“It’s my life for the next 24 hours, so I have to get everything just right.”
That is what Bill said when his fidgeting was driving me nuts as we sat in our cabin waiting for the train to depart Beijing.
For travelers following in our footsteps, when the taxi drops you at the Beijing West Railway Station for the T97 train to Kowloon-Hong Kong Hung Hom Station, you must go down the stairs located at the far right-side facing the terminal. The sign says Immigration Checking or something like that. There is an Immigration line on the top level, but the train to Hong Kong is checked at the lower level. NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. You are supposed to arrive there no later than 90 minutes before scheduled departure. We arrived 2 hours before departure and went through the baggage screening on the lower level and found seats inside the tiny waiting area outside Customs. About 80 minutes before scheduled departure, the Customs officers appeared and let us pass through. Immigration clearance out of China was next. From there you go directly to the train. There is no departure waiting lounge as in Hong Kong or in Shanghai train stations.
So be forewarned, buy your bottles of water and whatever you plan to eat and drink for the next 25 hours BEFORE you get to the Beijing West Railway Station. Note: this is NOT the same station where you arrive on the train from Shanghai. There are no shops and nothing to buy at this station.
We had brought a very small loaf of bread and ½ jar peanut butter, granola bars, hot cocoa mixes and 1 packet of instant tomato soup. Of course, once on the train we didn’t want any of that. A woman came through the train cars selling hot meals and we bought 1 chicken and 1 ‘pig.” Meals cost 18 RMB each. The ‘pig’ was very spicy, so I ate that. Bill ate the chicken, but it was full of tiny pieces of bones. The vegetables were just cabbage, and that was okay. At least the rice was safe to eat. I would not recommend the train food; better to bring your own. Later Bill wandered to the last train car and found the dining car where they sell the same meals and a limited quantity of other things. He bought a small can of mixed nuts and some playing cards. He also found that they do sell bottles of drinking water in the dining car. Not certain that there are enough bottles for the entire trainload of passengers for 25 hours, but there were bottles of water for sale at the beginning of this trip.
The hotel had purchased these train tickets for us, for a service charge of 15%. Worth every bit of that for the convenience of having the tickets at the hotel instead of us having to search out the Beijing West train station days earlier and try to buy our own tickets……which, after seeing this station, we know would never have happened since no one at the station spoke English. The only problem (if you can consider it a problem) was that we requested Deluxe Soft Sleeper accommodations so that we could have a private western style toilet. Instead the hotel purchased regular Soft Sleeper tickets, which means 4 berths to each cabin and shared toilets at the end of each train car.
Luckily, this train was not filled to capacity as have been the other trains we have ridden in China. About 2/3 of the cabins in our car were occupied, and only a few of those were occupied by 4 persons. We had the whole cabin to ourselves. So in our case on this particular train, the only difference between the regular Soft Sleeper accommodations and the Deluxe Soft Sleeper accommodations was that we had to use a communal toilet. And, most important of all, there was one western-style toilet at one end of our train car and an Asian squat toilet at the other end. GREAT!! The 5 westerners in this car could use the regular toilet and all the Chinese could use that nasty squat thing. Most of the Chinese still do not understand western style toilets that one sits upon. They are accustomed to squatting over floor toilets. When they are forced to use western style toilets, quite often they will balance themselves with feet on the toilet seat and squat. We have seen the shoe prints, as well as the resulting filth. They need to print instructions for use in the few public toilet facilities that have 1 or 2 normal sit-down toilets.
Later…..the train has been underway for 6 hours. So much for seeing the countryside of China as we had hoped. It is raining and very foggy. Visibility is limited to about 300 yards from the train, so we aren’t seeing much. This part of China looks nothing like I expected China to be. It is flat like most of Texas.
There was one more random thought that I should have included in my previous posting. We are told that it is not possible to write Chinese characters with your left hand. People who are left-handed must learn how to write with their right hands. One girl we met said she uses her left hand for chopsticks and everything else, but she must use her right hand to write in Chinese. I could understand that when using the old quill pens or maybe even fountain pens. But why should that be true when using a ball point pen or sharp pencil. But several people insisted that it is impossible to write in Chinese with a left hand.
The train cabins have an electrical outlet. This allows us to use the laptop the whole time we are underway. An bonus benefit is that we can watch DVDs for hours to alleviate the boredom. I picked up a couple of books from the hotel so we would have something to read on this trip. But the one I got for Bill to read is by a British author and Bill can’t stand the style of writing. So, movies it is. One of the many DVDs we bought in Shanghai are 6 seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ and the first 6 episodes of the HBO series ‘Pacific’ so those should keep us occupied until we reach Hong Kong tomorrow afternoon.
In the evening we walked to the dining car at the rear of the train. Bill found beer. I found Pepsi. They had an actual menu with pictures and we ordered what turned out to be eggs with spring onion and ham bits cooked like a frittata. It was surprisingly good. Cost 35 RMB as best I recall, so not expensive for captive audience dining.
Thursday morning…..about 10:00 the train briefly stopped in Guangzhou. I finally figured out why the through trains make occasional stops. It is to have the toilet holding tanks pumped out. Maybe they take on additional water too. The only truck I saw was the pump out truck.
It is still raining and very gray with limited visibility. But the terrain within view is now more like I expected to see in China….lots of hills, wide rivers and terraced gardens and rice paddies. We passed through several small ancient villages, but most of the buildings in most of the towns are now built like tall boxes. Architecture is not appealing but functional. The farther south we traveled, the larger the towns or cities, still with huge areas of vegetable fields.
The train staff follow a routine that we don’t understand. The same routine was followed on each of the 3 trains we have ridden in China. Either at boarding or shortly after boarding, an attendant takes your paper ticket and gives you a rigid plastic card. We have yet to figure out what we are supposed to do with this plastic card. Shortly before arriving at your destination, the attendant returns and retrieves the plastic card and returns your paper ticket. We have no idea why they do this.
Bill got bored this morning. I didn’t want to watch any more DVDs and Bill didn’t want to read that British book. So he played with the computer and learned how to edit videos and add music and captions. That can be his job in the future because I have no interest in learning this skill. We returned to the dining car for another frittata shortly before noon. While there I shot a short video of the dining car before the waitress walked by and told me sternly, “No photo!” The reason of why they did not want photos taken in the almost empty dining car escapes me. But I complied and put away the camera.
We arrived at Hung Hom station in Kowloon precisely on scheduled time. We cleared into Hong Kong; found the ticket machine and bought tickets on the MRT subway to the Austin station; and were on our way within minutes. The Austin subway station is a few blocks from the China Ferry Terminal. Our tickets to Macau were for the 17:00 ferry, but we changed to the 15:00 ferry. Bill found a half-dozen polo shirts on sale in the mall in the lower level of the terminal building, and the shop accepted RMB. Somehow we had ended up with quite a surplus of Chinese yuan (RMB). Then he found a money changer to convert our remaining Chinese RMB to Singapore dollars. We already had a surplus of Hong Kong dollars left over from our stay here a few weeks ago, and Macau uses HKD so we were set for the next destination.
We had Deluxe seating on the ferry for the 40 mile trip to Macau. Imagine our surprise when they presented us with a choice of sandwich and drink or cake and drink as a snack during the 1-hour ride to Macau. Almost like airlines of yesteryear. The ferry ride was smooth, although the day was rainy. The weather was much clearer in Macau than in Hong Kong.
We checked into the Beverly Plaza Hotel and I was royally annoyed when the clerk tried to make us pay an additional 300 HKD for the room we had already paid for. Bill handled the clerk by simply saying over and over again that he would not accept the clerk’s decision. Finally Bill won that argument and we got our room. Bill wanted either a hamburger or a steak for dinner, and none of the restaurants nearby offered either of those. So we walked almost a mile to the nearest McDonald’s for hamburgers. Tomorrow we will find a decent restaurant. We have had enough chicken and rice for awhile.