The kindness of strangers

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Saturday was all about logistics. Our hotel in Shanghai hadn’t been able to help us with train tickets on Friday evening, and the travel agent they worked with wasn’t open until 8:30am. Since we were hoping to catch the 8am train, we just headed to the station early. Unfortunately, once we got there, it was not clear where we could buy tickets. We saw one ticket counter on the ground floor with really long lines, but the times listed on the big board were much later in the day. The couple of people we’d tried to ask to see if we were in the right place for the bullet trains spoke no English. We stopped for a minute and A pulled out her laptop which still had the train schedules up, and we wrote down a few of the train numbers and times. She also found a little language card that had train related words in English and Chinese so we could point at “bullet train” and “Beijing” We found a cool interactive touch screen information kiosk, which showed us how to get to the track for the train we wanted, and even printed out a little slip of paper with directions for us, but didn’t indicate where we could buy tickets. Finally, we found an “international” travel agent desk with an attendant who spoke a little English, and she directed us upstairs. Once there, we saw another ticket counter with long lines, but which listed at least some of the trains we were looking for. We asked the young guy behind us if we were in the right line and he laughed. Each counter line was for a different purpose and these silly girls couldn’t read! He pointed us to lines 74 and 75, which were apparently for “today’s trains.” Once in that line, a friendly girl behind us who spoke really great English asked if we needed help, and confirmed that we were in the right line. Whew! We’d given ourselves 45 minutes to find and buy tickets, but 8am came and went while we waited in line. Finally, when our turn came, we bought tickets for the 9am train. That gave us a few minutes to look for food before boarding. We passed on KFC and instead bought a few snacks from a little kiosk (which turned out to be 3 separate vendors).

The ticket check machines confirmed that we were at the right track and we boarded successfully. The 5 hour train ride itself was smooth and fast, and uneventful with the exception of the people watching an American sitcom with a loud laugh track from somewhere behind us. A tall and sleazy guy was trying to practice his English with us and wanted to introduce us to his wife/”lover,” but after we didn’t respond with any interest, he backed off.

When we got to Beijing, we bought metro tickets like pros, navigated the transfer between lines with a minimum of confusion (but a lot of stairs), and got to the stop closest to our hotel on the map. We used my offline maps app and got to our destination, but…what?? No hotel. We asked a security guard who spoke no English, and he had no idea what we were talking about. We walked a bit further and saw a bunch of tour buses waiting for their tourists, so I asked a woman who was inside one. She also didn’t speak English, but as she was trying to explain where the hotel was (in Chinese), a well-dressed man with a briefcase walked up and asked if he could help. We explained what we were looking for and he whipped out his cellphone, called the hotel and asked for clarification on their address. He then told us to follow him, and led us until we could see the hotel, then waved and was on his way.

By the time we checked in, we were exhausted from lugging our bags in the heat, and it was really too late to visit the forbidden city, so we just wandered a bit in search of food. We wound up not far from our swanky hotel, but a world away nonetheless, in a restaurant that seemed more targeted at locals than tourists. We were looking over the English-less picture menu, trying to clarify which of the vegetarian dishes we actually wanted (not sure what the waiter had been writing down), when a woman eating there came over and not only helped sort out what we wanted with the waiter, but also recommended a delicious dish involving julienned sweet potatoes, lots of garlic, and hot peppers. After the helpful woman left, we realized we needed something to drink. When I walked over to the fridge and pointed at one water and one beer (both to share), some confusion ensued when we wanted 4 glasses. After narrowly avoiding getting second bottles of beer and water, A successfully pantomimed the act of pouring and we got the glasses.

After our delicious and filling “brunner,” we arranged for a driver to take us to the great wall the next day, picked up some water and snacks for our trip, and went to bed early.

No sightseeing, a bit of smog, but the kindness of helpful Beijingers left us with a good impression nonetheless. Sure, there were some who just wanted to make a quick buck (like the “tour guide” standing in wait outside the subway station) but they were pretty easy to spot and it was nice to meet people who were genuinely helpful.

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