China Train Incident

I owed Molly a good trip.

The last time she turned her health and happiness over to me did not go well.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how unlikely that was.  If you owe someone a good time¸ you don’t go to a place where hundreds of dead pigs had recently been found dumped into a major river or where reports of restaurants being sold meat from the 1970s barely makes news. The only reason I was excited was because Molly was (sort of) excited.  Even in a day and age where you can hop on a plane, pop some pills and end up anywhere, going to China still felt improbable and futuristic.  Kevin seemed indifferent, as I sort of forced him to come along. 

The saving grace was that my sister Morgan would be at our side at the airport before we could say orange chicken.  She had spent the last five months studying in Shanghai, and now that she was done, we were going to visit and ease her transition back to a place where freedom is real, clean air is abundant and Facebook is legal: America.

But Shanghai turned out to be a lovely place.  Morgan knew her way around like a (blonde) local and impressed us with her Mandarin.  I think of Morgan as a modern Grace Kelly, making all of America appear beautifully tolerant and humble in a country that can frustrate, confuse and overwhelm. When people approached her to take her picture (constant), especially little girls, she would graciously take a selfie, utter a few phrases in Chinese (much to their surprise) and continue on her way.  If asked nicely (rare), she’d even on occasion tolerate a picture with a sweaty Asian man wearing a fanny pack.

But being stopped on every street can be tiring, and when people got too close she had no problem telling them off.  After five months, Morgan considered nearly all of China’s 1.8 billion residents skating on thin ice.

As we were walking on the streets, a man came out of nowhere and started snapping away with his iPhone. That was all it took to spark (what we believe was) a profanity-laced tirade from Morgan.  No need for Chinese subtitles:

丁香#$#@$/”;\*(*+@女人!*! @$&*:\!$#女人女人#@&+*/-@—@%$=,” she cursed him out, picked up her pace to shake the guy and motioned for us to follow.

Whatever she barked had the man stunned silent. All he could muster was “Whoa, good Chinese” in English.  He stopped walking and just stared at us, puzzled.

Kevin, Molly and I were equally stunned, but just followed Morgan’s lead and kept walking.  I could tell she dealt with this a lot because she couldn’t understand why Molly, Kevin and I couldn’t stop laughing.  

It was also strange to me to observe what a ruthless bargainer Morgan had become in China, which she proved when she took us to the underground counterfeit goods market.  I was searching for some cheap rhinestones because I wanted to bedazzle my phone with the ultimate tween Asian accessory.  Morgan enjoyed lots of success purchasing Coach bags and RayBans for next to nothing, but the rhinestone vendor was giving her a tough time.  When he wouldn’t go any lower than $2 (perfectly reasonable by consumer standards), Morgan dragged me away, blocking my transaction.

“Just start walking, he’ll run after us and sell them to you,” she said to me.  “We just got $600 worth of Rosetta Stone programs for $5 each. Do the math.”

But nothing adds up in China.  Even after being there I can do little to explain the place.  Like why more than 60 drivers in a taxi queue refused to drive us to our hotel, or why the McDonald’s was only playing Christmas music in May, or why people liked to sneak into our pictures:

The biggest issue, however, was almost certainly preventable. We learned the hard way that under no circumstances should we ever separate from our Chinese-speaking lifeline.  If she commits a crime and is sent to a labor camp, break the law so you get sent there too.  If she joins a traveling circus, make yourself the opening act.  If she gets abducted and forced into a prostitution ring, volunteer to tag along.  As a foreigner, you’ll have a better chance of surviving than you will fending for yourself as a free man in China.  I don’t care what your smartphone can do.

Kevin said it best, “I’ve never been so dependent on Morgan in my life.” It was true.  Despite being in a large global city, getting around is tough. Impossible? No. But I know that if we weren’t with Morgan at all on the trip, what happened to us just this one time would have probably happened every day of the two-week trip.

After three mostly-pleasant days in Shanghai, we were taking an overnight train to Beijing that evening.  If you think a 16-hour flight was tough, 13 hours on a rickety Chinese train sounded much worse.

“Don’t worry guys, I got us the second-class cabin, it’s the third class ones that have the stained sheets you want to avoid.” Morgan seemed proud of her arrangements.

The train didn’t leave until 6 p.m., so we did one last run around Shanghai all day, shared some pastry snacks and made our way back to our hotel to pack up.  Shanghai has a deal that if you return your public transportation card when you are finished with it, you get a 20 Chinese yuan rebate.  None of us wanted to miss out on free money, so we agreed that Morgan would bring all four of our cards back to the designated train station and we would meet her at the main regional station to catch our train to Beijing. We planned to get there early, have a leisurely lunch and purchase some snacks for the long ride.  If only it had worked out that way.

Despite Molly and I checking strictly backpacks and Kevin bringing nothing but a carry-on, Morgan had a ton of stuff. This was part of the reasoning of electing Morgan to commute to the train station herself—we needed the cab space and were too cheap to pay for two.


Morgan left and the rest of us checked out of our hotel on our own.  I explained to the concierge that we were going to Beijing by train and that we are leaving from the Shanghai Regional Railway Station.  He called a cab which barely fit Kevin, Molly and me with all the bags.  I thanked the concierge and confirmed with him that the cab driver knew where to go.  He said yes and sent us on our way.  I texted Morgan.

Me: ni hao, en route to station now. see ya soon.

Morgan: Ok cool. What kind of snacks do you guys want? I got us each some duck feet…

Shanghai traffic is to be expected, and since we left early, I was not disturbed by the clogged roads.  Kevin, in the passenger seat, snapped photos of Molly and I wedged between heaps of luggage in the back.

After a while, I wondered why we were on the highway when the station was in the center of the city.  We’d walked past it the day before.  I didn’t panic. My sense of direction that is on par with a blind goldfish–I once took a cab one block because I was so lost.

I asked the driver if we were going to the train station.  He didn’t understand, so I grabbed a crinkled Shanghai map out of my backpack, circled the train station and handed it to Kevin to show the driver.

“Are we going here?” Kevin held the map out in front of the driver. He shook his head and said something in Chinese. We repeated “train station” in English.  Then we started making “choo choo” noises, pulling on imaginary steamers. When it became evident we were getting nowhere, the driver proceeded to call someone who appeared to be at the taxi control phone line.  Or maybe it was his girlfriend, I don’t know.  What I did know was that she had a better control of English than he did.  She knew enough English to create a game of alphabet soup.

“Ahh yes, we are trying to go to the Shanghai Regional Station…you want me to spell it? Ok, well one of the streets is Xiomen, X-I-O…start over? X-I-O-M, no “M” as in “Mao”…Zho-MEN? ZIAO-men? …I think I’m saying it right…X-I-O-M-E-N…” He spelled it over and over again.  I was about to lose it, so grabbed the phone from him.

“Hello? Hi, yes, we’re trying to go to the Shanghai Regional Railway Station…We’re going to Beijing, I think it’s the biggest train station in the city, the main one…two train stations? Are you sure? No, no…the biggest one, whatever you call that, that’s where we need to go.”  

The woman on the other line again asked me to spell the cross streets.  After another five minutes of the same pointless back and forth, I gave up and handed the phone back to the driver, unsure of whether or not we’d made any headway.  I got out my phone to text Morgan.

Me: How do you say train in Chinese?

Morgan: houche. what’s the deal?

Me: I think we are going to the airport…

My phone rang. It was Morgan.  We were still on the highway and in traffic.

“What the heck are you guys doing?” Morgan is pissed.

“Long story, ok how do you say it again? I think you may have to hold up the train for us.”

“Where are you?”

“Umm, somewhere on a highway?”

“Well, this is the last train of the day, so if we miss it, we’re screwed.  I gotta go, I’m going to look into some other options.”

She hung up before I could ask what “other options” meant— maybe there was a 20-hour bus.

I couldn’t understand why my map of central Shanghai with the equivalent of Shanghai’s Grand Central circled wasn’t enough to communicate to our driver where we needed to go.

Text from Morgan: At airline ticket booth in station. There is a flight on China Southern to Beijing tmrw at 9:45 a.m., $375 pp.  Guess I could call Dad…

I could think of no greater punishment than calling my dad at 5 in the morning and casually asking him for a thousand dollars to bail me out of a missed train. I’d rather take a pony to Beijing.

Me: Hold off for now, on our way

Morgan: if you make it, I’ll be under the big screen in the middle entrance.

After about 15 minutes of phone calls, charades and text messages, the driver exited the highway and appeared to be at least en route back to central Shanghai.  Our train was leaving in 10 minutes. Ten turned to five, five became two, and then, the driver pulled up to what I hoped was the right train station.  I shoved some yuan in his hand and grabbed my purse, two suitcases and a backpack. Molly and Kevin did the same.  It was a crowded chaos outside the station. I called Morgan, frazzled and out of breath.  

“Hey where are you?  We are walking toward the big tv screen.”

“I’m right underneath the screen. Like right there. You must be at the wrong place.” Her words were angry, but I could hear she was on the brink of tears.

“Morgan, listen to me, I’m looking at a sign that says ???. You see that too right?

“Yes, but—”

“Ok just keep walking that way.” There were hundreds of people outside the station.  Searching for each other took only 30 seconds but felt like much longer. When we finally found each other she grabbed a suitcase and led us up a giant escalator without saying a word.

Our Home Alone style run resembled more of a frantic waddle up an escalator with multiple bags.  Molly was behind me, wearing a backpack, her purse, and simultaneously helping me lift the backs of my two suitcases while lugging Morgan’s Vera Bradley duffel and another suitcase.  She began to laugh as we frantically tried to run up the steps.  What else could she do?  If people were staring at us, we didn’t have time to notice.

Atop the escalator was the final sprint to the platform.  An official-looking woman stopped us and asked for our tickets.  I was scared she was going to say the gate was closed, but upon showing them to her, she motioned for us to go down a set of stairs that led to the tracks.  I figured there was a 40 percent chance of the train still being there.  Maybe my watch was a few seconds off…

I imagined one of those dramatic train chase scenes from an old movie, where the train starts moving as a beautiful girl in heels and a long dress starts running, impressively chucks her suitcase up to the charming conductor, who grabs her gloved hand and lifts her in at the last second.  I figured there would be no Asian man strong enough to lift me on to the train.  With my luck, the door would close on me and I would fall off and return with an amputated leg.

Our arrival was marked by an onslaught of pounding thuds as we recklessly bounded down a long cement staircase to learn our fate.  Miraculously, the train was still there.  We hustled in to our assigned cabin, exhaled and burst out laughing.

Was it worth separating from Morgan in order to receive our 20 yuan rebate?  Today’s conversion rate sets it at $3.13.

In a perfect story, the train to Beijing would have left as soon as we got onboard.   It left 15 minutes later.  Morgan had our train rebates.

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