China - 2001

July 14, 2001

Here I am at last in the heart of China in the middle of Shandong province, nine hours south of Beijing by train, bus, motor cart or bicycle. We finally made it, despite mechanical trouble in Tokyo, mix ups in the airport in San Francisco, and asking myself what kind of madness made me embark on this crazy adventure? and I have no idea how long the trip took--we lost a day  going over the international date line---and the trip was so  long we lost track of days, hours, meals, movies, free drinks and whatever.

The entire trip was incredible adventure in itself--which I hope I will never duplicate. First I had to make it to San Francisco. That took the first day. Then on Tuesday, July 10, I went to the airport to meet "the group." The "group" turned out to be just one person, Nancy. By now we are joined like Siamese twins hooked together just to survive!

Nancy is my good friend from old Ocean Explorer and R2 days. We've already had a million laughs together, and she's good for a million more! Nancy is the one who hooked me into going on this wild madcap adventure. This trip would result in either an unbreakable lasting friendship between us--or precisely the reverse!! I predict the former.

We got our plane tickets from the mysterious Mr. Moto (Patrick Sha, the Zibo School consultant in SF, but I can have a little fun with names, can't I?) God knows, I deserve it after living through the first five days of this out of body experience."

Back to the trip from hell: It took about 24 hours of traveling from San Francisco to Tokyo, then unexpectedly changing planes and on to Beijing--and that was just the beginning of what would be the initial torture of making it to Zibo, Shandong Province. China. Actually, I could call the trip Chinese water torture.

I'll never forget "the Midnight Express to Zibo." That's what the segment would be called in a 1935 Chinese movie, and this travel experience will remain burned in my memory at #10 on my misery index! The inscrutable Mr. Chang Chung, the principal of the Zibo Foreign Language School, was waiting for us outside the Beijing airport. Thank God! Since we had no idea what we would do after arrival struggling to exit among a million Chinese rushing through immigration, I was thrilled to see the sign "Roz and Nancy" held by a Chinese host we had never even spoken to outside the Beijing airport.

Mr. Chang-- in the ubiquitous Chinese manner, I am fast finding out--informed us he had managed to secure the last four places in a sleeping car overnight to Zibo and that we should be pleased that he had accomplished this---although the train perhaps was not the fastest or the best to be had.

What an understatement this was! And little did we know what we were in for. (Even the Chinese aboard said it was the worst train on the tracks.)

But first we had to take the local bus to the Beijing railroad station. We boarded the bus with plenty of time---it was loaded with only Chinese and I had to drag my heavy suitcases down the aisle in the dark among staring Chinese (and that was only the beginning), step over obstacles and jam myself into a tiny back seat--Nancy and I have decided that "robust" is the right word for us here in China!

After a two-hour bus ride through nighttime Beijing, we arrived at 11:15 p.m. at the train station---again dragging luggage up steps, racing in the heat across cobblestone streets, down sidewalks to the front of the station.

But Mr. Chang knew we'd miss the 11:30 p.m. train if we didn't hurry so he rented a motorized cart and off we careened into the deepest recesses of the train station "where foreigners never went"--through back alleys and  warehouses, dodging huge boxes and baggage carts blocking our way.

Finally, we made it to the sleeper car of the midnight train. For the moment, we thought we were lucky to make it. How wrong we were!

We dragged our luggage (by now there were four in our gang--Nancy, Ted and his son Steve from California, and I.) I've tried to say I'm from Washington D.C.  when everybody asks in broken Chinese where I am from, but every time I explain my home as Washington DC, everyone decides that I'm from the BBC, so by now I've given in to my new journalism career. Hey, from now on I'm from the BBC.)

Anyhow, back to the nightmare, because that's what you could call it, except that we kept laughing in our tears and calling this the great adventure.

Once aboard the 1930s train it was almost midnight, and we found ourselves crowded into a dark narrow aisle. We found a couple of pulldown seats, totally jammed with Chinese, what else, and stood figuring out what to do. None of us spoke Chinese, and nobody at first spoke English. To the left were the "sleepers" that would be our beds for the night. I can hardly describe these torture cells as beds--they were metal bunks, stacked three high, about 24 inches wide, with a hard exercise mat-like mattress, covered by a thin worn sheet, a  narrow pillow that seemed to be filled with something like rice or corn husks, and a little towel to cover  the pillow. But, most important, Mr. Chang had reserved just the TOP BUNKS across four rows of bunks! Looking up to the ceiling at least 12 feet up, attached almost to the ceiling was my own private bed--a top bunk. The only way I could get up was by precariously inching up a tiny 12 inch metal ladder, hoisting myself up to the ceiling like a gymnast, and then stuffing myself in like a sardine in a can! I tried. I really did. At least there would be a fan on the ceiling---I forgot to tell you there was "air conditioning,"--the windows were open and it was at least 90 degrees. So there I was, hanging from the ceiling as the ancient train careened down the tracks, unable, (despite my incredible physical conditioning) to make the final lunge sideways into the bunk without hurtling down at least 12 feet onto the dirty floor covered with Chinese shoes. How humiliating! my legs were just too short and I had no possible handhold to make it without a sure fall to the floor.

But just when I decided to give up and sit up for the night on the floor or in a collapsable little seat (occupied by a determined Chinaman), someone came to my rescue. My new best friend Richard occupied the second highest of the four bunks and seeing my ordeal, offered to trade. Gratefully, I crawled in for a miserable night of half sleep, with my precious purse (all the money, passport and visas were there) as my pillow and my water bottles behind my knees turning from cold at midnight to hot water bottles by dawn.

OK. that was the best of the night's experience. This hardly describes the other conditions on our midnight express--such as The Bathroom. I won't even go there!

However, would you believe, we had a great time on this memorable journey. The good part is we met Dr. Liu, an engineering professor from Peking University who took pity on us and took the four of us to breakfast in the dining car---we had an egg sandwich and a kind of rice gruel soup.

We also had good talks with my new friend Richard something or other---who had just come back from MBA studies at American U. (I knew Rodman St. NW where he lived.) We all huddled on the bottom bunk  where a sleeping woman lay and talked about China from dawn on.
Several ambassadors from the Zibo Foreign Language School met us at the Zibo station and off we went in the heat and humidity---for our first moment in the town where they expect the four of us (and 21 others from eighteen different countries) to teach conversational English to teenagers.

But that's another story!!!

God knows, that's another story---and I don't really know the ending let alone the beginning of that story. So more about that later.

[Go to China Part Two]