China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 221 (31)

Train to Datong

Friday 15th October

We mobilised ourselves quite quickly this morning and set to work packing away all our stuff. Considering that we had been at our hostel for a lengthy six days (the longest we’ve ever been in one place was seven days in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe but even then we didn’t stay at the same place the whole time that we were there) our backpack contents had been spread far and wide throughout the room. Nevertheless, it took us surprisingly little time to collect everything and pack it away. I went to check out and to collect the deposit on or door key whilst Sandy tidied up the room a little. I told the receptionist that our train was for ten o’clock this morning and that it was to depart from Beijing West. She looked at me, then the wall clock and then back at me again with a rather distressed look on her face. Not again, I thought! Not this early in the bloody morning to start with problems already! Wouldn’t you know it, the train station was considerably farther away than I had imagined (about an hour by taxi apparently) and we would have to leave immediately with the very real possibility of missing the train anyway. No breakfast again! We grabbed our gear and ran at speed out to the street to flag down the first taxi we could find. Naturally, it took several agonising minutes before an empty one passed, which only seems to happen when we are in a terrible rush, and to top off the unfortunate start to the day, it was also one of the more expensive kinds. Do I have ‘looking for problems’ etched onto my forehead or something?

I conveyed a sense of urgency to the driver when I handed him the piece of paper with the name of the train station written in Chinese on it and he seemed to understand. Perhaps a little too much, in fact, as he raced off with no delay and proceeded to dodge in and out of traffic as we sped away. I might have felt a little more comfortable had the seatbelt worked but he at least gave the impression that he was up to the challenge of getting us there in time and I resigned our fate into his hands. Thirty minutes later, not the sixty that we had feared, we arrived at Beijing West and assembled our luggage together.

The station is very large and cavernous and we had to pass our backpacks through a security screener before being allowed in. Quite predictably, there were hoards of people both inside and out and it was a little disorienting at first. Luckily many of the key signs were posted in English as well as Chinese but we still had to be pointed in the right direction to find our departure hall. The whole process is very much more orderly than was the case in India. Departing passengers are segregated into different departure halls where they subsequently queue up to get onto the actual platform when it is time to do so. The platforms themselves are otherwise empty of passengers until the entire trainload is allowed down with their luggage, about thirty minutes before departure. We had apparently arrived just in time as the queue for our departing train had just started to move when we showed up. The queue was quite a wide one and it took just a few minutes for us to make our way pass the ticket inspector and onto the platform, where a rather long train was waiting for us. The now rather untidy row of people slowly filtered off the platform onto the various carriages but we had quite a long walk to ours at the very far end of the platform. There must have been at least thirty carriages all told and we were in carriage number two.

The carriage itself is not too dissimilar from the one we encountered when we travelled from Delhi to Agra except for the fact that the seats are arranged in a three/isle/two configuration with the seats facing each other and small tables attached to the sides. The ceiling is quite high and there is plenty of luggage rack space above our heads. The ride is quite comfortable and the mostly younger crowd of Chinese passengers have now settled down and are eating and chatting away. We are stuck at the far end of our carriage with mostly older people. To start with, one of the men was smoking and spitting out of the window quite a bit, even though there is a very prominently posted no spitting and no smoking sign above the two doors at either end of the carriage, but has now settled down and we’ve even had fun trying to communicate with each other a little.

A few snack and drink trolleys have passed up and down a couple of times and most people have been sitting eating either nuts, fruit or pre-packaged pots of noodles and who knows what else. We’ve had the most fun, however, with a couple of passing sock salesmen (believe it or not) that arrived a short while ago. I’m not currently wearing any socks with my sandals, which they noticed immediately, making me a prime target of their attentions to make a sale. One of them was trying to convince me that it would be cold and windy in Datong and that his socks would benefit me greatly. I never did buy the socks but we had fun trying to tell them where we were from and where we were going. I blew up my very useful inflatable globe and pointed various things out to the small crowd. I also showed them my little pictogram flip chart and we managed some very basic communication such as what time the train would arrive and so on. It was a nice little interaction with the locals and has so far been the highlight of this train ride.

After the communications fun and games finally died down, everyone went back to their respective seats for another couple of hours of tedium as the train continued its relentless march West. The landscape is rugged and very dry. Judging by the erosion trenches stretching throughout the swathing expanses as far as the eye can see, vast floods of water must irrigate this part of the country each year. You can almost read the story of the land through its landscape and undulations. Right now, the story tells of autumn having well and truly set in with all the crops having already been cut and the varying shades of brown have all but supplanted the green of the trees and sporadic bushes that line the fields. Dotted around the landscape, a few farmers and peasants use primitive tools and old machinery to toil the land, as they tend the last remaining chores in the fields after the autumn crops have been reaped. I snapped what photos of these images I could through the very dirty window of the moving train. I sat there watching the changing landscape of China slowly pass us by and was captivated by the images of the people and sparsely placed buildings out in the distance. This is what travelling is all about, I pondered to myself. This is why we came here to begin with, to see different cultures and learn about their way of life. There are no tourist attractions here, no hotel touts or market traders applying their trade. To all intent an purposes, I am invisible to these people working in the fields, who might chance a glance in my direction, only to see what for them must be the familiar sight of just another passing train. This is the real China, that indescribable part of any country that can only be seen through the passing glimpses of a passenger on a train journey through the middle of nowhere in some nondescript part of the country. I wonder what they are thinking, what their lives are like and how they are different from me. I wonder if I will ever understand them or if they will ever understand me. In the briefest of moments that we have to pass through this vast and bewildering land, I cannot hope to even coming close to Understanding the Chinese people. That would take years, if not decades. We will take what we can from this experience and, perhaps, hopefully even, will take away with us just a little more understanding than what we came with. If we can do that, then I will consider the trip to have been a successful one.

Our train eventually pulled into Datong station and the near capacity compliment of travellers slowly filed out of the exits at either end of the carriages. We made our way across the platform and to the main station building, where we hoped to find the China Information Travel Service (CITS) office. Our guidebook tells us that there will probably be a CITS representative to meet all the arriving tourists and highly recommends seeking out the CITS office if he misses you. As it turned out, there were a half dozen other Western backpackers that had already been cornered by the CITS officer and he motioned us to tag along with this group as we were all led off to another part of the building. Clearly this is a daily ritual for the CITS office and he quickly set about trying to figure out where to house us all based on our comfort, luxury and budget levels. Nobody, it seems, gave any consideration to not following his recommendations, and one by one, we all filled out our registration cards and thought about which hotels and tours we wanted to go with. Along with another couple from Canada, we insisted that we wanted to see whatever rooms were available before making any payments but luckily the two choices that we had already decided on from the guidebook were just across the street.

The first hotel we looked at was the quintessential budget backpackers dive and the rooms they showed us were on the eleventh floor, overlooking a rather nasty looking factory belching out noxious fumes, probably the very factory responsible for the thick pollution that hangs dank in the air here. The taps leaked and there were a few creepy crawlies wandering around but the room would probably have been acceptable all things else considered. At ¥138 ($16,75) a night, it was probably a little bit too much for what it was so we decided to wander across to the other side of the street to check out the more expensive and recently renovated other option. Our first task was to determine the price and the intractable position of the smartly dressed guy at the front desk was that the rooms were ¥288 ($35) per night, take it or leave it. We promptly ignored this and asked to see the rooms all the same, even though there was no way we would pay nearly half of our daily budget for just the accommodation. We looked at the rooms and they were undoubtedly the very best rooms we’ve seen so far on this trip. Indeed, the entire hotel seems like it is a four-star hotel. It doesn’t look pretty on the outside but everything within is fresh, new and very upper class. The four of us decided that this was definitely where we wanted to stay and we agreed between us that I would conduct the negotiations for a better room rate. Back down at the reception desk, I asked for a pen and paper and wrote down ¥200 ($24) and pulled the very best ‘we’re certainly not paying ¥288 ($35) for that!’ face that I could muster. Our man remained steadfast but did call immediately over to the CITS officer and spoke with him for a minute or two. He then gave the phone over to me and I chatted with our CITS man, who also seemed to want to convince me that this was a take it or leave it price. He then told me that the CITS rate of ¥238 ($29) was truly the best rate possible and that we were free to head off on our own in search of alternative accommodation. I then told him that the reception staff had offered us the same ¥238 ($29) for the room even though we had not mentioned anything about coming from the CITS office. If they were giving his ‘special’ discounted price to people coming in off the street, I told him, then there must clearly be further room for negotiation. This was, of course, a complete fabrication and the ¥288 ($35) price was quite clearly displayed on an electronic board behind the reception desk, but he was none the wiser to my deception. He seemed to ponder this for a brief moment and I sensed in the man that he really wanted the commission of the booking so I simply told him that ¥200 ($24) was the best we could do, having now seen the rooms. Some more discussion ensued between him and the front desk man and when I finally got the phone back again, he told me to come back over to the CITS office and we could ‘discuss’ it further. Got him! This was what I was waiting for, a sign of weakness in his armour. This was a clear indication that there was room for negotiation after all. Our two new Canadian friends, that we were by now started to get to know better, seemed quite pleased at the apparent success in the negotiations and asked, indeed insisted, that I continue to do battle on all our behalf not only for the room rates but also for the tours as well.

Back at the CITS office, I really laid it on thick and kept up the pressure. Confident and direct, I told our man that ¥200 ($24) was a fair rate for the room and that all four of us would consider his tour (the best option for seeing the sites here according to the guidebook anyway) only on the condition that he meet our ¥200 ($24) ultimatum. In truth, the room would probably have cost a good deal more than ten times this amount back in America or Europe but there was no way I was going to let that little titbit slip.

I then asked him how much he was going to charge for the tour and he told us that it would be ¥100 ($12) each for a day’s worth of site seeing to two of the very best sites that this part of the country has to offer. Since the cost of the tour did not include the entry tickets to the sites themselves, I complained, we would be much cheaper off arranging a taxi to share between the four of us. I told him that ¥60 ($7,30) per person would be more suitable since we would effectively only be paying for the transportation there and back anyway. He didn’t like this very much so I thought I’d relieve him of just a little pressure and offered my final offer of ¥65 ($7,90) for the transportation, but only on the condition that we would get the room for the ¥200 ($24) that we had already ‘agreed’ on. I told him how much I liked him and worked verbally worked him over a bit more before he eventually pulled out some new registration forms and, albeit reluctantly, agreed to our demands. I just half an hour, I’d managed to secure ¥492 ($60) in savings. We managed to retain our composure until outside of the building when we all basked unashamedly in the glow of our small victory.

We’re now checked into what must surely be the very best hotel in the whole of Datong. It will make a change to sleep in a ‘real’ hotel as opposed to a backpackers dive and still come in under our backpacker’s budget.

After unpacking our stuff and taking a quick shower, we joined our Canadian neighbours for a superb diner in the extremely plush hotel restaurant. Even though the remainder of the group of backpackers that arrived on the same train as us were staying at the other hotel, they too were dining here on the strength of the guidebook’s recommendation. The food and company was great and we enjoyed a very relaxing and very long meal with final tally of a mere ¥88 ($10,70). Breakfast is apparently also included with the room and we will meet them again tomorrow morning at breakfast before we are collected at around nine to set off for a day’s site seeing.