A Hard Morning for Hard Seats

Kunming, September 14 2010

The night before, my friends agreed to be at the lobby by 8:00 AM today. As I had to buy 2 more train tickets for Kunming - Chengdu for the next day, I decided to be up an hour earlier and head to the station which according to the website was only 5 minutes walk from Kingworld International Hotel, and that's the reason of choosing this hotel.

Let me tell you first about the train tickets. I had been searching everywhere through the internet for travel agencies that sold train tickets. Most of them charged a remarkable fee for each ticket. On top of that, there's the delivery fee, which is also charged on the number of tickets. In total, the amount to be paid to the travel agency was double the actual ticket fare. At that point I hadn't known that some of my friends would be questioning why the price they are paying is much more than the fare written on their ticket. However, I did try my best to get the best price. I have explained it to them, but it seems that some of them still doesn't trust me. Hah, I think I must get used to being assumed a travel agent myself because of the trips I make and worse, assumed that I'm making profit through the trips. Hah, why do you only assume, guess, and feel? Hah, forget about that. Back to the train ticket story.

Eventually I found a travel agent that offered the lowest price for the tickets. It wasn't cheap, but lowest, compared to the other travel agents that I had contacted. My friends agreed to get hard sleepers. We understood that hard sleepers are arranged 6 by 6 berth in one cabin. Since there were 8 of us, the other 2 of us should sleep in another cabin. That would mean sleeping together with 4 strangers in 1 cabin. Moreover, I actually preferred to just take a soft seat. I considered buying a sleeper's ticket a waste of money. I don't need to lay flat in order to fall asleep.

I gave my friends the options whether to:
  1. sleep 4 by 4 in 2 cabins of soft sleepers, or
  2. 6 in 1 cabin on hard sleepers, and 2 on hard sleepers in another cabin with 4 other strangers, or
  3. 6 in 1 cabin on hard sleepers, and 2 on soft seats
I said that if the majority choice turned out to be number 1, I'll give up my choice of soft seat and go together with them on soft sleepers so no one would have to share a cabin with a stranger.

If you vote for number 2, I said to my friends, I'll also give up my choice of soft seat, but I don't want to be 1 of the 2 who has to share a cabin with 4 other strangers.

I"ll be very happy if you vote for number 3, I said. But, there has to be somebody else willing to sleep on a seat also.

Yudi called me and said that he was willing to take the soft seat. Great!

Unfortunately, the travel agent that had offered me the lowest price, didn't want to book soft seat tickets for me. She only served hard and soft sleeper tickets. She told me that I could easily book the tickets at the station.

I didn't want to risk not having enough tickets for us all on D-day, so I decided to book the 6 hard sleeper tickets with this travel agent called Melissa. I thought, in case I don't get the other 2 soft seat tickets, the 2 of us at least still can share some space in the cabin with the other 6.

So that's how I headed to Kunming Railway Station this morning on September 14 2010. "I'm going with you," Dina said.

The morning weather in Kunming felt almost like Bandung. I loved the broad and safe pavement blocks for pedestrians. The street appeared to be in full energy already that morning. I had no idea how a train station in China would look like. Who knows it might be like the bus terminal last night which didn't look like a bus terminal at all. I was ready to be surprised again.

The kind-English-speaking-lady at the front desk just now told me to just walk straight. But, I started to wonder, how straight? I stopped by at a police box by the cross road. In Japan, a policeman is the first to seek for help and information. I thought it was so in China. However, this Chinese policeman just shook his head. I pronounced "station" carefully and again he shook his head while caring less.

I and Dina continued to walk straight. At the end there was a huge building. I looked at the characters written above. None resembled the kanji character of "station" which I knew in Japanese. But, if we still have to go straight, it means that we have to enter this building. I saw people dragging travel bags. This must be right.

True. It was the station. It was really a big place. I searched for a tourist information box. That's what I always did when I was in Japan. I got it!

"Excuse me," I said. "I want to book train tickets for Chengdu. Where should I go?"

The lady behind the glass just looked at me and shook her head like the policeman in the police box just now.

"You don't speak English?" I asked.

She shook her head again.

That's rather funny for me. On top it's written in English "Tourist Information". But, the tourist who reads this "Tourist Information" and needs information cannot have any information in English. Why don't you just write it in Chinese characters?

Inside the building there was a long row of lockets. So long that even my Tokina 11-16 mm wouldn't be able to capture them all. I knew the Chinese character for Chengdu, but still hadn't the slightest idea where to queue in.

At behind was a man in uniform behind a table that's like a bar table. We came to him and asked. Dina used her little Chinese. This time he did not shook his head but just formed his fingers into a "V". Dina said that he's telling us to go to ticket box number 2. We went there, but it was closed.

I searched for any Western looking guy. I thought if there were any tourist who had been in China rather long, he or she might know where I could book tickets for Chengdu. But everybody in this vast hall all looked Mongolian, just like me and Dina.

"If only there is a Japanese here," I said to Dina. Hmmm, thanks that Dina came along. At least I had someone to talk to in this neverland. "But how can we differentiate between a Chinese and a Japanese? Should I ask these people one by one? Sumimasen. Nihonjin desu ka?" Dina laughed.

Dad used to say that a Japanese can be recognized by the way they walk. Well, in such a crowd, everyone seems to move the same way. Suddenly my eyes spotted a tall Western couple with big backpacks. They must be tourists!

I ran to them like a child who got lost in a crowd and just found her parents. "Excuse me!" I think I almost jumped up and down. "I want to book tickets for Chengdu. Do you know to which locket I should go?"

This tall couple looked down at me just like looking at a desperate little child. "We ourselves want to buy tickets for ... (I forget the place he mentioned.) and still don't know where to go."

"Oh, so you don't know either," I replied. I was disappointed and happy at the same time. Yay! I'm not alone in this crowd. There's also somebody else like me! Confused! Yay!

"We plan to leave now and we still don't know where we can buy the tickets," said the guy.

"Wow, that's worse," I said. The tickets I want to buy are for tomorrow. I hope you'll get yours soon. It's really tough here when you can't speak Chinese. Do you speak Chinese?"

"No, we don't," said the guy again. "But we don't look like one who can speak the language. You do!"

"Think hard, think hard!" I said to myself. "We must move to Chengdu tomorrow. The pandas are waiting there!"

"Why don't you ask Melissa, the travel agent, how to book the tickets?" Dina suggested.

Luckily besides a list of hotel addresses, I kept a list of travel agents' contact numbers in my bag. Truly speaking, I was a bit reluctant to make a call to Melissa, because it would surely cost me quite a sum of money using this Indonesian cell phone number. I had already made international calls on first night in Vietnam when the train tickets weren't delivered yet and my Vietnamese cell phone number wasn't working yet. Oh, and not now again... But what's the option anyway?

I texted Melissa. No reply came. So I made the call, at last.

Melissa told me to go to ticket box number 2. I told her we had gone there already but it was closed. So Melissa told me to find someone at the station she could speak to over the phone. I went back to the man in uniform behind the table at the back. He moved back when I tried to explain and handed my cellphone to him. In her broken Chinese, Dina pleaded him. He took my cell phone but soon after returned it back to me and said nothing. I looked at the screen, the line was off.

Hah! So once again I had made an international call for nothing!

A message from Melissa: Plz look for another one, he don't have patience.

I tried to explain  to Melissa that making a call for me means making an international call which means it would cost me quite a lot. Instead of paying for the call, it would be more worth it if she booked the 2 tickets for me and I pay extra fee for her. In short, I'd better give my money to her than to the telephone company.

Melissa's reply was a phrase in Chinese characters which she told me to show it to someone. Suddenly I realized that box ticket number 2 was opened. "Dina! It's opened!"

"Excuse me," I said excitedly to the lady behind the glass while holding my cell phone. "I want to book tickets."

You know what? She looked at me and retrieved inside! She began to chat with her colleague. I kept standing there behind the glass and they must have noticed that there's a foreign creature standing outside. But they didn't mind me at all!

I tapped on the glass. She turned her head. I pointed to my cell phone which I sticked on the glass. She didn't move.

"I cannot speak Chinese. I want to buy tickets. Can you read this please?" I begged. I hate to beg people, actually.

Now she came forward to the glass. She looked at the screen of my cell phone through the glass. And then, "Kunming Chengdu tomorrow K114," I heard.

What?? She can speak English very well! Why didn't she answer me when I said 'excuse me'? What did she think I was doing here behind the glass? Admiring her beautiful face?

I heard again, "There are hard seats."

"No, I want soft seats," I replied.

"No soft seats."

"You mean there aren't soft seats?"

"Yes. Only hard seats."

Well, it might be not so much different, I thought. I was just too happy that I was getting our tickets.

"Okay, hard seats. That's fine," I told her.

"Do you know whether those are the right tickets?" Dina asked.

Good question! Thanks to my knowledge of Japanese. I could guess the characters on the ticket and compare them with the other 6 hard sleeper tickets I already had. Looks correct.

I half ran to the station's yard and almost danced there. Yay! "Dina, please take my picture here. This moment of achievement has to be celebrated!"

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