Dispatch

Floor and Building7 min read

One word for two things, and two for one – Brendan O’Kane

 

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 Station 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.

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 had had the convenience of baggage-check for my duffel then, hadn’t I? And in Beijing, I had 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 p.m., and I arrived at the train station at 11 a.m. to make absolutely sure that nothing went wrong. Inside the entrance, I noted that my train left from 2 lóu, and headed off in what I took to be that general direction.

The character lóu 楼 is composed of the character 木, meaning “wood,” which serves as a semantic determinative; and another component, lóu 娄, 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 lóu 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 Station, 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, with 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 “Kāile.

“Gone.”

Like most other places I’ve seen in China, Beijing Station 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 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 kuài. He also got me 100 kuài’s worth of little paper tickets whose use remains unclear to me. (I think they may have been 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 kuài 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-meter-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 realized 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 the Beijing accent.

I sat, and I waited, and I eavesdropped and people-watched. A woman walking with her sleepy five-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. ∎

 

This essay appeared in an earlier form on Disoriented in the Orient, July 25, 2002. It appears here with permission of the author. Header image by 北纬30度.

Brendan O’Kane

Brendan O’Kane used to live in Beijing, where he worked as a freelance writer and translator and was one of the hosts for Popup Chinese, a Chinese-learning podcast, reviews of which described him as “only slightly annoying.” These days, he’s a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.