Well, my trip to Ningbo has come and gone. It sure was a blast, though! Last Wednesday night I headed out to the train station around midnight to catch my 12:45 train. I had a 7 or 8 hour train to Wuhan and then a short flight at 10:50 to Ningbo. It sure beats the long train, let me tell you. Everything went fairly smoothly this first part of the trip. Fairly. I got on the train and tried to upgrade my ticket to a sleeper. Everything was going well and the lady told me that I owed her 82 yuan. I thought that was a little too much for an upgrade to Wuhan, but I'm no expert. Besides, the price is on the ticket and they can't cheat me. So she takes my money and goes to get me some change. When she comes back, she brings me my ticket and two big cartons of milk. I'm sitting there wondering what in the world she brought me milk for when she tells me that the ticket only cost 62 and the other 20 was for the milk. HA! I can listen and understand a lot more Chinese than I'm able to piece together and actually speak, so it took me awhile to impress upon her my lack of interest in purchasing her top quality milk. She looked a little disappointed that I wouldn't be helping her meet her sales quota, but I don't really care. I got my 20 back without actually having to yell at her. I got to Wuhan and onto my plane with no other excitement. The only other surprise was that my plane was smaller than expected. A 25 seater. But I fit in the seat and it got me to Ningbo in barely over one hour, so I'm not complaining.
In Ningbo, the plan was for me to take a bus from the airport to the bus station, and then Keli would meet me there. Well I got on the bus and went to the station, but they dropped us off in some little bitty back parking lot. Even though I had never been to Ningbo, I was pretty sure that a the main bus station would be bigger than this one little spot. So where was I, and where was I supposed to be? The surprised and confused looks of the other passengers wasn't doing much to comfort me, but I just got off and followed them because they all were grumbling and moving down the street in the same direction. Turns out they just dropped us off a few blocks early. I managed to find the bus/train station, but Keli sent me a text message saying she was still 30 minutes away. I waited in the KFC across the street and then we ended up having lunch there because by then it was about 2:00 and we were both really hungry.
Now, Shiyan is a small mountain town of 500,000 people. Forty years ago it was still a fishing village of 1,000 or so. The population increase is entirely due to Mao sticking some major military and automobile installations here to protect from a US or Soviet nuclear strike. Ningbo is a port city of more than 3,000,000. It has a long history of hosting foreigners, before and after the Communist era. Shiyan is small, mountainous, cold, dirty, and has piles of garbage on every street. Ningbo seems to be some different country entirely. It's (relatively) big, the air is somewhat cleaner, everyone throws away their garbage. It has a two story tall Starbucks! Not to mention the Subway restaurant, shopping malls, and 50 bazillion Pizza Huts. I've been to bigger, grander, cleaner places in China, but since I didn't travel in October it just was a really nice change for me. I mean, the folks in Ningbo have a washer AND a dryer! Who knew you could have that in China? I sure didn't. I'm fine without all these cool luxuries, but it was still nice to walk around and look at all the stuff I'm missing out on. I like to think of Shiyan as a good place to build character.
So I arrived on Thursday afternoon and stayed until Sunday afternoon. I have a Friday morning class, but thankfully I have a Chinese co-teacher who could teach that class for me. I had a good time there in Ningbo. Keli showed me some of the city after I got there and we ate lunch. There were some really nice parks that actually had large expanses of grass, something else I didn't think possible here. There was also a Catholic building there in town, which shows the long history of foreign visitors to that city. We checked out Starbucks and a few stores in that area before heading out toward Ningbo Daxue (Ningbo University) where the other foreigners were eagerly awaiting my arrival. We spent the next few days watching movies, wandering around the campus and the city, eating good food, drinking Starbucks, and having an all around good time. Laura and Lisha, two former Shiyaners, both came over from Shanghai on Friday night so they got to spend part of the weekend with us as well.
Sunday afternoon I had to head out so I could get back to Shiyan in time for my Tuesday class. Angelyn and I had arranged for our classes to watch a movie together on Monday night, so she covered my Monday night class. Thanks, Angelyn! To get home I could have taken the train to Shanghai and then one more train all the way from Shanghai to Shiyan. About 22 hours. But the time between my arrival and departure in Shanghai was too short and I probably would have missed the train. There's only one train each day on that route, so I would have definitely missed more classes. So instead I went from Ningbo to Hangzhou to Xiangfan to Shiyan. Three trains, but if any one train was late then I had more than one train to choose from to get to my next destination. It seemed like the long, roundabout, sensible thing to do. So I went the 2 hours to Hangzhou, caught my next train to Xiangfan, and 22 hours later I was there. In Xiangfan I went and bought my last ticket. It's usually only 2 hours to Shiyan from there. I had about an hour before my train, so I went and sat in the waiting area. My train was delayed three different times and they kept changing the time on the screen. I was keeping a close eye on the screen because they weren't audibly calling the trains, they would just flash it on the screen that it was loading. So finally around 6:30 my train was called for loading. I walked down to the end of the aisle to get my ticket punched. There's a railing with a gate where you usually get your ticket punched by an attendant and then they let you through the gate to go to the platform. But this time, I walked up to the rail and no attendant came out. Now, there are 7 or 8 aisles and gates along this rail, and there wasn't an attendant at a single one. The gate itself was padlocked shut, so I'm just standing there expecting someone to come out. I mean, surely they expect someone to want to get on the train, right? Apparently not. An old man came up behind me to do the usual stare-at-the-foreigner routine and I asked him if I was in the right place. He looked at my ticket, looked at the sign, and calmly informed that my train was about to leave. I knew that already, I just didn't know how to get to the stinkin' train because apparently this train station doesn't follow normal rules like unlocking gates for passengers and telling people when and where their train is leaving. At this point, another man came up and said that I probably had 3 minutes and I should jump the rail and run. Well, I just happened to have 10 large hardcover Books in my backpack and I was carrying another box with 20 smaller hardcover books. So I was loaded down pretty good. I chunked all of of my stuff over the rail, climbed over, loaded back up, and took off down the hall. The sign said my train was on platform three. I looked to the left, there were two large hallways for platforms 1 and 2, both blocked by a large, padlocked gate. I looked to the right, I saw a sign for platforms 3 and 4 so I ran that way. The entrance to platform three was a large hallway blocked by (can you guess?!?) a very large, very metal, very padlocked gate. I was getting a little tired of this junk, so I started yelling down the hallway. There were some stairs that led down to the platform and between the stairs and the ceiling of the lower level I could barely make out people's feet walking by. Of course, no one came to open the gate for me. I turned around and there was a train station employee, going into a door down the hall. I hollered for her and ran to show her my ticket, saying the gate was closed. Now, you should realize that all of the communication in this story is being done in Chinese, and the more rushed and frustrated I got, the worse my Chinese got. But this lady didn't seem to care. She just pointed me back to the locked gate and told me to go through it. I told her it's closed, she shrugged, and took the noodles she was carrying and went into her office to eat. Talk about customer service! I ran back to the gate, gave it a few good shoves to test the strength of the lock, decided that wasn't going to get me through, and threw my stuff down in frustration. By this time, it had definitely been three minutes since I had jumped the rail (or at least it felt like it) and I just knew that I had missed my train. I turned around and yet another lady was coming around the corner, so I ran to her and showed her my ticket. Like a GOOD employee should, she showed immediate concern, got on her walkie talkie and told them to stop the train, and then took off running to find someone with a key. In no time, she had the gate open and was yelling at me to RUN RUN RUN! Now I'm running down stairs carrying a backpack with all of my clothes and 10 large Books in it, along with the other 20 Books in the box. If I had tripped, it would have been a pretty huge disaster. I ended up on the train, thanks to that lady and her mad walkie talkie, key-finding skills. The next train was about 4 hours later and I did NOT want to wait around that long. The ticket I had was only a standing ticket, so I found a place to set my things and prepared for the final two hours of my trip. The conductor came by and asked me where I was going. When I told him Shiyan, he said that I should go buy a seat because we wouldn't be getting to Shiyan until after 10:30. WHAT? Apparently the nice lady in the ticket window had sold me a ticket on the slow train. No wonder they weren't expecting anyone to want to get on this train. We actually ended up getting to Shiyan right around 10, so it was longer than I originally expected by but shorter than I ended up expecting. It was still quite a long train ride. I'm pretty sure I'm the first and only foreigner any of the people on that train have ever seen. People were coming from two cars away to stare at me. I wouldn't describe it as the best train ride ever, no.
On the plus side, it's great to be home. I missed my friends here a lot. Christmas is coming soon. Laura and Thomas are coming from Shanghai/Suzhou for Christmas and Beth is coming up from Yichang. That should be fun. Then Keli is coming from Ningbo sometime in January after classes are over (China doesn't make room for Christmas and New Year's, they have Spring Festival in January/February). So there's a lot to look forward to in the next month or so. Right now, I'm looking forward to teaching my freshmen in about 45 minutes, so I should probably go figure out what I'll be teaching them.