A FEW WEEKS ago I sought hallmarks of Chinese heritage and architecture at one of Beijing’s main railway stations, only to be bitterly disappointed at the fact that the entire concourse is transit, for ticketed passengers only.
This time, on my way out of Beijing for a few days, I had the opportunity to check out another one of Beijing’s major termini: the aptly named Beijing North, to catch my overnight train. Let’s just put it out there: at face value, I felt a bit disappointed. The station is bare: one convenience store and one toilet caters for 11 platforms. Not knowing when the next time I would have electricity was (I was scheduled to go on a tour out into the open wilderness the next day, but more on that later) I walked around to look for a socket to charge my phone. I could only find two, but they didn’t work and the staff told me I could not use it.
Technically I shouldn’t be too surprised: this generation of stations falls in line with the more utilitarian side of Chinese culture, where infrastructure is built purely to bring people in and out, something that you’ll see even in large interchanges across the country, resulting in some pretty imposing architecture.
And to add to the challenge, the announcement came that our train would be delayed until further notice. Bad enough as that sounds, it’s an overnight train, scheduled to depart at 11:45 p.m. and there’s no space to doze off. (You’d think that there’s an issue with the design of this building when all seats are taken in the waiting hall but this is the only departure for the night.)
Which leaves me with only one option: ask around and hope to find someone with a charger and/or a portable hotspot to notify those awaiting my arrival of my train’s delay. Luckily (or unluckily), these seats are not the most conducive to sleep, so people have to find some way to pass the time. And when you look different to everyone else, you naturally spark interest among those around you. Speak Chinese? Even better, because now you don’t just have a random request to a stranger; you have a conversation.
In front of me sat three people: a boy trying to sleep on his father’s lap while his uncle, generous enough to provide me his phone as a wifi hotspot, holds their luggage. It’s their first time taking the long-distance train overnight and with this delay I can imagine it would be their last if they could afford it. They are off to see relatives, and they had also chosen the train based upon its reputation for reliability (and I can attest to this, both with research and past experience of air travel in China). But they sure aren’t travelling light, and it seems that they are going to be away from Beijing for quite a while.
Beside me are, lo and behold, two Spanish backpackers in China for a month, who had flown in to Beijing only the day before. They look to prefer to mind their own business … until I ask them for help in Spanish. They don’t know where they’re going onwards – wherever the journey takes them, like true adventurers. Language can be powerful; didn’t think I’d be practising two languages in the one night. Oh, and the other bonus: they had a portable charger.