Happy New Year of the Rooster everybody!
After a delay processing my visa landed us Hong Kong (one of the most expensive cities in the world) for ten days instead of the originally planned three, we were relieved when finally my passport was back in my grasp and we could get back to cheap as chips, Mainland China. The room we stayed in in Hong Kong was no more than four foot wide, my partner in crime could touch either wall at the same time with his arms spread, and at 6″3, his oversized feet poked the bathroom door as he lay in the bed rammed against the wall. Very glamorous indeed.
It was from this cosy room that we learned every conceivable route home by train was SOLD OUT. No soft or hard beds, no soft or hard seats and no standing tickets. Every train had already been rammed to the gills with people eager to get home to bring in the Lunar New Year with their families- and we were stranded. I had suspected such a catastrophe, as it’s no secret that travelling during Chinese New Year is nothing short of nonsense. This year, there are 2.98 BILLION trips expected to take place in China during this one week period- like stuffing as many grapes as possible in your mouth just to see how many will fit.
During Chinese New Year, I am a grape. And your mouth is the train. And everyone else is a grape. Some of these grapes are less comfortable to be stuffed next to then others. Some of these grapes spit, some of them push, and some of them are damn right loud in the ears of other grapes. And imagine how one of the grapes may feel, if for example, he was the only green grape, in a sea of red grapes, and all the red grapes were looking at him because of his strange green skin.
After woofing to my recruiter about the trains being sold out, she suggested the bus, a little too happily I might add- said bus was a gruelling thirteen hours. The next day we found ourselves at the bus station, elbowing our way through the mass of people, lovingly guarding their boxes, backpacks, wheely suitcases and a popular choice to carry belongings cross country in China…potato sacks.
We managed to secure two tickets on the 5pm bus. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
As 5pm approached the outside of the bus station became more cosy, as people wedged themselves and their belongings into the remaining available spaces on the pavement. The six security guards at the entrance of the train station were continuously turning people away, saying on a loop “no space inside, don’t block the entrance”.
Clueless bodies littered the pavement, anxiously waiting for their bus to be called. Two minutes before our bus was due to leave, we heard our destination name announced. But instead of asking the passengers to come forward, we were told the bus was delayed. For three hours.
After checking into a room four for hours (for just ten euro)-napping and showering-we reluctantly battled through the crowds, this time making it inside the station, which was as equally cluttered as the pavement.
As we stood amidst the herd of travellers, many eyes fell in our direction. One particular couple couldn’t manage to look at anything else, which makes for quite an uncomfortable wait. After exchanging several comments about us whilst not removing their gaze, finally the male of the couple approached us.
He was a squirmy young man, short and thin and roughly in his early twenties. First, he made like he was walking past us, squeezing his way between the two of us, looking awkwardly, and then looping back to walk past us again. As he passed back I raised my eyebrows impatiently, which he saw as his moment to shine. He asked nervously in Chinese “Are you… American?”
“No.” I replied bluntly, then thinking it wasn’t this weasely-faced chap’s fault I wasn’t having the best day, I added, “We’re Irish.” His face was blank. “Europe.” He let out a small unidentifiable sound, nodded nervously and scampered back to his counterpart.
This did not deter their staring. As he regaled the events to his companion, less than twenty feet away, they both looked excitedly in our direction. I turned to face the other direction and focus on something else. Ten minutes or so passed (during which time there a brief power-cut, plunging every one of us into complete darkness for several minutes) when…
He was back. Squirmier still than his first encounter, he spluttered and stammered, muttering to himself “em…How to say…” This was in Chinese, the man’s first (or second if you count dialect) language. We waited patiently, not daring to look at each other in case a chuckle escaped. Finally, he approached my soon to be spouse and asked nervously, “Is she your…your girlfriend?” After some assistance translating the Squirm’s thick accent, Craig answered in his freshly learned Chinese “Yes, my girlfriend”.
The Squirm blushed. “We think she is very…beautiful…can I take a photo with her please?”
Ah lads. The frequency of requests to take a photo with a foreigner is high in China and gets tiring at the best of times, but while waiting on a train that will never come when I’m in clothes that remarkably resemble my pyjamas, I was less than enthused about this particular request.
“3…2…1…” Craig enthusiastically snapped a photo or two on the Squirm’s phone, during which he uttered exasperatedly “好尴尬。。” … “How awkward..”
You said it dude.
Shortly afterwards, we boarded the bus. Thankfully the Squirm and his missus were heading a different direction. No sooner than they’d sat down, the other passengers cracked open their large packets of sunflower seeds and lit up cigarettes.
The 5pm bus finally set off at 9pm and just after midday the following day,we pulled up somewhere that was not the stop we had paid for… Everybody clambered off the bus and it soon became clear- we were another hour from home. We grabbed the nearest taxi with two fellow passengers and just when I felt I may have a tiredness induced meltdown when everyone’s luggage wouldn’t fit, the taxi driver whipped out some trusty rope for just such an occasion…