June 20th 1984

posted in: The way back | 1
Chris shaving in the hotel (the only photo we felt advisable to take)

The sleeping car made all the difference, + I don’t think that, on longer trips, I will want to travel any other way, having now served my 34 hours of penance in hard seat.  I slept very well, + awoke feeling refreshed + ready to face the world, instead of with a thick soup in my mouth as before.  Breakfasted on coffee + sponge, then gazed out of the window for the morning.  Lunch, however, was a disaster.  I’d been told that they started serving at 11.30, so I rolled along there then.  No, the man told me, 12.30, so I returned then , this time with Val.  I was both surprised + a little annoyed to see that there were people there in the middle of their meals, even more annoyed when we were told to come back at 1.30.  I wasn’t having that, so we stumped ourselves down at a table, prepared to wait as long as was necessary.  But my anger + irritation increased as more + more people came in, handed over tickets + were served, while we were ignored.  We tried to buy tickets, but they didn’t seem to be available.  Unlike the other train, these tickets were being sold up + down the carriages rather than in the dining car itself, but I don’t see how we were supposed to know this.  By intuition, perhaps.  Eventually, a young Singapore Chinese couple, the other 2 sitting at our table, told us we would be able to buy some tickets now, + pointed down towards the end of the car.  So I went down there, but found nothing but further frustration: lots of pushing, shoving Chinese, plenty of annoyance at my obvious incomprehension of the system, + not a ticket in sight.  I really lost my cool now, + raged back down the aisle, + flung the purse at Val – an inexcusable action, since she was in no way to blame for the situation.  But I had to express my fury somehow, or half a dozen tables + chairs + several Chinese would have been thrown out of the window.  My furious anger reminded me of the frustrations of teaching, as good an argument as any for not going back to that.

Val fared much better than I had, + was able to track down the ticket seller.  If we’d known the result, I don’t think we would have bothered however, for the food was absolute pig-swill – I’m sure the food we’d seen on the tables had been much better.  When we finally returned to our own carriage, we were both in a foul mood.  Val told me off for having expressed my anger publicly at her, + that just depressed me further, to think that not just everybody else on the train, but Val as well, were against me now.  Of course, she must have felt the same way, but I was too self-preoccupied to think of this at the time.  So we both sat + brooded silently, + this contributed to disaster no 2 of the day.

We both knew we had to get off the train at about 4 o’clock, but we were expecting the conductress or someone, who knew where we had to get off, to tell us when we got there.  Guiseppini, our Australian friend, could also take a share of the blame, we reckoned.  She was also in our compartment, + sat near the window, + had been peering out of the window to check on the stations – she too was getting off at Emei.  But the major responsibility, + culpability, was our own.  We pulled into another small station, quite a few people got off, G craned her neck out the window but made no move to collect herself together, + we 2 just sat, as if powerless of our own fate, waiting for the conductress to come.  After we’d been stopped there about 5 mins, she did, + was obviously disturbed to see we were still there.  She indicated we were at Emei, + that we should get off, but I suppose we were a bit dense, + didn’t recognise the urgency.

G was first to the carriage door + out, Val was next, but with a whistle + a jerk the train then began to move again.  She turned back to check I was right behind her, + that was her chance gone.  The train was still barely moving, + we could have jumped off easily enough, but the conductress obviously decided it wasn’t worth her job to take the risk of having a couple of foreign guests splatter themselves over the platform, + she planed herself firmly in the doorway.  So there we were, stuck on the train, feeling even more sorry for ourselves.  On reflection, just about the only consolation was that Guiseppini had made it off the train – having her along with us as well would be just too much to bear.

The 3 of us, the conductress + us, stood around in the gangway, her being sheepish, us feeling that the gods were against us.  Val was worse than me, the closest she’s been to tears in a long time.  We were told first that the next station was 12 mins further up the line, then that it was 38 kms, the latter obviously closer to the truth.  But maybe it was just as well – as the minutes + miles disappeared we became increasingly resigned to our fate.  We certainly weren’t happy with the situation, but could at least look sanguinely upon our prospects.  We were assured we would be able to catch a bus back to Emei, but about this we had some severe doubts.  Like bureaucrats all over the world, the Chinese officials aboard the train could happily forget about us once we’d disappeared from their view, whether or not we would then have severe problems – it would be someone else’s job to look after us.

We were quite right to be sceptical.  Once down for4m the train, + after sitting still for a few minutes to re-orient ourselves, we walked off to where we were told (we thought) the bus station was.  And sure enough, no bus – not till tomorrow at any rate.  So, apart from hitching (an idea we briefly considered before rejecting) we had no choice but to allow ourselves to be redirected to the local hotel.  The people there were very surprised to see us, + quite clearly didn’t know what to do with us.  We were invited to sit down in the receptionist’s bedroom, while every man + his dog was invited along to contribute their piece.  It was particularly difficult in that no-one there spoke any English, but eventually we were able to explain what had happened to us, + what our requirements were – I think.  When all that was done to their satisfaction, + they’d dug out a couple of forms for us to fill in, they couldn’t have been more anxious to please.

At first we were put into separate single rooms, but then a very nice double.  There was a television, a large bed with mosquito net, + hot tea.  Everything clean, comfortable +, we made sure, cheap – just Y5.40.  It took some time for the various workers to disperse – we had quite clearly created quite a sensation.  Things were looking much better, + what had appeared an unpleasant + awkward situation had been transformed into a perfectly happy one.

Later on, we indicated we were hungry, + were escorted down into the dining room.  There, with the aid of our conversation book, we ordered a couple of dishes, but before they arrived, a somewhat officious man arrived to ask us some questions.  I don’t think he served any official function, but had been summoned simply because he spoke English.  Our interview was not harrowing however – we simply filled out another form, + were asked about our plans tomorrow.  And then, we could return to our meal.

We’d ordered duck, but were somewhat horrified when an entire duck appeared, head, feet ‘n all, with the innards removed, + the whole thing chopped up into bite-sized cubes – a necessary preliminary, chop-sticks not being too efficient at pulling a bird apart.  It was very tasty (tho’ cold) but we had awful visions that it would cost us a small fortune.  So it was a pleasant relief to be told that the entire meal, including rice, + tomato + egg soup, cost Y3.50.

We passed the evening in the usual way, listening to Auntie Beeb.

Inevitably, after a day in which everything went right, there followed a day when everything went wrong… at least until the evening, whenthings seemed to be OK again. And things going wrong does make for a more interesting experience; an encounter with a China where we were very much out of the ordinary had its own attractions.

  1. kevan

    My furious anger reminded me of the frustrations of teaching, as good an argument as any for not going back to that.

    And yet you did ……

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