Hong Kong 1 of 3: The 18-hour Train Ride

Monday, May 18th, 2009


Thursday began like any other day. Nik’s alarm went off at 8am, we ate breakfast and checked outside to see if the sun decided to show up or not. It did! We relaxed for a little while, and when it was time to say goodbye for the day we hugged for a little bit longer normal. You see, I was about to embark on a solo train journey to Hong Kong.

After Nik left I packed my bags. I double and triple checked to make sure I had everything (he’s normally the one that reminds me of things), and after a couple false starts I was off to the Shanghai Southern Train Station. I thought about taking the subway, but decided against the 20-minute walk and 2 transfer journey and hailed a cab instead. Normally, I would have bought my tickets several days in advance. In fact, I had bought tickets over a week ago, but then decided to change the dates of my trip and had to return them (long story). So here I was at 10am standing in line to buy a solo ticket for the 1:30pm train. I tried to buy a hard seat ticket (250rmb/$36), but they were sold out. The cashier offered a hard sleeper at 393rmb ($57) instead, and I took it. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I waited for three hours to get on an 18-hour train. Why did I do this to myself? I suppose this is what happens when I don’t plan ahead.

I boarded car #8, found the top berth of cabin #6 and lofted my bags onto the bed. I quickly assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that there wasn’t any way that I could spend 18 hours staring at the ceiling so I found a fold-down seat by the window. I was extremely excited to begin my journey so I texted Nik, “On the train. Seat by window!”


Passengers settle in for the ride

Before we had even left the station the picnic began. Every group had at least one if not six grocery bags filled with snacks and beverages, so for the first three hours of our journey all I heard was slurp, crinkle, snap, slurp, smack, cough, guzzle, crinkle, smack, spit, slurp. After a while I was able to tune everything out and just watch the scenery. It only took about 20 minutes to get out of the sprawl of Shanghai and into the farmland. But it isn’t farmland like we see it in America. No vast farms covering tens and hundreds of acres that are plowed by huge machines and irrigated by giant ant-like contraptions. Instead hundreds upon hundreds of small 1/4 acre or less plots are divided into various crops surrounding villages of twenty to thirty dwellings. All of the land seemed to be worked by hand and is probably run by a family rather than a large company. I imagine that each of these farmers sends his produce to a relative in the city to sell, and the result is hundreds upon hundreds of little stands in the city. It’s nice to be low tech sometimes.


Fields and village




Rail yard along the way


Fields of rice

The window gazing made me sleepy so I packed up my camera and journal and turned to find that I was the only one still awake in car #8. It was like they were all taking their afternoon siesta and no one told me. But then again, I was the only foreigner on the train and I was staring out the window at boring farms, so I was the weird one anyways. I climbed up top and was quickly rocked to sleep by the hum of the train. I woke up a couple hours later and the sunlight was almost gone so I climbed down to perch by the window before eating dinner and climbing back into bed. Two Nyquil liquid gels and two episodes of Lost later, I was asleep for the night.


Nap time

We arrived at the Shenzhen Train Station at 7am and I was funneled along with the other 600 passengers through the labyrinth of customs and immigration into Hong Kong. Since I was literally the only foreigner on the train, my path was pretty empty. I filled out my arrival/departure cards, signed a waiver saying I hadn’t had any contact with swine flu, told the health inspectors I hadn’t been in America since February, flashed my passport a few times and was on my way. It was when I approached the ticket machine to buy my subway ticket that would take me to Honk Kong Island that I realized that I had forgotten to buy my return ticket to Shanghai. I was supposed to buy it as soon as I arrived at Shenzhen. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to get to the train station four hours early again for the 18-hour return!


Shenzhen Train Station

In other news, Nik was interviewed a couple weeks ago about his dordles and his design process and I forgot to post about it. You can find it here.

Also, Nik did a blog post about his weekend: A Bachelor’s, AKA Loner’s, Weekend. It’s nice to know that I’m missed!!

Solitude in the City of 20 Million

Saturday, May 9th, 2009
Just me

Just me

On Friday, I found my spot. My spot for when I need time to just be by myself. But before that….

Bike Ferry onramp

Bike Ferry Entrance Ramp

My bike and I rode the Shanghai River Ferry across the Huangpu River to Pudong. The ride took about 20 minutes from the time I bought my token (1.3rmb) to riding away through the enourmous construction site at the Pudong dock. The river ferry is the only way to cross the river with your bike or motorbike, and there are at least six crossing points within the downtown area. So it’s very convenient and a lot cheaper than the tourist boats that cross the busy waterway.

On the boat

On the boat

Our ferry waits as barges cross our path

Our ferry waits as barges cross our path

Old ceiling light on the bridge

Old ceiling light on the bridge

Unfortunately, this was not my first trip to Pudong this week. On Thursday I took the exact same boat and rode my bike to the exact same building that houses the Entry and Exit Bureau of Shanghai. I needed to go to the EEB to extend my 90-day visa to 120 days. On Thursday I sat in the sparkling new third-floor waiting room watching the various internationals meander through the rows of airport-style seating for over an hour while wishing that my number was next. 428. Finally. I approached the desk only to be told that I didn’t have one of the documents I needed, a temporary residency permit. I kind of expected this, but didn’t really understand how and where I could obtain one of these permits, so my four hour adventure to Pudong wasn’t a complete waste. At least I knew what this temporary residency permit looked like, and that I could get it from the front desk at my hotel. As soon as I got home, I obtained this little pink piece of paper and tucked it away for round two.

On Friday morning, I set out early (okay 9:30 might not be early for some of you, but it is for me). I boarded the ferry pictured above and made my way to the EEB. Since I knew exactly where I was going, the trip only took an hour and I had my number in hand by 10:30. 162. That’s good. A lot smaller than my 428 from yesterday. The only problem was that they were on 40. 112 people in front of me. No big deal I thought. There are 9 desks open so the numbers will go quickly. Sitting in the waiting room was like being in an international airport with a 2 hour layover. At this point in my travels, I am a people watching expert, so an hour went by quickly. At 11:30 I noticed that they were on 120. At 11:45, they were on 124. All but two desks, 9 and 4, had shut down for their lunch break and people had started queing at those two desks regardless of their number. (By the way, this is an annoying fact that I have accepted by now about lines in China, no one waits their turn.) At this point, I was starting to get hungry and antsy to be done with this, so I began watching the clock and the number ticker.  Kind of like watching paint dry. Forever later, 162 was called. I approached the desk, laid my passport, application and residency permit in front of the officer and waited for his approval. Then he tells me that if I extend my stay to 120 days, I will not be able to re-enter the country on my current multiple-entry visa. Well, that doesn’t work, considering we’re planning to be here for at least 6 months and I don’t want to spend another $320 on a third Chinese Visa in one year. I casually tell him I wish he had told me that yesterday (I think it was the same officer), and again, I walk away empty handed.

I called Nik to share my frustration and then got on my bike to clear my head and to make the most of my trip to Pudong. That is when I saw these.

The clovers that I saw in March have now turned into these amazing little purple flowers. Each one is smaller than a dime.

The clovers that I saw in March have now turned into these amazing little purple flowers. Each one is smaller than a dime.

The streets near the EEB, which happens to be near Century Park, were lined with these little flowers, blooming red and pink roses and the most wonderfully scented trees I have ever smelled. It is the little things that life better. Who cares that I spent over four hours waiting for something that I didn’t get? Not me. There are pretty flowers, and they make me happy.

One of many mirrors to help construction traffic move safely.

One of many mirrors to help construction traffic move safely.

I rode around in search for food, had to detour around way too many construction sites, ate lunch and finally landed here.

Panoramic of the Huangpu River towards Puxi (click for larger image)

Panoramic of the Huangpu River towards Puxi (click for larger image)

From 2pm until 3pm on Friday, the Riverside Promenade just north of Zhangyang Lu was completely abandoned. I sat and did nothing but watch boats pass and enjoy the shade tree. I had found a place of solitude in this city of 20 million.

Just me

Just me

**Update: Sorry to leave you hanging on the visa stuff. I didn’t get the extension, and I won’t be getting the extension. But I’ll still be okay and will be able to stay for the same amount of time. The visa that I currently have is a 1-year, multiple entry, 90-day length of stay Tourist (L) Visa. Which means that for one year, I can enter and exit the country as many times as I want, but I can only be here for 90 days at a time. When my first 90 days in China are up on May 21, I will have to leave the country only to re-enter. Then I will start another 90 days that will take me to August 26th or so. Then when that’s up, I’ll have to leave and come back again to finish up our trip. It is a hassle and an extra expense that I wish I didn’t have, but I shouldn’t complain because I will probably be going back to Hong Kong in the next two weeks and I’ll probably be going to South Korea in August.

May Day Weekend in Hangzhou

Monday, May 4th, 2009
The Place

The Place : Hangzhou, China (click for larger image)

The People : Nik, Andy, Dominic, Mike and Me(not pictured)

The People : Nik, Andy, Dominic, Mike and Me(not pictured)

For the May Day holiday, it seems like most of the city dwellers in Shanghai take to the country side. This year, it was the perfect spring weekend to get some fresh air, and we decided to go with the crowd to Hangzhou. The five of us took the early train Friday morning, stayed two nights, and headed home late Sunday night. The weekend was perfect despite the rain on Saturday and the hordes of Chinese tourists.

We spent our three days doing three completely different things, and here are the highlights in roughly chronological order.

Friday : West Lake

  • 9:14am Train #D5689 arrives at Hangzhou Train Staion from Shanghai (Train: 53rmb)
  • Check in to the Hangzhou Tower Hotel (Hotel: 500rmb/night)
  • Morning coffee at *buck’s across the street
  • Lunch at a place on the way…Nik said “We’re allowed one unremarkable meal, right?” (Lunch: 25rmb)
  • Walk to West Lake to find it completely packed with tourists, and very few are foreigners. This was amusing because that meant everyone stared at us even more than normal, and we certainly heard several refer to us as “laowai” (the casual Chinese word for “foreigner”) as we passed. (West Lake: Free)
  • Afternoon coffee at *buck’s on the lake
  • Took the ferry where we were the only ones excited about sitting in the back open area, which invited even more stares and a few photo opportunities. Meaning that the Chinese tourists were taking photos of us, the crazy laowai that were sitting in the sun. (West Lake Ferry: 45rmb for the day)
  • Circled the island which was a little less crowded than the main path
  • Took the ferry back to the perimeter
  • Drinks at the tea house
  • Visited the Leifeng Pagoda where my camera battery died on the 4th of 5 levels. (Admission: 40rmb)
  • Walked across the Su Causeway at dusk where a crazy man driving a handicapped motor-tricycle with three passengers flew by. Then we saw him 100meters down the road and his bike was on fire. Everyone was okay, and we’re not sure what exactly happened, but it did cause quite the commotion. Wish I had my camera.
  • Dinner at Louwailou Restaurant where Dominic, who acted as our translator for the weekend (Thank you Dominic!!!!), patiently waited near the hostess stand for almost an hour as she called out the numbers auction-style. Everything we ordered was amazing, especially the Beggar’s Chicken. We were not shy and ordered several dishes and drinks, so we were extremely impressed when our bill came out to be 500rmb. (Dinner: 100rmb/person)
  • Walk back along the lake to the hotel at night. Beautiful.
  • Sleeping by 10pm
The Causeway

The entire circumference of West Lake had crowds like this, but it was comfortable because the water was always on one side if not both. Crowds kind of like Disney World.

My friend on the ferry

My friend on the ferry

Leifeng Pagoda

Leifeng Pagoda

Wood carvings in Leifeng Pagoda

Wood carvings

The view looking east from Leifeng Pagoda. Notice the line of cars along the highway? They're coming from the Lingyen Temple.

The view looking west. Notice the line of cars along the highway in the middle? They're coming from the Lingyen Temple.

Saturday : Tea Fields

  • 9:30am meet in the lobby
  • Morning coffee at *buck’s across the street
  • We were an indecisive group and took a good hour to decide what to do for the day. Tea fields? Wet Lands? Temple? Bicycles? Taxi? Grandma’s for lunch? Dumplings? and what about tomorrow? Mogan Mountain? Driver? Bicycles? Wet Lands?
  • We finally decided on Grandma’s Kitchen for lunch, where we would decide the rest while we ate. The lesson here is that it is always better to make decisions when everyone is full. The food was delicious, and we were able to avoid the crowds by arriving at 10:30am. By the time we left there was at least an hour wait. (Lunch: 35rmb/person)
  • Taxi to Lingyen Temple. When we arrived, the temple was as packed with tourists as West Lake, so Nik and I opted to go directly to the tea fields hoping that people would at least be more spread out. (Temple admission: 35rmb)
  • When we told the taxi driver to take us to the tea fields, he was a bit confused. We tried to talk our way around it, and thought that he was telling us he couldn’t take us, so we started to walk away. As we did, he made hand motions telling us to “Get in, get in, it’s okay. We’ll figure it out.” We got in. It turns out that there are dozens of mountains/hillsides covered with tea fields, so no wonder he was confused. We drove a little ways in and had him stop at a place that looked interesting that turned out to be the Dragon Well Temple. (Tea fields: Free)
  • After wandering through a few smaller fields, we found a stone path that led up the hill and followed it. Then it started to rain. We found shelter in a small pavilion and were joined by a Chinese extended family of aunts, uncles, parents and grown children. The older family members were very curious to talk to us, so they had one of the young men ask us a few questions. After the introductions, we all settled down to watch the rain and the elder uncle pulled out a harmonica. I have never been so close to a talented harmonica player, and watching his mouth move on the inhales and exhales to create a complicated rhythm was impressive. Nik and I lingered for a couple songs, and then said our goodbyes and headed out in the rain, up the hillside.
  • A little while later, it started to rain even more so we found shelter under another pavilion. This time, we shared it with a younger Chinese family with two young kids that were playing “JiÇŽndāo Bù Shítou” otherwise known as “Rock Paper Scissors”. The winner of each game would step forward a tile, making it a race to the oposite end of the pavilion and a fierce competition. The two were so adorable and would jump up and down each time they won. They never made it to the finish line because their parents decided it was time to go.
  • The guys called so we met them at the bottom of the hill, and each was sporting a new umbrella. Dominic had red plaid. Mike had blue plaid. Andy had yellow wheat grass that was already broken.
  • We searched for food and protection from the elements, and found it in a little attic of a fairly large restaurant. Dominic did the wheeling and dealing for us, and said we were lucky to get the table because you normally have to have a reservation. We’re not sure how that works because the tables were almost completely empty, but the food was good, the tea was extremely fresh (as in picked this morning) and our seats were dry and warm. We were happy. (Dinner: 30rmb/person)
  • Taxi back to West Lake for another moonlight walk. Unlike Friday night’s perfectly warm and comfortable weather, Saturday’s was slightly chilly and raining. Nik and I purchased a new green umbrella (to round out the color spectrum) and we sauntered along the path watching the reflections on the water and the steam rising from the landscape lighting.
  • The walk was longer than we expected so we found an ice cream shop and another lakeside *bucks for dessert, and loaded into a taxi to go back to the hotel.
  • Sleeping by 11:00pm.
Tea at all stages of growth. Freshly planted, freshly picked, ripe for picking.

Tea at all stages of growth. Freshly planted, freshly picked, ripe for picking.

Red wild berry

Red wild berry

Sitting in the tea fields

Sitting in the tea fields

Drinking freshly picked Green Tea

Drinking freshly picked Green Tea

Sunday : Bike Wandering

  • 9:30am check out of the hotel and store our bags with the concierge
  • Once again, we were indecisive and hungry. Breakfast? Rent bikes? Dumplings? Grandma’s? Wet lands? Omelets?
  • Nik found a street on the map that looked to have several restaurants, so we started walking in that direction. Along the way we found dumplings, coffee and pastries. Everyone was satisfied and we made the decision to rent bikes.
  • Taxi to bike rental station. Several cities in China have started “free bike” programs, and Hangzhou is one of them. To take advantage of this, we had to go to the main bike station and purchase a swipe card for 300rmb. 200rmb of this is a deposit on the bike, and 100rmb is credit used towards your rental fees. The first hour you have the bike, it’s free. The second hour is 2rmb, the third is 3rmb, the fourth is 4rmb, and so on. We ended up using the bikes for five hours, so each of us was charged 14rmb for the day. Not bad! (Bike deposit: 300rmb)
  • Once on the bikes, we decided to take a “flock of geese” approach. Each person would lead for five minutes, then switch. Basically, we got on our bikes and went. No destination. No idea where we would end up. It worked out perfectly.
  • Hangzhou Botanical Gardens. We didn’t mean to go there, but were happy that we did. They do allow bicycles in the gardens, which is really just a big park with a few species labels on some plants. There were very few people, so we were able to ride at our leisure, and we did for about two or three hours. (Garden Admission: 10rmb)
  • More random riding and the vague idea of having lunch somewhere scenic led us to a little restaurant on the east side of West Lake. We had one last amazing meal sitting by the water watching rowers and kayakers practice surrounded by fields of tea. Yep, it’s official. Hangzhou is worth it. Even on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. (Lunch: 25rmb)
  • After a long lunch we made our way back to the bike rental to retrieve our deposits. (Bike Deposit: -286rmb)
  • Picked up our bags from the hotel, and took a taxi to the train station.
  • 7:47pm Train #5688 departs Hangzhou Train Station headed to Shanghai (Train: 63rmb)
Biking in the Botanical Gardens

Biking in the Botanical Gardens

Boy fishing for Crawdads

Boy fishing

Train #5688

Train #5688, seats 41-45

If we had to do it again, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. None of us did very much research beyond knowing the most famous dishes and printing out the Wikitravel Hangzhou Guide before we arrived, and it worked out.

When we go again, I will try to find a hotel on the western side of West Lake closer to the mountains/hills that has a good breakfast. I will also plan to rent a bike for the entire visit, and might even look into camping.

Total trip cost: 977rmb/person (about $150 USD) + taxi fares and snacks

All five of us were taking photos along the way, and I certainly took the least. So if you want to see better photos including amazing night shots, you can visit Nik, Mike and Andy’s blogs. They probably won’t have photos posted for a few days, but I’m sure they will soon.

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