Monday, February 19, 2007

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The Chinese New Year has been called one of the biggest periodical mass migrations on the planet; this gives rise to lots of transportation "difficulties" like John's colleague with ticketing troubles:

One of my co-workers from Guilin will not be spending the holiday with her family for the first time ever because she simply could not get a ticket home. She’s not the only one. It’s just way too many people trying to “go home” all at the same time.

...and Marc's nightmare drive to Beijing:

This is probably the one and only time that I am going to drive this route. It's just too dangerous, and I don't want to lose my life because of some stupid or inexperienced driver.

When people go home for the Chinese New Year, they most often choose to go by train. Buying a train ticket is a major pain: low price and poor availability mean long lines, back-door dealings, and resorting to other more expensive or less safe means of getting places. Jodi and I have good friends who are taking the airplane back at probably four times the cost of the train because they couldn't find a train ticket back to Shanghai.

So, what about my own situation? Here's where I describe how Jodi and I got "home" and back this year.

  • Home: back-door dealings! At first we considered going to the train station and lining up with everybody else, but quickly scrapped that idea when we remembered lining up for hours last year only to end up buying sleeper bus tickets, a result that we were much less than pleased with. I came up with the idea of booking tickets at the business desk of the multi-star hotel down the street, but we got nervous when they promised us that they could get tickets for sure, but that they would be delivered a day or two before our departure date. Having a deadline--a wedding to attend on the 6th--we scrapped that idea as well. Luckily for us, Jodi remembered an option we looked at last year: every January/February the Hunanese in Shanghai website turns into a virtual marketplace of train tickets back to Hunan for the Chinese New Year. After leaving a couple of posts with our desired date, number of tickets and phone number, we waited for a few days. Then Jodi got a test message from a guy who saw our messages, and a quick trip to Xujiahui procured two tickets sold at face value plus RMB 50 service charge (bringing the price up to RMB 310) for the overnight train direct to Changsha, Hunan. This is before these tickets were available at the train station.
  • Back: round-about route. Train tickets are ordinarily only sold at the point of departure, so you can only deal with return tickets from the other end. Once in Hunan, we began to think about how to get back. A trip to the local train station informed us that we did, indeed, have to go to Changsha to buy the ticket back to Shanghai. I devoted half a day to a solo trip into Changsha, which turned up that the train station was only selling tickets four days in advance, and that ticket sales started at 8:30am. Since I preferred not to stay overnight in Changsha and because of the possibility that all tickets would have been sold through the back door by the time they officially went on sale, we started to consider other options. There is a sleeper bus direct from Jodi's hometown, but like I mentioned above sleeper buses are uncomfortable and unsafe. Finally, Jodi's dad called up a co-worker who has a son studying in Hangzhou--near Shanghai--and the co-worker agreed to help us buy a ticket because he was making a two-hour trip down to Zhuzhou, Hunan (a city where even the locals admit that there is nothing to see) specifically to buy train tickets. Zhuzhou is the stop before Hunan's capital Changsha for north-bound trains and is somewhat of a rail hub, and is therefore more likely to have tickets for trains bound north to/through Shanghai. Luckily for us (once again, the word "luckily" comes into play) he was able to get an upper bunk--the cheapest, most inconvenient and least desirable bed--on a sleeper car on the super-slow 1598 train from Hengyang to Shanghai. When Jodi's dad and I went to their hometown train station to book a ticket to Zhuzhou to connect to the 1598, we wanted the latest train that would allow us to catch the 4:13pm stop at Zhuzhou. The 11:30am and 9:00am trains were all booked, so I had to wake up at 5:15am for a standing-only ride on a 7am slow train.

Luckily, there were empty seats on the 7am'er, and my seatmates were a friendly family with a middle-school-aged girl aiming to test into the Yali School in Changsha, and a mother-daughter pair taking the train to catch the airplane back to Shanghai; the daughter works at a big securities firm in Xujiahui. This puts me in Zhuzhou at 9:30am, with about six hours to blow in city which, like I mentioned above, has nothing much to offer except for a Daoist tower in a park and a net cafe with prices hiked by 50% for the Chinese New Year.

Happy New Year to everyone.

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