Trains, Planes, Buses, Taxis, One Pedicab, and Automobiles

Trains, Planes, Buses, Taxis, One Pedicab, and Automobiles

After eight straight days of class and Open House presentations, I was happy to have a week-long holiday. Knowing this would probably be the longest holiday for the foreseeable next few months, I decided to take this opportunity and visit Hong Kong to renew my visa at the American consulate. I booked my train rides, flights, and a hotel for two nights. I could already tell this was  going to be quite an expensive trip. It started on Wednesday morning with a considerably quick train ride to Beijing  aboard the bullet train: just under two hours with a top speed of 300 km/h. (Not a bad way to kick off the trip, though the ticket was 185 RMB.)

Thank goodness it's just fog and not air pollution.

Thank goodness it’s just morning fog and not air pollution.

From there, I took a bus from BeijingXi Railway Station to Beijing International Airport. That cost 16 RMB. It took way too long to find the correct check-in counter, after being misdirected by several ticket agents and very ambiguous signage. Even still, I was an hour too early to check in (better to be too early, though, I suppose). Got through customs and international security to my gate with plenty of time to spare. Sat next to an Argentinian man who I originally thought was actually Mandy Pantinkin. Arrived at Shanghai Pu Dong Airport and had to go through the same check-in procedure. Fortunately, the Shanghai airport was better organized and I already had my boarding ticket. Unfortunately, my flight was almost grounded due to mechanical failure. Thankfully, they were able to just move us to another gate. The passengers of a different flight were less lucky and had to make hotel arrangements for a later flight. Yikes.

It's like Shanghai Pu Dong Airport was designed to be Instagrammed.

It’s like Shanghai Pu Dong Airport was made for Instagramming.

Another flight later and I was getting into Hong Kong around midnight. Since I was unfamiliar with public transportation in Hong Kong and unsure if there were a bus or subway that would drop me near my hotel, I made my way to a cabstand and arranged for a taxi to take me to my hotel, about 27 km away. (When I researched which hotel to book, I looked for the shortest combined distance to the airport and to the American consulate.) The cab ride was definitely expensive, 182 HK dollars. That was one aspect I forgot to account for, different currency. The cab driver gladly accepted my RMB, though.

I made it to my hotel and checked in. But because I used an online travel site and an American debit card to book the hotel, they had a record of my reservation but no record of my paying. Plus, I needed to put down a 1000 RMB refundable deposit for the room. Thank god I had thought ahead to bring a ton of extra cash… 1000 RMB, to be exact. That meant I had very little cash on hand until I got my deposit back. Finally, I was all checked in and financially squared away, so I went up to my room, made a quick note of how much bigger than my apartment it was, set down my things, and started exploring the hotel and snapping photos.

Now, after a full day of traveling, all of my devices – laptop, iPod, iPhone, Chinese cell phone – were basically depleted. I had maybe 50% left on my iPhone, 15% left on my MacBook, but my Chinese cell phone was completely dead. Here’s the second aspect I forgot to account for: Hong Kong uses a completely different outlet and plug than mainland China. I had no way of charging my devices, even with my adapter. And that was the first major lesson I learned on this trip: find a way to make do without technology. I still used my iPhone as an alarm clock and a camera, but whatever charge remained, I knew I needed to reserve for emergencies or traveling.

I had fortunately thought ahead to bring sufficient food to last me at least through a day of traveling. Thankfully, the first flight served dinner and I was able to preserve some of my food. Because there was nothing near my hotel that sold food and as you can imagine, hotel food can be pretty pricy.

The next day, I took a taxi to the American consulate only to discover that due to the government shutdown, they were “unable to process my visa renewal request at this time.” When I had called ahead from Xingtai, the shutdown had not yet happened and they gave no indication of any foreseeable issues, so maybe they didn’t take the proper precautions. I walked the six kilometers back to the hotel, not wanting to waste more of my precious, limited travel funds on a cab ride back, and quite crestfallen at my lack of success . However, the walk exposed me to more of the city and gave me some good photos.

Oh Hong Kong, I can't stay mad at you.

Oh Hong Kong, I can’t stay mad at you.

The next morning, I woke up early so I could check out and get to the airport with plenty of time (and hopefully take advantage of a free charging port and their free WiFi). I ended up splitting a cab with a British pilot who was staying at the hotel and also had a flight to catch. I offered to pay for the entire trip as it was an honor just to meet a pilot and share the company of a fellow Western traveler, but he insisted that we fairly split the cost. What a lovely chap!

At the airport, as I was waiting to check in, a ticket agent noticed me with no luggage and offered to help me check in at a kiosk and skip the long line. Another nice guy! Again, got through customs and international security to my gate with hours to spare so I sat down at a charging counter near my gate and I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to board that plane with all my devices at least partially charged.

My connecting flight was in Yinchuan, which turned out to be a very small airport but it had the freshest, best-smelling air. I landed in Beijing and bought a bus ticket (16 RMB) to the train station. The bus only took us so far though, so I took my first pedicab ride the rest of the way (20 RMB). That was actually kinda cool, so much that I took a video… not sure what the people we passed must’ve thought. Now, bear in mind that this was around 10 pm, but the train gate smelled exactly like the classrooms I teach in, and by that, I mean… urine. Which is slightly more understandable and appropriate given that I teach kindergarteners and the bathrooms are adjacent to the classroom.

Waiting to board a flight can be stressful but it’s nothing compared to boarding a train in Beijing. Over a thousand people are crowded into your gate and they’re all pushing and fighting to get to the front of the line and everywhere you step, there are puddles, which if you’re lucky, are covered by newspaper. And this train, though significantly cheaper (55 RMB) than my bullet train to Beijing, my berth was not a bunk or a seat like my previous train rides. Instead, my berth was a tiny bench I shared with two other people. And that was considered the luxury seat. Other passengers were standing the entire time, sitting on a camp stool, lying on the floor, anything they could do. It was clear I wasn’t going to get any sleep on this red eye. Luckily, I met a very friendly old married couple who I struggled to chat with throughout. Finally, we reached Xingtai at 3 am. I disembarked and was shocked to find that even at 3 am, the train station was as crowded as it would be at any normal time of day. And looking American like I do, I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of overeager taxi drivers, anxious to be the one to take me home, like the prettiest girl at the dance. When I announced my destination, I was taken by the hand by two fellow passengers to a cab waiting nearby. I had no idea what was happening. My mind jumped to that timeless conclusion: I was either about to be kidnapped or scammed into paying for everyone. Turns out, these two people lived near my apartment and thought we could split the cab. I finally, finally reach home and my apartment welcomes me with no working electricity. I guess I’ll have to visit State Grid tomorrow and deposit more money into my electric card. Still, even that couldn’t shake me of this feeling: I was glad to be back in my own apartment – no matter how much it paled in comparison to my hotel room – because I had a bed, food, water, disposable income, and  hopefully very soon, electricity.

You may notice that this post is titled after the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I guess it’s almost poetic, given the chaotic, often unlucky, nature of my trip. It’s like I’m Steve Martin and everything that went wrong is John Candy. But I don’t want to hurt John Candy’s feelings. Yes, I’m still happy I got to see a slice of Hong Kong and yes, I’m thankful for the travel experience, so not a completely wasted trip, but anybody would admit, kind of disappointing right? …And did I mention expensive?

It's like I'm Steve Martin and everyone who works for the transportation industry is John Candy, only less affable.

It’s like I’m Steve Martin and this whole trip was John Candy, only less affable.

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