Arriving in Beijing was a shock to the system; it was like arriving to a different world. People constantly stared at me, approached me and would take photos of me as though I was completely alien to them. I guess in many ways I was an alien to them as some had probably never seen somebody who looked like me.
In all honesty, I found it all incredibly overwhelming. I had just travelled in South Korea and Japan where the people were incredibly conservative, polite and shy… China was a world far from this.
I observed constant spitting in the street and public bathrooms, people shouting, pushing, shoving, I witnessed a young child defecate on temple grounds and the concept of queuing was non-existent here. It was a lot to take in and I wasn’t sure how I felt about spending a month in a country like this. But after three days I started to appreciate China, its culture and the way of its people. I wasn’t in love with the country but I was starting to get used to it.
Mistake number one:
When I arrived in Ulan-Bator, Mongolia, I met two Australians who had just arrived from Beijing and were heading to Moscow. They had forgotten to get a refund for their Beijing IC metro cards and gave them to me. There was only a couple of RMB on each card but I was incredibly grateful for them.
So, when I got to Beijing Train Station I gave the man at the ticket office 50 RMB and one of the cards. He looked at me in shock and said “fifty!?” at which point I asked if it was enough but he didn’t seem to understand me. It made me feel as though it wouldn’t be enough and so I stupidly then gave him a further 70 RMB to put on the card. I had just come from Hong Kong where a mini bus costs 16 HKD and the exchange rate wasn’t that different (the math made sense). He didn’t seem to have a reaction to the larger amount.
As it turns out my fare from the train station to my stop cost 3 RMB. I had made a terrible mistake and the magnitude was starting to dawn on me. Nobody was carrying a metro card worth 170 RMB. Beijing was clearly much cheaper than Hong Kong.
Getting a train ticket from Beijing to Shanghai:
After five days in Beijing it was time to leave for Shanghai. With the help of an amazing American guy studying in China who wrote down my train ticket details in mandarin in my notebook, I was able to go to the train station, show them my notebook and buy my ticket.
Now, Beijing Train Station mid-afternoon is complete chaos and as a westerner there is only one queue with an english speaking attendant. It is fair to say that ‘personal space’ isn’t something that people appreciate in Beijing. Even after I arrived at the counter, people would stand alongside me, right up against my person and by this point my anxiety and stress levels were peaking. It got to the point where I asked the ticket attendant to tell people to move back, and as I did, I unwittingly lifted my arm up in an aggressive manner signalling for them to do so, and miraculously everybody around me simultaneously moved back to give me room.
N.B: Most people use the C-trip app to get travel tickets in China but since my smart phone had broken in Belarus many months ago, I am currently using a substandard phone without apps and maps. Travel has become somewhat more difficult but concurrently more authentic and exciting; paper maps, getting lost, and asking people for directions has become my life.
Getting to Beijing Train Station:
My hostel was only two metro stops away from the station and so I decided to leave an hour before the departure time. I got to the station and went straight to the IC card vending and refunding office as I needed to get a refund for my IC metro card before leaving Beijing.
The man refunded the empty card and handed over 22 RMB and then kept the other with 140 RMB still on it. I asked him for a refund again and using a translator app he told me that the sum was too large to refund. Panic started to set in as my train was going to depart in 25 minutes.
N.B: the initial cost of getting an IC metro card is 20 RMB
Luckily, an English speaking man who I had subconsciously said hello to a couple of minutes before walking up to the vending and refunding office was suddenly standing next to me. He was living and working in Beijing and could speak some Mandarin and attempted to resolve the issue.
A higher ranked ticket attendant was then called to solve the problem, but it wasn’t looking positive. There was mandarin and english translation going back and forth and meanwhile I was now down to 15 minutes to my train departure. Stress levels were high.
I could have left the refund, it was only 140 RMB (£16.50) but it seemed so important at the time. Eventually the higher ranked ticket attendant worked her miracle, gave me 100 RMB of the ticket offices money and gave me 40 RMB of her own money and bought it off me.
It was safe to say that my eyes watered in gratitude (ok, I cried), I thanked her, hugged her and then started my way to the station gates. I told the English speaking guy to walk and talk with me as I thanked him too. He asked me for my number and I couldn’t give it to him because I didn’t actually know it. I told him to add me on Facebook but only gave him my first name before realising that I was now seriously running out of time and was currently standing at the end of a seriously long line, with only 10 minutes to go...
Stay tuned for part 2...