When traveling China by rail it’s important to remember one thing which they do not tell you when you buy your train tickets:
Depending on arbitrary enforcement policies, you will need your used tickets to leave the station.
Granted the tickets may say this, but the tickets are in Chinese so it might as well be written in paw prints and coffee stains.
Therefore, when your train arrives at its destination do not leave the tickets on the train or throw them in a trash bin because, as I’ve mentioned, you’ll need them to leave the station. Why? No idea. You’re done with them, but they want them back.
Failure to have your tickets with you will result in significant discomfort, as evidenced by comparing these two scenarios:
1. As you approach the station’s exit you hand your tickets to the guard.
2. He lets you leave.
1. As you approach the station’s exit you don’t hand your tickets to the guard because you don’t have them.
2. He prevents you from leaving the station.
3. You pantomime throwing the tickets away.
4. He shows you a ticket and pantomimes you giving him a ticket.
5. You pantomime throwing a ticket away.
6. Five thousand Chinese people who have their tickets are behind you, eager to exit the station, and are attempting to do just that by pushing their bodies and baggage through you.
7. The guard talks to you in Chinese and pantomimes you giving him a ticket.
8. You shrug your shoulders and point back towards the distant train.
9. He moves you to the side so the rest of the planet can get through.
10. Instead of taking the tickets from the throngs passing by, the guard engages you in a one-sided Chinese conversation which seems to indicate that he expects to receive tickets from you.
11. Meanwhile, hundreds of people filter past the guard without having their tickets collected because he’s engaged in talking to you – making you realize the whole collection process is pointless and arbitrary anyway.
12. The guard summons a station official who approaches and speaks to you in Chinese. She then speaks to the guard in Chinese. The gist of the conversation seems to be They have no tickets, what do we do now? and the answer seems to be Speak to them in Chinese until they understand.
13. Finally the woman indicates you should follow her which you do by forcing yourself, your wife and your baggage upstream against the tide of 5’6″ humanity exiting the station.
14. The woman continues to speak to you in Chinese (a type of excited mumbling) while you pantomime having no idea what she’s saying. You point to a train schedule to indicate the train you were on. She points towards a distant platform.
15. You again pantomime throwing tickets away.
16. A crowd gathers to watch the Increasingly Frustrated Westerner Show.
17. Eventually you ascertain that you are being told to return to your train and un-throw-away your tickets. After much fuss you determine that the woman is telling you the train in question is still on Platform 2.
18. You run against more swarms of arriving passengers, bolt up a ramp and finally arrive on Platform 2, where your train isn’t.
19. A Chinese gentleman appears and indicates his interest in helping you out of your predicament. After much pantomiming and finger-drawing he understands you were on train Z14. He seems to know where it is. You follow him as he runs down the ramp.
20. You find yourself running up the ramp to Platform 5, where the helpful Chinese man determines the Z14 isn’t. You follow him back down the ramp.
21. You run up the ramp to Platform 6 and recognize the train. Helpful Chinese man talks to you in Chinese – about what you have no idea, as your fluency is just as good as it was fifteen minutes ago. You hunt for the car you were in.
22. When you locate your car the helpful Chinese man explains your predicament to the overseer. She brings you into the train. You enter your compartment and notice the trash can has been emptied and the table cleared.
23. The entire cleaning crew gathers to watch The Panicky American Show as the overseer grills them on whether they saw any tickets. Eventually you come to understand that the cleaning staff claims they saw no tickets.
24. You begin to imagine life in a train station and wonder which platform you and your wife will make your new home in.
25. You frantically rifle through the room explaining that the tickets are gone – and that it doesn’t matter anyway since the guard let hundreds pass through without showing their tickets anyway. No one understands you, and instead enjoys watching you in silence.
26. All hope is lost. Then you discover the tickets in your camera bag.
27. You smack the back of your head to indicate you are a moron. Physical humor works much better than satire in the P.R.C. and they laugh at you. You apologize profusely. Lots of bowing. You back out of the train saying “When will we Germans ever learn? What’s wrong with us Germans? Must we Germans be so silly? Deutschland! Deutschland!”
28. Outside the train the helpful Chinese man indicates he expects to be paid for his services. This is done by rubbing the thumb against the index and middle fingers in the universal money gesture, then tapping those same fingers to the lips, as if eating the money. You roll your eyes and offer 10 RNB. He speaks his first English: “Fifty,” he says. You swear at him, give him 40 and run away.
29. You run all the way back to the exit where your wife has been patiently waiting her fate under the gaze of amused passengers and security personnel.
30. She asks you where the tickets were and you parse your words like Bill Clinton so as not to appear guilty: “I found them in the room” is technically true.
31. You hand the tickets to the guard and he scrutinizes them, obviously looking for a fight. He finally waves you on.
32. You leave the station, bravely cursing at the guard in English.
33. While waiting for a taxi and being touched by aggressive, filthy beggars you come clean to your wife about where the tickets were. You hear “Don’t talk to me” for approximately 90 minutes.