China Short Stories #2

Zhengzhou_Railway_Square_2006

From all my wild and weird stories from visiting the People’s Republic of China I’ve decided to compile some of the most memorable into a list of short stories. If you want to read all of them, with my other tales from China, please click on the category ‘China Short Stories’ to the right of this page. These are not posted in chronological order.

…continued from China Short Stories #1

We arrived at Zhèngzhōu train station past 10pm, exhausted.  Unlike the luxury of China’s high speed ‘bullet’ trains, the more affordable option is a big kick down in terms of comfort.  Every seat is taken and people without seating tickets stand or sit in whatever room there is left in the carriage, blocking walkways, corridors and sometimes toilets.  This is China, after all.

The trains are much slower too, of course.  This journey alone took approximately 9 hours.

Walking around the train station there were no obvious signs to where this guesthouse was, which was supposed to be located in the train station itself.  And the train station itself?   Lacking so sorely in the wiped-clean-feel the other train stations in Beijing, Shanghai and even Nanjing had, I felt we had taken a step into the real China now, behind the curtain of the tourist friendly China and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned at all.  There was a set of stairs we found in one corner of the station so we decided to follow them up in search of the guesthouse.  A shadowy internet cafe was on the first floor, painted dark red with a man who stared at me blankly when I asked about the guesthouse, whilst pointing towards the Chinese translation.  The stairs to the floor above was guarded by a heavy metal door, this was unlocked so again we went on through and up.

We came to what looked like a shabby reception, a white with grey speckled lino floor, like one you’d find in an old English clinic perhaps, with two lumpy pea green sofas and a wooden reception desk with no-one working.  But wait, as we edged closer to the desk it revealed the sight of a man’s head who was sleeping on the floor behind the desk, cradling a young Chinese boy, who was also asleep.

We knocked on the desk and called to him ‘excuse me, excuse me!’ until he eventually woke up and when he did he did not speak a word of English.  The reservation made back in Nanjing, an attempt so obviously made in vain, fell so flat I almost heard it slap across my travel companion’s face.  When all communication hit language barriers with the receptionist he pulled out a list of Chinese symbols with prices alongside them.  We pointed to one of the cheapest, hoping it was a twin room, which luckily it was when we were led to a room opposite one of the lumpy green sofas.

The room was filthy, with non-matching bed sheets that could have been taken out from a stereotypical hippie squat and a light which dulled the room, which must have been dirty too.  We put our bags down and said our thank you’s (in Chinese) to have the guy from reception linger in our room, longer than what was normal,  just staring at us until my travel companion reached for the door to signal it’s closure, so he left.

I went back out to reception to see if there was any wi-fi and tried asking the same guy, but with no bridge of understanding between our two greatly diverse languages it failed, so he then began to make signals with his hands towards me, appearing to be asking for my picture.  I pretended I didn’t understand and went back to my room.  Mildly freaked out, I sat on my bed, on dirty sheets.  My travel companion left the room to use the shared showers, located in front of the other lumpy green sofa.  He came back in after a few minutes, having not showered with a hint of panic in his eyes.  “Are you okay?”  I asked.

“That guy just signalled to have sex with me.  I’m not joking.”

“What?!”

“Seriously.”

“…Well, what did he do?”

“He kept pointing to me and then our room and signalling sex with his hands, you know when you put your finger through a hole made out of your other hand, like this.  [Did hand signal]  I just said I didn’t understand and walked back in here, a shower can wait.”  He slumped back down on his bed, also dirty.

Silence for a few seconds, until, I thought; “maybe he wasn’t asking to have sex with you but was trying to ask if we were boyfriend and girlfriend?”

“No, it definitely didn’t feel like that.”

Another few seconds passed, “maybe he was trying to ask if you were having sex with me?  He did ask for my picture just now.”

“…hmm…  Maybe then, but it really felt like he was asking me.  It felt wrong.”

I didn’t want to bring down his confidence, maybe somewhere in his mind he may have liked the fact a Chinese man propositioned him for sex, you never know, but I didn’t think it was likely.

(I got plenty of stares from Chinese men whilst in China, I was like the holy grail in their eyes, made of blonde European paleness and at some point in the not-so-distant future I had a different Chinese man use that same sex hand signal towards me on another cramped train.  He only spoke Chinese when he was making this signal, which of course I didn’t understand, but another Chinese man who could speak both English and Chinese told me he was trying to tell me I was sexy.  Looking back on this moment in Zhèngzhōu now, I would guess the man was just trying to say “your wife is very sexy” and not “do you want to have sex with me?“)

After half an hour passed we turned out the light but the room was punctuated with our feelings of being uncomfortable and a little bit scared.  Despite our long and tiring train journey, neither of us felt safe or snug enough to have the ability to drift into sleep.

Then, a few light footsteps out in the hall came and stopped outside our door, the door knob started turning, our door knob, trying to be opened.  The visitor, whoever it was, realised the door to the room we were in, was locked, gave up and lightly walked away again.

“I can’t stay here.”  I said.  This was my breaking point.

In a storm of hurry, we packed and gathered our things whilst simultaneously trying to be as quiet as possible, then creeped out of the room, back into the artificially-lit reception and past past the lumpy green sofas, where the reception guy was at the desk smiling to us as we passed him, looking down at the floor we continued on away from him, and scurried down both flights of stairs and left the train station.

Walking out into the stillness of the dark streets, a Chinese lady pounced on us from out of the darkness, shoving a hotel’s business card in our hands, repeating ‘hotel, hotel‘ and other Chinese words at us, again and again but we didn’t stop walking and as we carried on she followed us, until we walked inside a business hotel, paid for another twin room and tried to catch our breath in the elevator.

The next day Zhèngzhōu was in full force of people, buses, cars, taxis and any other living or mechanical thing was moving in, out and around each other.  It was like an ant farm.  A typical Chinese city day.  “Right, we’re going to Luòyáng.”  I decided and tried to take control in the chaos of the train station we had only fled last night.  I tried to buy a train ticket to Luòyáng, but the female ticket officer shouted at me in Chinese and gave me a ticket for Xi’an.  I rejoined the queue to get shouted at again before giving up and trying the bus station.

We had better luck at the here, buying our tickets from a girl who spoke English and our bus ready to leave in a few minutes.  The journey was an easy 2 hours compared to the train journey and events from last night.  I sat still, zoned out and let the bus take me to Luòyáng, not speaking a word.


China Short Stories #1

From all my wild and weird stories from visiting the People’s Republic of China I’ve decided to compile some of the most memorable into a list of short stories. If you want to read all of them, with my other tales from China, please click on the category ‘China Short Stories’ to the right of this page.  These are not posted in chronological order.

After a heavy night of clubbing in Nanjing, China, where the colour of my fair English skin and blonde hair was my coupon to copious free whiskey and mixers, I was sat opposite my future ex-travel companion planning our next move.

“I want to go to Henan province.  That poster in the train station of that big rock looked amazing.  It’s like you don’t want to travel anywhere, I want to travel and go here and do stuff.”  He said to me.

This wasn’t really what I was trying to communicate to him, I came traveling to travel, sorry to state the obvious but it’s true, I don’t know where he was getting my non-traveling vibe from but unfortunately like many conversations we had in our time together he just didn’t get or wanted to agree with what I was trying to say.  What I was actually trying to tell him was; if he wants to go to Henan province we need to research where to go, where to get the train to, we can’t just turn up and look for a giant rock which looks amazing.

He opened the Lonely Planet guide on China, which we were kindly given by a friendly Israli guy back in Beijing.  The capital of Henan province?  Zhèngzhōu.  We should go there, he said.

He passed the book over to me and I began to read.  Although I can’t remember all of Lonely Planet’s paragraph on the city, its introduction on the website rings a few memory bells: “The provincial capital of Hénán since 1949, Zhèngzhōu is a sprawling mini-metropolis that, despite its ancient history, retains fewer historical anachronisms than some of its neighbouring cities. The quickly modernising town is not unattractive – with clean, wide boulevards lined with numerous upmarket boutiques and shops branching off around the train station – but its role as a major rail transport junction in the region is the real reason it’s the capital city.”  I’ve bolded the parts which spoke to me the most at the time.

“Hmmm…”  I said, then flicked over the page to Luòyáng.  I remember reading something along the lines off: lucious parks sit and serve as Luòyáng’s green lungs, the ancient city’s Old Town lies past Lijing Gate and the Longmen Grottoes, thousands of statues of Buddha carved into the limestone cliff and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies just south of the city.  The famous Shaolin temple was not too far from here either!

“It looks like Zhèngzhōu is just a transport hub and Luòyáng has more things to see and do there, maybe we should get the train straight to Luòyáng?”  I passed the book back, but not to a very pleased listener.

“But it’s the capital of the province.  It can’t just have no-thing there.”  The unmovable moan of his voice, I was becoming familiar to it, I know when I hear it arguing against him would do me no justice and only raise his thick barrier of not taking any other suggestion into consideration.  Full-stop.

And despite discovering no hostels for Zhèngzhōu on either Hostelworld or Hostelbookers and only one guesthouse or an expensive hotel listed in the Lonely Planet I still felt his barrier getting taller and greater.  There was a phone number for the small guesthouse which was actually located in the train station, so he got up and asked some Chinese guys sitting at reception next to us, one of them called the number and might have made us some sort of reseveration.  There was no escape.

  “Alright, let’s book our ticket to Zhèngzhōu tomorrow then.”  I said. 

To be continued…

Read China Short Stories #2