floor and building

I had originally meant to leave Beijing on the Friday after I arrived, but when I went to the main train station on Thursday to pick up a ticket, I was told that all the tickets had been sold, and that the next available ticket was for Saturday afternoon, and yingzuo.

Yingzuo means “hard seat,” and refers to a class of ticket that will get its holder a spot on a thinly-padded wooden bench with three other people. Yingzuo is considered uncomfortable by even seasoned travellers, ones who can understand Beijing cabbies and use Chinese-style squatter toilets without flinching. Yingzuo is avoided by those who can afford to buy yingwo, hard-sleeper — which gets you a bunk padded with a thin cotton mat and is actually quite comfortable. If you really feel like spending money, you can buy ruanwo, soft-sleeper, which costs about as much as flying, and is cushy in the extreme.

The fell words “Ying. Zuo.” seemed to reverberate when the lady at the Foreigner Ticket Office at Beijing Zhan said them, conjuring up an image of me sitting with my backpacks and duffel heaped up on top of me, choking on secondhand smoke, watching people spit on the floor and trying not to think about all the known strains of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, my ass turning to a lump of lead.

But I really, really wanted to get to Harbin.

I bought the ticket and then cursed myself for it all the way back to my hotel. 13 hours, I thought, 13 hours of hard-seat.
Well, nothing for it – might as well buy a few books. No problem. Mei fucking wenti.

I hadn’t taken into account that my baggage weighed an awful lot. After all, I’d gotten from Philly to SF and then SF to Beijing just fine, right?
Ah, but I’d had the convenience of baggage-check for my duffel then, hadn’t I? And in Beijing, I’d already bought a lot of books, both at the huge multi-storey bookstore my friend Minwen had taken me to and at the Foreign Languages Bookstore on Wangfujing Road. These were good books, mind you, edifying books, books I have thus far enjoyed* — but they brought the weight of my baggage up by quite a lot.

No, I hadn’t thought about that at all.

I thought I was pretty slick on Saturday morning. My train left for Harbin at 2:10, and I arrived at the train station at 11 to make absolutely sure that nothing went wrong. Inside the entrance, I noted that my train left from 2 lou, and headed off in what I took to be that general direction.

The character lou is composed of the radical mu, meaning “wood,” which serves as a semantic determinative, and another component, lou, which serves as a phonetic determinative, but incidentally is a character on its own, one with the meaning of “trouble, blunder, to go bad.”
I learned that lou meant “storeyed building, hall, mansion.” I learned as well that it’s sometimes a surname. At no point did I learn that it also means “floor.”*

And so while I was waiting in Hall 2 on the first floor of Beijing Zhan, the express train to Harbin arrived at, boarded, and left from a berth on the second floor.

At 2:08, I went up and asked the lady at the desk when my train would be boarding. She looked at my ticket, and her eyes widened.
“–Aiyo! Quick, quick — you still have two minutes! It’s upstairs! Hurry!”

So I grabbed my heavier-than-Brendan* bags and ran, ran through the door (which I had a spot of trouble opening, being that I had one backpack slung over on my chest, another backpack in its rightful place on my back, and a 90-pound duffel bag trailing behind me), ran down the corridor, ran up the escalator (the duffel made thump-thump-thump noises as it hit the steps, and everybody on the escalators stared at me) to the top of the steps, where I spent a few precious seconds looking at the notice board to find which hallway was the right one before running* in and breathlessly presenting my ticket to the woman at the desk, only to hear her say “Kaile.


Like most other places I’ve seen in China, Beijing Zhan has an escalator going up, but none descending, and so I had to walk around and take the stairs, again with all my bags. The duffel made defeated little thump-thump-thumpety-fuck-I-missed-my-fucking-train-thump noises as it went down the steps, and I wondered briefly whether kicking myself in the ass on the way out of the station would attract more attention than my low-speed percussion show was already doing.

I went outside to wait in line at the ticket window. There was a train leaving for Harbin at 6:30 that evening, and I figured that if I got lucky I’d be able to buy an “unreserved seating” ticket. “Unreserved seating” is basically a euphemism for “floor if you’re lucky, corridor between carriages if you’re not,” but shit; I was desperate by this point.
While I was standing in line,* a man came up to me and asked which train I was waiting for.

“Harbin,” I said, still out of breath from running with my bags. “6:30.”
“What class ticket did you want?”
“Um, hard-sleeper would be great, but anything is fine.”
“OK. Wait here; I’ll go get the ticket.”

And sure enough, five minutes later, he came back with a ticket for the middle bunk* in a hard-sleeper carriage.

The ticket itself was about 300 kuai. He also got me 100 kuai’s worth of little paper tickets whose use remains unclear to me. (I think they may be meal coupons, or possibly toilet paper. Or they may have some ritual significance, like ghost money and silver paper.) With his “small commission,” it came to 600 kuai, total.

Whatever. I had my ticket, and I was going to Harbin. For real this time.

I got to Harbin about 6:45 the next morning. It was raining and about 30 degrees cooler than Beijing.*
My luggage again presented a problem: between the platform the train arrived at and the station’s exit was a 300-metre-long underground corridor, to and from which there were again no escalators. Things would have been easier had the corridor not been packed, wall-to-wall and entrance-to-exit, with people shoving each other in a generally forward direction.
The first few times I got pushed, I’ll admit to having been a little annoyed, and by the eighth time, I began to wonder what would happen if I pushed back. Then I realised that the whole thing worked like peristalsis. People were trying to help me out.
And indeed, when I got to the steps up to the exit, the guy behind me helped me carry my duffel up. We stopped and chatted for a bit when we got out:

“First time in China?”
“Well, second, but close enough.”
“Gotten used to this kind of thing yet?” (he gestured at the crowd jostling and cursing its way up the steps)
“Not yet, but I guess I’ll have to.”

We chatted a while longer until his friend arrived to pick him up. “Enjoy Harbin,” he said. “It’s a nice place.”

After that, I just sat in the rain, watching my baggage get wetter and wetter, and delighting in the Harbin accent, which is beautifully clear compared to Beijinghua.
I sat, and I waited, and I eavesdropped and people-watched. A woman walking with her sleepy 5 year-old passed, and when the boy saw me, a huge grin spread across his face.

“Foreigner,” he said cheerfully, and then got swallowed up by the crowd.

Comments (14)

  1. Jenn wrote::

    Miss you, kid.

    And give me your fucking address.

    Thursday, August 15, 2002 at 5:06 am #
  2. Tara wrote::

    Hey! Saw you on the Jane site…would love to chat more if you have the time. I love travel, so this whole bit of your life fascinates me.
    Hope to catch up with you soon, check out my website to learn more about me :)
    Your friend: Tara

    Friday, August 16, 2002 at 1:36 am #
  3. Dave M wrote::

    Hey Brendan. It’s good to hear you finally arrived in Harbin. It’s 100 degrees here in Philly, so I’m guessing you’re not missing too much of ‘here’ right now. You spin a good tale of adventures in the far east. Keep us posted.

    Friday, August 16, 2002 at 4:16 am #
  4. jacky wrote::

    hey boen, just pop in to say hi. hope u’r luvin’ china. im sure u r =) i heard that donny was in shenzhen last month, not sure if he’s still there. r u in touch w/ him?
    neywayz, gotta go n work on my thesis, im havin’ a work crisis rite now !!
    well, take good care or yaself n stay in touch

    Friday, August 16, 2002 at 7:05 am #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    Yeah – got a post from Donny complaining that, like me, he has to use proxies to access bokane.org from the PRC. I wanted to ask him where he was, but he didn’t leave an email address.

    Greetings to all, by the way. Hope you’re all keeping well; I am, more or less.

    Friday, August 16, 2002 at 8:11 am #
  6. moose wrote::

    hey brendan:

    i hope you got your money back for your ticket (that mustve sucked). always gotta be tight w/ your wallet overseas. and hopefully youve been having fun w/ your teaching job; remember, those are impressionable young minds… so dont blow it.

    stay safe and keep pimpin it for all of us

    Sunday, August 18, 2002 at 3:09 am #
  7. Katie wrote::

    You’re not keeping well Bo’en, so quit lying to everyone. You fool no one.

    (Who ever reads this should note that there is no hot chocolate in Harbin. Those of you who are assembling care packages, remember that when winter rolls around, he’ll need it as there is no heat in the apartment there…)

    Sunday, August 18, 2002 at 8:58 am #
  8. Katie wrote::

    You’re not keeping well Bo’en, so quit lying to everyone. You fool no one.

    (Who ever reads this should note that there is no hot chocolate in Harbin. Those of you who are assembling care packages, remember that when winter rolls around, he’ll need it as there is no heat in the apartment there…)

    Sunday, August 18, 2002 at 8:58 am #
  9. Anonymous wrote::

    Doesn’t Harbn have a strong regional accent?

    Tuesday, August 20, 2002 at 9:39 am #
  10. Sinead wrote::

    Your reference to the “beautifully clear” Harbin accent reminded me of something. When I was at the Dublin Inst for Advanced Studies, about a hundred years ago, I always looked forward to my last class of the day, lectures on Welsh by Proinsias MacCana–from Belfast and a former boxer, according to local gossip. After a day of Dublin, Cork, and Clare accents–MacCana’s voice sliced through the fog like a flint knife. I thought it was just my bias until I heard a classmate refer to his “beautiful, clear, northern accent.” I wonder if there’s a true pattern and how to test it. Play tapes of northern and southern speakers for people who don’t understand a lanugage or understand very little, and ask them to rate the clarity?
    And do you have any Harbin idioms or proverbs to share?

    Tuesday, August 20, 2002 at 11:44 am #
  11. donny yoo wrote::

    haha, that “er lou” story was hilarious. reminds me of how i learned the meaning of the word “gou” (enough). yeah, everyone here in shenzhen says “lou” instead of “ceng” and “dong” instead of “leng” for cold.

    incidentally, you can almost always upgrade from a hard seater to a hard bed once you actually get on the train. when i was going from xi’an back to changsha, the ticket office told me there were no beds, period, on the day i wanted to go back. lo and behold, once i got on the train, there was an entire cabin of empty beds. i see 2 possible reasons for this:

    how do you like the constant waiguoren treatment? i’ve always been treated like a native until i opened my mouth or, surprisingly more often, when i chose not to.

    are you going to travel around outside of the northeast? oh, and have you met any north korean refugees?

    Wednesday, August 21, 2002 at 3:18 am #
  12. Sounds like a good introduction to China… Hope you’re having a good time.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2002 at 3:50 am #
  13. Richard wrote::

    Your story of ‘lou’ reminds me of the time (um, times) we were harassing the customer service attendants at the hotel we were staying at in Changchun.

    They were located a floor below, on the eigth floor, and we were on the ninth floor. Instead of getting off our lazy butts and going up to talk to ask for their assistance, we’d yell out “fuwuyuan, fuwuyan, jiu lou, jiu lou!” (“attendant, attendant, ninth floor, ninth floor!”).

    Good times.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2002 at 12:55 pm #
  14. Guy wrote::

    I don land here

    Friday, July 18, 2003 at 12:09 pm #