After Julianna headed back to Hong Kong, where she would go straight to work, I headed to Shenzhen North Station, in anticipation of what would be the second-worst journey of my holiday. Leaving one of China's most modern cities, I would have to experience 24 hours of hardseat strife, before arriving in one of its most historic.
Making myself comfortable on the train, it occured to me that my only sources of entertainment were: a concise guide to Milton Friedman. the I Ching in German, some Chinese magazine on animal attacks and a bag of chickens' feet.
I gave up on the Chinese magazine after one page, unable to concentrate because the woman opposite me seemed to think that watching a loud TV series on her phone WITHOUT headphones was an acceptable thing to do. Amazingly, no one else in the carriage seemed to object, not even ten hours later at half-past four in the morning. The person sitting next to me even asked inquisitively what series she was watching, encouraging her to turn the volume up, so she could enjoy it too. It didn't even sound like a good series - the soundtrack was a chorus of neverending cheese on the piano and for the first hour I sat passive-aggressively imagining the satisfaction of throwing her phone out the window, somewhere deep in the Guangdong countryside, where it would never bother anyone again. It then occured to me that if I were to last another 23 hours, I would have to find a way of keeping myself sane before this phone-hijacking fantasy became a reality.
And so I attempted to read the Yi Ching in German. Being an ancient book on divination, it wasn't the most readable thing I could have brought along. I joked to Tom Watson (who I was texting - none of my friends were actually there to share my torment), saying that I could use the hexagrams to predict how terrible the journey would be. Unsurprisingly, I gave up after not very long, blaming the blaring piano music opposite me.
Every few hours, one of the train attendants would come in and try to sell some kind of cheap product, spending ten minutes introducing it and giving out free samples, whilst everyone sat and listened, with little else to pass the time. Watching them, it felt almost like being an investor from an episode of Dragon's Den - if anyone had been there to get the reference, I might jokingly have asked the salesperson "What size investment are you looking for?"
The products (all of which involved a demonstration) varied from spinning tops and wind-up toy trains to bendy toothbrushes and Vietnamese face cream. The strangest demonstration was for, as far as I could understand, a maths textbook. The train attendant brought in a pile of books and a whiteboard, and talked on a microphone for about twenty minutes, before writing sums on the board and encouraging everyone in the carriage to use teamwork to solve puzzle after puzzle. The people around me all had their phone calculators out and were enthusiastically shouting out answers.
Eventually, people began to ask me questions. My neighbours became curious about my selection of books and I noticed the concise guide to Milton Freeman being read and passed down the carriage. When they asked me what it was about, I didn't want to say "the benefits of free-market capitalism," so just told them it wasa book about economics. It occured to me that I wasn't in the safest position and, to any security guard walking in, I might have looked like a westerner spreading anti-communist propaganda (although if this had happened, I could have mentioned that Deng Xiao-Ping actually invited Friedmann to China to lecture on free-market principles).
When I got my book back, there was a man in his twenties squatting in the aisle next to me, eager to have a go on my tablet. I challenged him to a game of Worms Armageddon but, after he only ever managed to blow his own characters up, he frustratedly asked me "有没有别的游戏啊？" (don't you have any other games?) We then played the traditional Chinese boardgame 'Go,' or as it's called in Chinese 'Weiqi' (I didn't dare refer to it by its Japanese name). He told me that he'd taken lessons for two terms in primary school and then proceeded to absolutely nail me (If you're curious to see my defeat, I've left a screenshot on my tumblr).
The game lasted over an hour, for the entirety of which he was happily squatting in the aisle, moving occasionally to let a trolley past. Every time he tried to place a piece by tapping on the touchscreen, it would take several attempts because his fingernail was so long. Eventually, he stuck to using the bluetooth pen.
Most of the carriage were asleep by the time we finished, and I had only nodded off for a few hours, when I received a call from Charly. Charly, Lucy and Freddie, whom I was going to meet in Hangzhou, had taken a similarly long hardseat from Beijing to Hangzhou and had arrived at about midnight (I still had another 12 hours to go by this point). Charly told me that they'd arrived at the hostel and, despite having made a booking, weren't allowed to stay there - or anywhere else.
As I mentioned in my Shenzhen entry, since we didn't have passports, we needed a certain yellow peice of paper to allow us to stay in hostels. But, since this document inexplicably took two weeks to process, none of us had bothered to get it. For this reason, the receptionist wouldn't allow any of them to stay. This meant that their options were to either sleep on the street or take a 24-hour hardseat back to Beijing, adding up to a grand total of 48 hours in the train.
Unsurprisingly, I freaked out at the prospect of arriving and having nowhere to stay. Instantly, I became far friendlier towards my neighbours, offering them some of my chickens' feet, chatting about where they were going, and subtly bringing up the fact that I might end up sleeping on the street.
They seemed sympathetic, but no one offered me a place to stay. Luckily, an hour later I got another call from Charly, telling me that everything was fine, but only after the police got involved. Here's what she told me:
First , they argued with the receptionist for a while. With few other options, they then decided to go directly to the police station and ask for advice. The police were very friendly and told them there was no problem at all. Charly, Freddie and Lucy were driven back to the hostel in a police car and the policemen told the receptionist that they were allowed to stay. However, the receptionist was still reluctant, saying the policemen were from the wrong district (despite the fact it was this very receptionist who'd directed them to their police station). Apparently, Freddie then flew into a spectacular (and understandable) rage, after which the receptionist finally allowed them to stay, giving an orange as a token of apology.
Knowing there was a bed waiting for me at the end of my journey, I was much relieved, and slept soundly for a long time. Until that idiot began watching her TV series again.