a while, everyone has to wake up and move out of the way for rolling food carts, or attendants with brooms and dust pans. There’s a steady stream of people bound for the toilet, stepping over bodies. I am out of the direct line of movement. I alternate standing and sitting.

10:00 am: Someone vomits in the hall outside the toilet. It’s like a car crash: I don’t want to look, but my head keeps turning of its own accord. Food carts roll thru it, and people step over it going to the restroom. After about 45 minutes someone shows up with a mop.

11:00 am: A group of obnoxious, noisy young men without shirts pushes onto the train, with enough suitcases for a touring Broadway show. They have the attitude of conceited college jocks. They order people around, throw their luggage, then refuse to let the food vendors move past them in the hallway, shouting insults. Pricks.

1:00 pm: An attendant takes pity on me, and motions me to follow him into his small compartment where I’m allowed to sit on a bench. A couple of hours later he transfers me to the dining car. I bought some bottled tea and sat at a table reading my book in air-conditioned splendor. Train employees eat some foul concoction that looks like coiled snakes.

6:00 pm: A waitress with the worst attitude I’ve ever seen confronts customers with a savage expression. She demands to know what I want and I gesture that I’m “just sitting.” She stomps away.

6:30 pm: All I’ve eaten today are 2 cakes from the Ganzhou bakery and some peanuts.

Most of the scenery has been farmland and rolling plains. We’ve stopped at a few big cities but it’s impossible for me to understand their names. Now it looks like we’re passing through a mountain range. I’m not too tired. I may actually have slept an hour or two earlier.

7:15 pm: I order some fried eggs with green vegetable, and rice. I have to pay money first.

7:45 pm: My food arrives. I eat.

8:00 pm: I use the toilet for the first time since my trip began.

8:30 pm: I am beckoned again by another attendant, and follow him into the sleeping car. They now have a bed available, and I pay an extra 178 yuan to move into a 4-bed compartment. I lie down for the last 10 hours of my journey. I kind of miss the crowded hallway. I don’t think I sleep, but I may be mistaken. The mysterious countryside rushes darkly by outside the large window. I am going someplace.

6:30 am: We pull into Chengdu train station. I strap on my backpack and walk back through several cars to the small attendant’s compartment where I left my suitcase. The crowds in the aisles have mysteriously disappeared, and the aisles are clean and freshly mopped.

8:00 am: I arrive home, after a long walk and a bus ride. My long, and fairly pointless, trip has lasted exactly 3 days. At least it gave me something to write about.

Hello, Chengdu!
End of Story
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2 responses to “The accidental tourist

  1. Dear Lord.Infinite patience… It’s a good spiritual practice. I hear.Glad you’re safe and home.

  2. not sure how I found your blog, but I’ve enjoyed reading this account of your journey. I’m glad I didn’t share it in reality but only in the retelling.

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