Blame it on the Trains

Just another five, just another five minutes
The train’s gone and we’re not in it
My heart can’t take the strain
Give me thirty minutes and we’ll blame it on the trains
-Art Brut

The train ticket office AFTER the holiday (no people waiting in line)

The weeks prior to the Mid-Autumn Festival, the train ticket office is swarming with crowds. Tickets often sell out, which is bad news for the someone who desperately wants to eat moon cakes with family in a distant province, or for anyone trying to get out of Beijing. We were the latter group. We wanted to get out of Beijing and spend the holiday in Qingdao, the city by the sea.

Train tickets go on sale ten days before departure. So ten days before we planned to leave for Qingdao, we headed to the train ticket office. Buying a ticket is pretty daunting task. Not only does the train ticket agent not speak English, he/she speaks with a thick Beijing accent in a hurried demeanor.  To save time, birdMAN sometimes is pretty unabashed about asking for help in English.  After all, we do live in an area where most young people speak English very well. On this occasion, birdMAN found a helpful English speaking young lady to act as our translator. Via our impromptu translator, we learned that the train we wanted was sold out, but there was a later one. Great! We were excited to take the train to Qingdao.

As before mentioned, tickets go on sale ten days before departure. So a few days later in the morning, birdMAN headed back to the train ticket office to buy return tickets. He waited in a line for 30 minutes. The ticket agent told him there are no train tickets available right now, but come back after 3 pm. OK, that makes no sense, but we don’t understand China and so we complied. That afternoon, we returned to the ticket office and waited in the line again for 30 minutes. The ticket agent told us there are no trains, but come back tomorrow. OK, so maybe only a limited number of tickets can be sold during a time period? We still don’t know for sure what was happening. birdMAN returned the next morning and waited in the line again. You guessed it, come back in the afternoon. That afternoon, we both returned to the ticket office and waited in the line another 30 minutes. birdMAN showed the ticket agent his carefully written sentence: ”十月五日从青岛到北京.” (October 5 from Qingdao to Beijing). She asked, “早上还是下午?” (Morning or afternoon?)  I said, “早上.” (Morning.) She said, “没有.”  (There isn’t any.) I said, “下午好吗?” (How about afternoon?) She said, “没有.”  (There isn’t any.)  I thought, “Why did you ask what time I want tickets if there are no tickets?” She told us come back the next day. By this time we are getting frustrated/confused, wondering if we should even go to Qingdao. We may not be able to return.

birdMAN asked one of our Chinese friends for help. He went online and checked the availability. Apparently, two return tickets were available, but were first-class and only for the early morning train. For some reason, the ticket agents did not give us that option. We ended up buying plane tickets for the return.

The train ride to Qingdao was extremely comfortable, much more comfortable than a plane ride. No turbulence, plenty of leg room, and roomy, clean bathrooms. The bullet train is our preferred method of travel.

Maybe purchasing train tickets will make more sense in the future when my Chinese is better. What’s the lesson? Bring someone who can speak Chinese and English to the train ticket office with you!

Chinese word of the blog: 火车 Huǒ chē (literally, fire car)
                                          English translation: train

The bullet train travels at speeds up to 300 km/hour