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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in China

The Wrong Ticket
Darren Skelton

In the coldwater town of Bei an, I was getting a little cocky with my Chinese, and as such made a complete hash of buying train tickets to get home. In my haste I had mistakenly bought two tickets to Sui hua, not two tickets to my current home city of Harbin, a rather foolish mistake. The kind of mistake that finds you stuck in the kind of place that is miles from anywhere, a place that nobody else ever goes to, and a place that only has one train a week returning from it.

Larger than life, frost-bitten middle-aged women selling their hard boiled tea eggs were making valiant attempts to intercept us as we left the train station following the afore mentioned ticket fiasco. We were in search of a warmer place and a tastier breakfast than what they offered and as such we resisted their determined sales pitch. The hole in the wall restaurants located across the parking lot looked extremely inviting to a couple of frozen and hungry chaps, and so we entered one at random.

As I sat there in this Korean restaurant awaiting my noodles and boiled egg breakfast, I had my suspicions regarding the tickets and asked the waiter to read it out to me in Chinese. This is the moment I noticed the error, as the waiter gladly pointed out the foolishness of my doings and so informed me to get back over to the station and change the tickets. And to do so sooner rather than later if I wanted to leave this town at any time in the near future.

Steve seemed to take this minor setback in his stride and pointed out it should be me who goes back into the cold over to the station while he stayed in the warmth drinking tea. His argument had some justification to it, and so I reluctantly donned my hat and shuffled on over to the station again. What I thought could be a tricky little encounter actually turned out to be quick and efficient, this time the lady at the ticket counter understanding everything that I was saying to her. A result.

I returned to the restaurant to give Steve the old good news/bad news scenario. The good news being I had changed the tickets and was now in possession of two seated tickets to Harbin, the bad news being the train was not due to leave until 2pm. This meant a four-hour wait in this cold backwater town. The start of the waiting began by getting through the sizeable bowl of steaming noodles placed in front of me.

We killed one hour chatting to the middle aged, bubbly Chinese lady who was striping the meat bare from the bones of a couple of recently killed and cooked dogs. Being that this was a Korean restaurant, dog is very popular on the menu, and cheap too! She paid 40 Yuan for the two dogs, that is nearly three English pounds, a bargain really. I don’t really have any problems at all about eating dogs; to me they are just another animal in the food chain. But eating dog for breakfast? After an hour or so, the conversation had run its course, the tea had gone cold and our bowls of noodles were empty, time for a change of scenery.

We walked the streets for a while, looked into a few shops to regain some body heat, bought some tasty treats to serve as snacks on the train, explored a colourful but pungent smelling food market, watched some workers demolishing the local ice sculptures then loading the ice into large bags, and walked some more. Why not let the ice melt when the weather gets warmer?

All the time, we noticed that the locals up here seem a happy and smiling bunch, surprising really given the freezing nature of the weather. Many people spoke a few words to us as greetings, and many children pointed wildly in our direction when they saw us. Finally the cold became too much as we searched for either a coffee house or an Internet bar to pass the time. The Internet bar won the race.

We tapped back into the modern world courtesy of ‘the web’, checked the football news, checked the music newspapers, read some emails and looked up who had won what at the recent Oscar circus. We sipped on our steaming hot glasses of tea for warmth and contemplated why tea is often served in glasses rather than in cups, but no outcome was reached. We settled the outrageously small bill and left in search of the train station and our departure of out there.

On the way to the station we passed a junior middle school and observed all the little kids buying candy floss on this cold winters day, much to our surprise. We filled our bellies with some steaming hot dumplings to keep the cold and hunger at bay for the upcoming journey.

The train station was cold and unwelcoming, the guards were official looking and the platform was a shambles of people impatiently waiting in the biting cold air. The train arrived, we pushed and shoved for a while and eventually settled down to pass the time returning home eating peanuts and snoozing away the hours. The monotony being broken with the odd discussion about nationality and what exactly were we doing on this train in this part of China. Good question.
© Darren Skelton October 2004

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