I call them BCD’s or Bad China Days.
It began with a 02:30 departure time from Nanjing Railway Station on a train, which had originated deep within the Chinese countryside at a sleepy city called Yinchuan 银川. Of course, at the time of purchase, I had little idea of exactly where this town was, nor did I care. I was only interested in the arrival time. 06:17 Shanghai Railway Station.
Bryan: “Shanghai, and I want this train”
Lazy and unfriendly government rail employee: “There are no seats on that train”
Bryan: “Doesn’t matter, I have to get on that train”
Lazy and unfriendly government rail employee: “But there are not seats”
Bryan: “I don’t care”
Lazy and unfriendly government rail employee: “Ok” *looking dumbfounded why a foreigner would want a 02:30 standing room only train ticket*
So Friday morning after a midnight snack of street grub, I crawl my way into a taxi and direct my driver to the train station. My train arrives as I walk out on to the platform and being the lazy fellow that I am, wait till whatever train car stops in front of me. Having a standing room only ticket, I’m able to choose any of the lovely hard seat cars. Given that the journey to Shanghai is almost complete, there are numerous available seats, providing one ask the fellow sleeping on the entire bench to shove over and help a white brother out. Stepping into my car (number 6 I believe) I immediately realized that this came from somewhere poor…very poor. People and their entire lives (rolled into several packages) inhabited this train. Turns out that Yinchuan is the capital of Ningxia Province…a dusty little backwater sandwiched between Gansu and gulag land in the west, the Gobi in the north and Shaanxi’s coal country to the east. I’ve lived here long enough to take little notice to notice given to me, but there was definitely confusion in this car as to my presence…so much in fact that I was actually queried by a police officer and asked to produce my passport, which despite my hours on Chinese trains, have never had to do. This was largely a security precaution hard seat transportation is notoriously famous as a training center and proving ground for thieves. Thieves did strike this car later in the trip, snatching the wallet of a young girl several seats back from my piece of real estate. The officer questioned everyone in the vicinity (except me of course). Given the origins of the train and its post-modern destination, I felt incredibly awful for the lady in question. I wasn’t the first time I would feel shitty in the next 24 hours.
My purpose for traveling to the Pearl of the Orient was none other than a quick in and out mission to acquire a Russian visa. I had one day to do this, and the visa office is open from 9-11am Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays…hence my 02:30 departure time. Arriving in Shanghai, I worked my way up to the Russian consulate. Armed with everything I required, I presented my passport to the guarding PLA soldier and entered the consulate, only to be promptly thrown out by a massive Russian fellow who looked like he’d cut his teeth fighting in the Caucasus. If there is a stereotypical Russian, this was him. I was shown an extremely small notice posted outside the gate of the consulate. It read, in very small writing. No bags, mobile phones, pda’s or laptops permitted inside the consulate. All such equipment must be checked at the gate. Points for clarity guys. Clearing that out, I returned to the visa section and filled out my required forms. I collected my documents which included the info form, my tourist invitation letter, copies of my passport and medical insurance and photos and proceeded to the window. Within five seconds I was informed that I would not be receiving a visa on the basis that my invitation letter was not an original.
Given that the Russian consulate in Shanghai fails to provide information to anyone who is not living in Shanghai, I was completely unaware that an original document was required. Original invitation letters had been offered to me for the not so paltry express post price of 120USD or 25USD for standard, 8 week delivery. I queried as to if Shanghai required original documents, the answer was unclear, but did not discourage the use of PDF copies as previous clients had informed of zero problems with the Shanghai consulate. Coupled with the 30USD required for the actual letter, acquiring originals would have cost almost 150USD, and this to the 120USD I needed to pay for same day visa service and I was looking at a ridiculous amount of money for a 9 day excursion.
So I was denied the ability to spend money in Russia, which would have contributed to the overall improvement of Russia’s economic situation and furtherment of their fledging tourism industry because I lacked a piece of paper that was essentially identical to the one I possessed. People are usually denied regarding finances, health, nationality etc….assholes.
My meticulously researched and planned to the minute travel plans were now essentially useless. I wandered back to the renmin guang chang metro station via Nanjing Xi Lu. I’m normally courteous to the students hawking painting and other art forms. That day I was a vicious animal, refusing to even acknowledge their friendly and brave attempts at conversation. I aggressively pushed my way through crowds pushing through anyone who got in the way of my fast paced assault to the nearest metro station…and in doing so fell into every stereotype of the rude obnoxious foreigner I so detest.
I calmed myself at nearby Starbucks with some coffee (ironic….) and standardized Starbucks music. I stared out the window for about an hour contemplating the best method with which to release massive mutated cockroaches upon the Russian consulate.
1pm…Time to go back to Nanjing and I make my way to the bursting railway station where I manage to purchase a ticket (with a seat) to Nanjing…but it doesn’t leave until 5pm. With no where to go and zero ambition I bought some frozen pineapple juice and one kilogram of sunflower seeds and found a piece of floor in the main terminal of the station (all the available waiting seats were filled) where I snapped the following shitty mobile phone photos in between mandarin text conversations with several of my Nanjing friends and leading Afrika Korps’ tank divisions across North Africa with my PDA.
Halfway through my one kilo bag of seeds, my floor neighbor breaks into English. A graduate student from Zhejiang University, Zhang is on his way home to Xinjiang, 53 hours from Shanghai. But he doesn’t just have a ticket; he has a standing room only ticket. 53 hours…on the floor of a dirty hard seat car. If that wasn’t bad enough, his train didn’t leave until…well today. He was planning on essentially living on the floor of the train station until that time. Leaving on a later train with a seat was too expensive…as he would have to stay in Shanghai until the 31st of September.
I couldn’t help but feel a little childish.
Upon returning to Nanjing, I chowed down at a local Maccers, where having just sat down with my meal, I was approached by two young girls. The rapidly spoke to my in Mandarin of which I could pick up a little. Essentially they wanted money. When I said no, they asked if I could buy them something. Despite having been humbled by my train station experience, I was still in a shitty mood. The entire conversation I stared at them in this very, very annoyed a pissed off looking face. I wasn’t willing to purchase them anything, despite their story about being abandoned by their parents. I asked them why the insisted on asking me, a foreigner, and asked why they weren’t asking the local Chinese around me. They didn’t really have a response to that that, instead pressing me harder, eventually becoming mad. They stormed away. I finished my grub and left.
Had it been a better day, and had it been on the street I might have been persuaded to purchase them some dumplings or some noodles. Begging is a large ethical question for me in China. Providing to beggars is something I’ve chosen not to do, largely because I believe that it fosters a culture of full time, career beggars, especially among young children. It also reinforces the understanding that foreigners represent an income. If I had provided to those two girls, it is highly likely that they would have returned the next day bothering the next foreigner. Despite their story, I have no method with which to confirm. Despite the fact that I’ve chosen not to give towards beggars, I did mention that I might have provided for these two…I don’t’ know why…maybe it is because of my determination not to fall into foreign stereotypes…rich, overpaid, oversexed, over here etc. I don’t like to be viewed in that light…a greedy white man denying basic necessities to those in need. I dwelled on this the remainder of the night…in addition to my rage regarding my visa, time and money wasted in Shanghai and general exhaustion from a crazy 24 hours combined to create a BCD of epic proportions.
At least I’ll have more time in Mongolia, where they appear to appreciate tourism dollars.