China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Getting to Taian -- Part I
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 1998 13:48:21 -0700

21:54 -- China :: 12 APR 98

We rolled into the Suzhou train station at 19:15, half an hour before departure, gliding our fully loaded bikes into the equally loaded departure lounge. Of a thousand pairs of eyes, 200 immediately notice our presence. And why not? Two tall white guys with big noses and nearly matching yellow jackets come trundling in with high-tech mountain bikes: suspension forks, aero-bars and love handles, a variety of gizmos attached by zap-straps, bungee cords and clamps. Jay's panniers are huge and I add the piece de resistance in a bicycle trailer containing a large duffel bag with a canary-yellow rain cover. We might as well have painted signs on our foreheads:

P L E A S E G A W K !!!

which those 200 pairs of eyes immediately proceed to do. Several of them draw closer and soon I am surrounded. Gawking is, afterall, the national pastime here. But more about that another time. Something more unique is about to happen.

I have pulled up stakes in a corner and so am being thoroughly scrutinized by several impassive Chinese faces while Jay picks his way toward the entry gate and some officialdom.

07:18 Yaozhuang -- China :: 13 APR 98

When we entered the departure area I saw a thousand people, luggage heaps everywhere, and not a single bicycle. Passages read from all the China travel guides came to mind, "Bicycles are not allowed on Chinese trains; you must ship them separately and they will arrive a couple of days after you." We were just going to hang until our train was called but I told Jay, "I'd be alot more comfortable if someone with epaulettes said the bikes were OK."

He's backing out from his foray now. The closely spaced rows of seats and luggage heaps leave narrow aisles and little room for a human being to maneuvre, let alone a fully loaded bicycle. Meanwhile, a train employee has pushed her way through the 20 or so gawkers and is explaining with hand signals that we are to proceed to the gate by the time Jay gets back.

At the gate, a mitful of officials with epaulettes go over our tickets, harangue amongst themselves and generally take a good long time to satisfy their curiosity about our bikes. There seem to be moments of indecision and disagreement. I show them that the trailer unhitches from the bicycle and Jay unloads his panniers. And just before we're waved through, Jay gives the throng gathering around the gate area reason to laugh by misjudging the weight on his bicycle which tips over and nearly knocks him on his ass.

22:12 Sun Wu Hotel; Heimin -- China :: 13 APR 98

With the circus act over, we're waved through and assisted cheerfully down one set of stairs, directed to platform 5 where we're assisted up the set of stairs there. They've let us on early, obviously so we can have time to sort out the bicycles. Things are looking good. I'm beginning to believe we're actually going to get the bikes on the train. The cheerful assistance continues as we walk our bikes down the platform, stopping to ask directions to our car from the conductors. (Chinese trains employ a conductor for every car.)

No one appears the least bit perturbed by the bicycles...until we reach our car. The luck stops here and it is stopped by the form of a short, stout man with a face a little like a 30ish Pat Morita (of Karate Kid fame). It's a pleasant face, except that it's scrunched up a fair bit in that "Not on MY watch you don't!" look. He points at the bikes, at the train car, then vigorously, emphatically shakes his head, waves his hands. This, of course, means

N O B I K E S O N T H E T R A I N!!

At this moment, I know we're in big trouble; the guides are right: bicycles are not allowed on passenger trains. It makes sense, actually. There's nowhere to put them on the car. There appears to be no baggage car. We're in trouble.

We gesticulate, pointing back toward the departure area, then sweeping our arm up to this very car: "Hey, no one else has had a problem with it." After re-establishing the "N O B I K E S!" rule, our conductor shouts something up to the conductor standing at the next car, then turns to us, briskly tapping his shoulder. "I've called someone with insignia, a shoulder patch, someone of authority." We'll soon have this matter settled, his stern face says.

Meanwhile, we haven't given up.

07:13 Sun Wu Hotel; Heimin -- China :: 14 APR 98

We're again again gesticulating, "Hey, everyone else thinks it's OK." But he's having none of it. With the glum look of the harangued he taps his shoulder again, looks away from us down the train platform where surely authority will appear and tell these dumb foreigners what's what. So we wait.

Shortly, another train man comes by. An exchange of words between the uniforms, both look at the bicycles, then the other waves his hand in a sweeping gesture from the bikes to the train. Jay interprets this as authoritative and bolts up into the vestibule with his bike. The quick movement catches us all by surprise. He's got the thing half way up the steps--the huge, heavy panniers still attached--before our stern little conductor is quickly all over him, shouting Chinese, tugging Jay's shoulders. "Jay," I say, "I don't think we're allowed on yet." All the uniforms seem alike.

I'm a bit frustrated by all this. Jay's back on the platform now shrugging his shoulders. "I thought we were allowed on," he's saying. To my eyes, it seemed Jay tried to force his way on and I'm sure that's how the conductor saw it. Our stern little conductor has become our malignant little conductor. He's not even paying any attention to us except to tap his shoulder, point down the platform.

I've got a bad tendency to vent when I'm frustrated and though I'm wise enough to not vent on authority--even a train conductor--I'm not so wise with Jay. "What were you doing?" I ask him, incredulously. We go back and forth a bit. "I thought we'd been waved on. I thought he was trying to help."

09:57 Sun Wu Hotel; Heimin -- China :: 14 APR 98

I sigh. "Well, you've really pissed him off now."

The various bicycle and travel guidebooks all stated the same thing about transporting bicycles around China: it ain't easy. Buses are easier than trains (bikes can be stowed on a bus' roof-rack whereas bicycles must be shipped separately and are likely to arrive two days later); trains are easier than planes (no bike boxes--you wrap them in plastic, hope for the best and pay dearly for the excess baggage). During the train trip from Hong Kong to Shanghai I'd commented to Jay about this information: that the bikes were along with us in a baggage car was probably an anamoly due to the special nature of the Hong Kong departure. I'd written email and talked with him over the phone while preparing for the trip. Moving the bikes around inside China could be a bit of a hassle and taking trains would likely separate us from them for a couple of days. Standing on the platform, the completely surly conductor ignoring us, our way barred, Jay had no recollection of this information.

Really, I was more pissed at myself. Jay made the inquiries about the train back at the hotel earlier that day, and I didn't ask him about the bike situation. Later, when purchasing tickets at the station, we didn't ask about bikes. Should've reiterated the possible difficulties. Should've followed up myself. I was just hoping everything would be OK.

Well, it wasn't OK. Jay did me the favour of not rising to the bait. Meanwhile, our headstart on the other passengers is over as crowds begin clambering abord the train.

Now a crowd of epaulettes begins to gather, one of them a drunk: a sallow, sagging, ugly faced drunk in a rumpled uniform with a wad of cash sticking out the breast pocket like a kerchief from a tux. Not a lick of English from any of them and the drunk one begins making the international symbol for 'bribe' while projecting his liquor stained breath in my face. I don't know if any of these lot are the authority promised by our conductor. I sure hope it's not the drunk, to whom I offer only appeasing, non-commital gestures while holding my breath.

More epaulettes gather. More passengers clamber onto the train. More drunken slob in my face asking for 200 Yuan (a little under $25 US).

"We're on, Patrick!" Jay's again bolting onto the train, this time with obvious assistance. I begin breaking down the trailer, removing the duffel from the cargo bay as my bicycle is handed up to Jay. The trailer follows right after and I bend to lift the duffel bag when the authority who let us on the train finally makes his presence know to me.

There are so many uniforms in this country it's hard to tell who's who. Police and Military wear khakhi while security and rail employees sport a light navy, all with those officer's style caps and epaulettes. The policemen wear a halter belt of white leather, you know the ones with one strap over the shoulder attached to a waist belt. I've pretty much sussed all this out, but rank remains something of a puzzle.

12:23 Huimin Binguan; Huimin -- China :: 14 APR 98

This particular rail employee, the one stopping me from lifting the duffel onto the train, seems attired no differently than the others, however, authority often needs no insignia. At first it seems as if he's also after a bribe but after a series of hand signals "this bag's too big," he motions to a 'lieutenant' who profers a receipt book and it becomes clear we're expected to pay an excess baggage fee of 72 Yuan. I give him a 100 Yuan bill and he carefully counts out the change before giving it to me, then makes sure I count it out as well. My first perfunctory shuffling of notes isn't good enough: "please count it out," he gestures. And so I make a point of fingering every note diligently, mouthing "one potato, two potato, three potato, four..." I never did count the value, but I'm certain he believes otherwise.

Now there's the matter of the receipt which he practically puts in my neck pouch himself. The message is clear: this is the ticket for you and your bikes all the way to Taian, a free pass, a get out of jail free card. Don't lose this receipt.

"Shifen Ganxie," I tell him, hoping he understands my attempt at "Thank-you very much." I clamber up onto the train with the bag and notice the bikes stacked feebly by the opposite door of the vestibule. Something will have to be done about that before they roll out into the passageway. I sit in the seat facing Jay. We've been placed beside the conductor's seat, Jay says. No doubt he'll be keeping an eye on us the whole trip. Jay's yucking it up but this has been an unpleasant enough experience that I join him against the will of my underlying demeanor. It breaks the tension.

Shortly the train begins rolling and our surly little conductor sits across the aisle from us, serving up a glare that could ice over a blast furnace. The ordeal's not over yet. Jay and I look out the window into the inky, featureless night, attempting to ignore him. The ordeal's not over yet.

This story continues with Getting to Taian -- Part II.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 5.
trans. Stephen Mitchell