Finally Leaving Beijing

By Jane Mountain | October 16, 2013

6,491 km so far.

Yesterday, after much discussion and many phone calls, we booked our train tickets. According to the baggage office at the train station, we could only take our bikes by checking them in as baggage on the baggage car. This was no surprise as we’d read accounts of other cyclists doing the same.

However, they also said the only train we could take them on was the 6:56pm train which didn’t get to Taiyuan until 12:15am. Not an ideal time to arrive in a new city. Since our only other option was to send the bikes and not see them until three days later, we booked the 6:56 train.

Morning Prayers

We had a little time to kill this morning, so we got a lot of work done and then at check-out time, headed out to the local bike shop to get our pedals tightened.

The local bike shop here consists of a man on the corner with a toolbox, a rudimentary bike stand, and a pump. Using our translation app and many hand gestures, we asked him to tighten our pedals, which he did, though not really to Stephen’s satisfaction.

The local bike shop is a man on the corner with some tools.

The local bike shop is a man on the corner with some tools.

He waved away money, but Stephen gave him ¥5 as a gesture of thanks.

Stephen’s note: I wish he had used a longer spanner, with more torque, but we’ll see if one of the annoying pedal clicks returns when we start riding properly. Hopefully these bike “shops” will exist in other cities in case we need them tightened again.

That accomplished, we walked over to the local Buddhist temple, Guangji. It is the headquarters of The Buddhist Association of China, was originally built in the 1100s, and houses some beautiful pieces.

When we arrived, it was lunchtime, and people were being served free bowls of noodle soup at the gates of the temple. The soup made our stomachs grumble, but we didn’t think it would be seemly to get in line for a bowl. Instead, we made sure to drop some money in one of the donation boxes to help fund the good works being done here.

This temple is much more peaceful than the touristy Lama Temple we visited yesterday. Here, almost everyone has come to pay their respects to Buddha and pray, rather than to be tourists checking off a Don’t Miss from their guide book.

Take Our Bikes, Please

After lunch, we cycled over to the train station. The roads are madly busy in Beijing but every single large street has a dedicated bike lane as wide as a car lane. This is necessary because the bike lane is often used by scooters, three-wheeled carts, pedestrians, cars, and buses. It sounds mad, but it actually makes for much easier riding than say, in LA, where there is no space for bikes and no one is aware of cyclists.

Four hours before our departure time, we arrived at the station.

Beijing West railway station is a huge, confusing place.

Beijing West railway station is a huge, confusing place.

From the blogs I’d read, I expected this to be an easy transaction which would have us on our way in no time.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Stephen’s note: It was entertaining, but not ha ha entertaining.

The first hurdle was to find the baggage office. The station was absolutely massive, about twice the size of Kings’ Cross – maybe larger. There were a few signs in English, but the one pointing to the baggage office led us nowhere. I asked for help at the info desk, and the friendly young man who spoke no English took me to an English-speaking ticket cashier. When I asked her where to go, it seemed like she didn’t know and she just said “I can’t help. Go upstairs.”

When I shrugged my shoulders at the info guy, he grabbed two men walking by who also spoke a bit of English. They made some enquiries and then said to follow them. We walked all the way alongside the huge station and finally came to a big archway with a sign saying Baggage Office. Just as we were about to go in, another man asked if he could help and then said something to our guys and pointed us across the street.

So, across the street the four of us went.

In Beijing, the main streets are more like freeways. We crossed six lanes of busy traffic in the middle of the block, with buses, taxis, and cars all vying for space. The guys we were following just held out their hands and traffic stopped for us.

It was magical.

Let’s take a break from this tale of traffic and adventure for some pictures of knockers.

door knockers beijing china

Fish knockers, Beijing.

Having survived crossing the street, we went behind a corrugated construction fence into a dirt lot, empty but for a small shack at the end. This, it turned out, was our destination. We did not like the looks of it one bit, but went along to see if we could figure out what was happening.

Here, through lots of convoluted negotiations using various translation apps, we discovered that they wanted us to pay ¥520 and we could take the bikes onto the train with us. This was an absolute NO for several reasons:

  • We had never heard of this being possible before.
  • Our tickets only cost ¥72, so the price was outrageous.
  • I had visions of us paying the $65 and then getting to the train, only to be told “no bikes allowed”.

Stephen argued, telling them what we’d been told on the phone – that we could send our bikes on our train, for ¥0.8 per KG. Finally, it was decided that we needed to go see the big boss of baggage.

It was back across six lanes of traffic and back to the entrance hall where we’d started this charade an hour ago. We were left waiting while our helpful guides talked to the boss. After a while they came back and led us back to the first baggage office. Once inside, we were relieved. This is what we were expecting. Men in uniforms filling out official-looking papers and taking people’s boxes for transport.

We finally got the bikes ready, the paperwork completed, and assurance that the bikes would be put on the train we were taking and would arrive at the station with us. The payment paid (¥90 for the two bikes, which is more or less what we’d been expecting), we said goodbye to our bikes.

Sadly, this left us with 50 kilograms of luggage to carry around. We loaded all the panniers into our big Chinese carrier bags and lugged it all back to the main station, where we dropped everything off in left luggage.

With only two hours left until our train departed, we just had enough time to go get some food and get back to the station.

Settling In

Later, once past the ticket inspection point, we were again met by the efficient Chinese way of organizing people. Masses of people were funnelling efficiently into various waiting areas for their particular train.

We were relieved we’d decided not to pay the exorbitant fee to bring our bikes with us. We had to go up and down huge escalators and wind our way through hundreds of people. With the huge bags, this was painful, but with bikes it would have been impossible.

We easily found our waiting hall and joined the long line that had formed, despite there still being an hour until our train was to leave.

We assumed this meant that there were not reserved seats, so the earlier you arrived, the more likely you were to get a good spot. We only discovered our mistake after painstakingly stowing our giant bags under some seats and then being told we were in the wrong place. Out came the bags again and down the train car we went until we found our spots. The seats were not bad, but the space was very limited and I kept knocking knees with the man across from me.

Friendly Faces

Finally we got settled and then the train conductor came round to tell us something very important. We had no idea what though, until a girl translated for us:

Be careful with your things, especially mobile phones. Hold onto them, or they could be taken.

OK. The people around us all seemed harmlessly middle class, and they were all already playing games, reading books, and watching movies on their own devices, but we heeded the warning nonetheless.

A little while later, the girl in the seat next to Stephen started talking to us in fluent, if accented, English. Turns out she is studying Chemistry in Edmonton, Alberta (!) and was only home for a while to see her family. She also warned us that the train was dangerous and we should be careful, while simultaneously playing a game on her laptop and checking her cell phone.

It really seemed as though the warnings were just paranoia – as with everywhere we’ve been so far, the train felt far safer than being on a similar train in Western Europe. We wondered if the Chinese “being careful” equates with the Western “behaving normally”. That is, not leaving your cell phone sitting at your seat when you go to the restroom, etc.

The man across from Stephen snacked constantly, opening vacuum-packed hunks of meat and tearing into them with gusto. They did not look or smell the least bit appetising, but he seemed to be enjoying them very much. There was no shortage of snacks on the train, as a different snack cart seemed to come by at 10-minute intervals.

The most popular treat was a giant pot noodle. People would take them to the end of the car where there was a boiling water dispenser and then have a nice hot meal on the train. I kind of wished we hadn’t already eaten so I could have joined in the slurpy fun.

We watched a couple of movies to pass the time and watched the scrum of people come and go as we reached each station. Eventually our Edmontonian friend got off and a cute young couple sat in her seats. The boy had an uber-hip haircut and the girl was dressed in a velour leopard print track suit – not a tacky one, a super-cool one. She was also carrying a 5-foot tall pink stuffed seahorse.

I made an awwww sound when I saw it and they both gave us huge smiles.

An hour or so later, the girl handed Stephen and I each a stick of some sort of food. We couldn’t tell if it was meat or candy. Stephen dug out our “We don’t eat meat” card and showed it to them. The girl laughed and waved her hands in the air while shaking her head. A clear sign that this was not meat.

We thanked her and tore our treats open to discover a tasty roll of fruit leather inside. Yum!

Midnight Baggage

Just after midnight we arrived at Taiyuan station. We’d gotten off right near the baggage car, so I stayed with our bags while Stephen walked down to where workers were unloading the baggage. I could see boxes and bags coming off, but nothing bicycle shaped. I saw Stephen stick his head inside the car and talk to a worker.

Guess what?

Nope, no bikes on this train. The worker in charge indicated we should go over to the baggage office instead.

We found the baggage office easily enough, but it had closed two hours ago. No amount of knocking aroused a response.

I would have been more upset if I’d actually been expecting the bikes to arrive as we’d been told. But after the rigamarole in Beijing, it was no shock to not see our bikes. I’m pretty confident they are inside the office, just waiting for us to come pick them up.

Into The Night, Bikeless

Despite my pessimism, we’d failed to plan what we’d do if we arrived sans bikes. We walked out front and went to the taxi rank, but had no address or hostel name in Chinese. Our hostel is small and out of the way, so we knew the drivers wouldn’t know where it was.

After trying to show them our map, and communicate where we wanted to go using our translation app, we finally had to get the driver to call the hostel. Minutes later we were on our way.

We stopped on a big main street with no sign of where we were to go next, and the driver indicated we should get out. We insisted on phoning the hostel again, and finally we heard a phone ringing in the distance. The ringing got closer and a young man emerged from an alleyway. He dialled a friend of his who spoke English and handed the phone to Stephen. We were quickly assured that we were in the right place with the right person.

The next big hurdle was still to come: paying the taxi driver.

As we had gotten out of the taxi, he’d quoted Stephen ¥80 by showing him the numbers on his phone. We knew this was a serious rip-off, so delayed paying until we could ask the English-speaking friend how much to pay.

On the advice of our phone friend, Stephen handed the taxi driver ¥25. He immediately became irate, yelling in Chinese and gesticulating wildly.

I have a theory that taxi drivers are all frustrated actors, and they only get to practice their dramatics when it comes time to steal money from a tourist.

Our hostel host stepped in, responding to the taxi driver’s fury. As we stood back, a yelling match ensued in which the driver made his case and the hostel guy told him to shove it, while taking a photo of the man’s taxi ID number. Eventually, we, with our host, picked up our bags and walked down the alley he’d emerged from a few minutes earlier.

Later we calculated that ¥25 was probably twice what the metered rate would have been.

After a long walk down the alley into a complex of high-rises, and six floors of stairs, we were let into a clean little hostel that we recognised from the pictures online. Everything is practically brand new and we’re not sure that anyone else is staying here. We are in a 4-bed dorm but on our own for the moment.

The beds are normal bunk beds, but instead of mattresses like we are used to, they have a couple of half-inch mats on top of a plank of plywood. It’s 2am, we have no bikes, and our beds are as hard as rocks, but I think we’ll still sleep well tonight.  

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