Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I'd better see a lot of really cute pandas in Chengdu...

The FSU study abroad program ended Sunday, so we left Tianjin at 6:45 am to catch the train to Beijing. From Beijing, we took the 11:20 K train to Chengdu, what was supposed to be a 30-hour ride. Chengdu is located in Sichuan Province, the home of the giant panda. There are several giant panda research bases outside Chengdu, one of which was the first stop on our agenda.

Getting the tickets for this trip was quite a struggle. Our travel agent at TFSU, "Herbert," proved to be somewhat of an imbecile. Instead of receiving our soft-sleeper tickets on the more modern T-train on July 31 as promised, Herbert delivered K-train hard sleeper seats to us no earlier than 11:30 the night before we would depart Tianjin.

We were worried about the K-train, which is an older and less comfortable model than the T-train. Our room was about 7'x10' and held two columns of three bunk beds each. The head space above each bunk got narrower going up: Scott had a top bunk and could only sit up halfway without hitting the ceiling. Each bed was about seven feet long and less than three feet wide. Our bunkmates were a woman and her three-year old daughter traveling home to Tibet, and an elderly man with his son and daughter-in-law, going home to Chengdu. Everyone was polite and courteous, but the Chinese don't hold the same regard for personal space that I'm used to. There were many invasions into my personal space bubble (which a lot of you know is very, very large). In an attempt to keep everybody calm, the train speakers broadcasted "relaxing" Kenny G renditions of such classics as Unchained Melody, I Will Always Love You, and What Child is This. Random!

Nonetheless, time went by. We played cards, read, chatted with people who wanted to practice their English, and got a decent night's sleep. The next day, I looked out the window and we were in the mountains! The scenery was beautiful: little streams ran amongst the hills and the lush greenery was dotted with quaint little farmhouses. I was really enjoying looking out the window and reading my book, congratulating myself on my good attitude about the train ride when, around 12:30 Monday afternoon:


By the time the train got underway again, my attitude had changed into one of complete hatred for the train and all the people around me in the train. The little girl who had previously been endearing and cute turned into an annoying little monster; the cozy bunk became hellishly hard, cramped, and dirty; the friendly Chinese people on the train became one mass of irritatingly curious faces. Suddenly I wanted to get off, desperately!

To further complicate matters, we were supposed to check into our hostel by 8 pm or we risked losing our room. After a series of attempted phone calls from the train to our helpless travel agent in Tianjin, he promised me that he ha secured an extended check-in until 11 pm. We rolled into Chengdu around 10:40. After pushing through the seething masses of people in the train station while clutching my purse to avoid pickpocketers, we wrangled a taxi from the hundreds waiting outside the stations and managed to get to the hostel by 10:55... only to find they had given our room away. Luckily, the hostel had dorm-style rooms left. Not quite as nice as what we had originally booked, but by that point we didn't care. We hadn't showered in two days and were both so tired we could barely stand up. I was so grateful just to have a bed! I made it to Chengdu- but all I'm saying, for all that effort- I'd better see a lot of really cute pandas this week!

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