Pass the lemonade, please.
It was tomb sweeping day in China, a national holiday where Chinese spend their time outside, honoring their loved ones who have past by tending to their graves. My roommate, De, and I decided to take advantage of our day off by spending it in Nanjing. Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking, was the ancient capital of China before the capital was moved to Beijing in 1949 by the Communist Party of China. It is a beautiful and vibrant city, and is well known for its struggle against Japan in 1937 during the crisis renowned as, 'The Rape of Nanking', or 'The Nanking Massacre'. Although the exact numbers are disputed, especially among Chinese historians and Japanese historians and nationalists, the death toll is estimated by the Chinese at 300,000 casualties.
Waking up at 7:30, De and I got ready and set off for the train station on the number 10 bus. We hadn't purchased our train tickets yet, despite being advised to pre-buy by everyone we asked, so our first stop was the ticket teller. As it is a holiday, the train station was already very crowded by migrant workers heading home to see their families. This being the case, the lines were long and people were more pushy than usual. We joined a queue and waited patiently, practicing, in Chinese, what we were going to say once it was our turn. The wait was surpassingly short and in only a matter of ten minutes, we were passing through train station security and ready to board.
After an hour of scenic countryside, we arrived in Nanjing. Not sure where we were or where we were going, we couldn't exactly tell a taxi where to take us, besides, the drivers were trying to charge and obscene 80 rmb. Instead we ventured down to the subway station to try our luck. Nothing was in English, and it was rather crowded, but we were not to be deterred. Feeling confident that between the two of us, our Chinese skills and intuition would lead us to a solution. We were directed by a kind security man who gave us a map of the subway system. The map was written entirely in Chinese characters. We told him we wanted to go somewhere where we could shop and sightsee. He circled a umber of places and then pointed at the ticket machine. We purchased tickets by matching the circled characters on the map to those on the screen. It was only when our tickets were dispensed to us that we saw the option for 'English'. Apart from that, and the fact that De tried to swipe her paper ticket on the magnetic strip to pass into the subway system, we were feeling very proud of ourselves.
We rode the subway for a number of stops and departed at the intersection of the two major lines, assuming this was a good central location. Our assumptions were confirmed when we came up onto the street and found ourselves in the city's central plaza. We shared an elated high-five and set off into Nanjing.
Nanjing is exciting and vibrant. There is less dust in the air than in Hefei, and the climate was slightly warmer. The sidewalks are slightly more crowded, but we never felt overwhelmed by people. There is much more Western influence in Nanjing and I decided we could have easily played some kind of drinking game with the amount of KFCs, McDonald's and Starbucks' we encountered. We ate dinner in the center of the plaza and discovered an underground shopping world. It was clothing heaven!
When we finally arrived back to the train station, we were horrified to learn that the last bullet train left at 20:00 which had passed 30 minutes earlier. This was a major problem, as we both had classes at 8:30 in the morning the following day. Trying to maintain composure, knowing panicking would not rectify the situation, I suggested that we go downstairs to Starbucks to brainstorm our next option. I looked at the schedule for the overnight train and we found that there was a 3:45 train to Hefei. We decided to take the subway to the overnight train station, buy the 3:45 tickets and spend the next five hours in the night district of Nanjing. Luckily, this was easy as Nanjing is very well known for it's popular night life scene. We ended up having a fantastic time, meeting other ExPats who happened to co-own the bar we were in and were very fun, kind and generous people. We spent the rest of the evening chatting and toasting (I got to toast with water because I was too paranoid about missing the train again to drink) and at 2:30 in the early morning, we returned to the station.
After a long, eventful day, De and I settled down into our seats on the train. This was my first time on the overnight train, or as we refer to it, the 'slow' train, and it exceeded all of my prior expectations. The bullet train and the slow train are worlds apart. What I had always envisioned the slow train to be was simply an older, more worn down, slower version of the bullet train which is sleek, clean, efficient and timely. What we boarded was a filthy old train one loose bolt away from falling apart, carrying passengers of all sorts. They were all sprawled out across seats, passed out on fold-down tables, playing cards, practicing magic tricks, picking their noses, spitting, talking on cell phones and listening to iPods. Food and trash littered the tables and floor and I couldn't help but imagine what horrific, disease-ridden creatures were embedded in the seat cushion I hesitantly sat down on after first having to wake-up the man that was already sleeping there with his feet propped up. It took a while before my nose became accustomed to the pestilent odor of sweat, smoke, ramen noodles, dirt, piss, feces and arm pit that filled the passenger car.
De and I had decided to fall asleep in shifts so that 1.) we weren't pick-pocketed and 2.) we didn't sleep through the Hefei stop and end up lost in and unknown city. I took the first waking shift and managed to get some reading and writing done. Two and a half hours later, the sun was peeking above the horizon and our train was slowing to a stop at the Hefei station. We were finally home. We snagged a taxi back to the apartment where we were able to sneak in a quick two hour nap before our classes.
Next week: Our big Beijing adventure!