Waiting for the train.

I love a good reality check, especially when it comes at ten minutes after midnight on a Thursday night.
Last night, I was treated to a healthy dose of reality as I waited patiently for my sleeper train to take me to Yingtan, a stop-off en route to Guilin in the south of China.
I had been hanging out in Tunxi, near Mount Huangshan, with some lovely folk for a few dayts and I had got a little comfortable. One lovely Taiwanese lady, Lina, had been keeping me company with her perfect English. I’d been indulged with her insightful, fascinating conversation and even treated to her skills as a translator. It was heaven.
Then, just as it started to get nice and cosy, I upped and left, like a Aussie guy who thinks he might be in love. The road was calling.
It started with the taxi driver. He decided to round Y6.40 up to 7 Yuan. It took a good five minutes to figure that one out.
In the packed-out, human-odour-filled waiting room a young Chinese man struck up a brief conversation with me in English. This ain’t so bad, I thought.
His train and most of the waiting passengers left and I pulled out my book, ready to chill out. It was midnight, after all and I’d had a big day sampling different sorts of tofu.
But, peace alluded me and, instead, I was treated to a piece of modern-day Commedia del Arte.
A friendly-looking, pink-clad young Chinese woman excited beckoned me over. I obliged, lugging my backpack to sit opposite her and her companion (friend, sister, cousin, maid – I was not sure).
Naturally, she started chatting away, asking me all sorts of questions and confusing my blank face for comprehension. After a few minutes of her rapid-fire Chinese, my shy smile, combined with a head shake, brow crunch, silence and shoulder shrug eventually told her that I was understanding her as much as vegetarian understands a butcher.
She was crushed. Her shoulders slumped and her head drooped, for a few moments at least.
But it did not take long for her intuitive Chinese nature to take over and she was it again. Question after question poured out of her, alongside a million beautiful smiles. She was convinced, I’m sure, that if she said the words slowly and loudly enough, that I would understand. Does that sound a familiar tactic, I asked myself, guiltily.
So I sat there, pouring over my useless phrase book, looking like a complete fool and repeating the meagre words I knew. Mi fan (rice) and ce sor (toilet) – at least I think that’s what those words mean – did not really fit into the conversation. But, dua bu qi (sorry) was bandied about like bubble bath at a slip ‘n’ slide.
It was pretty funny, really, and it was certainly more amusing than my rather hard-core book about Chinese history.
There weren’t many people at the station, about 8, I reckon, but they were all crowded aroud like kids at a clown show.
I was definitely the clown.
My fellow passeners were smiling, adding their two-cents worth every few minutes and, of course, having a nice giggle at my expense.
Then, the conductors came over, three of them, and joined the circus. Of course, I couldn’t understand their Chinese either.
It started getting ridiculous when one of the ticket officers decided to display his considerable mime skills. He was jumping across the waiting room like some rabbit-cum-reindeer with an exceptionally goofy grin on his face.
I’m not sure if he was trying to mime a kangaroo for me, as I’d divulged that I was an Aussie, or whether he was trying to tell me that doing acrobatics with my heavy backpack would be difficult.
In any case, it was a real treat to see the conductor, decked out in his full uniform – complete with the train driver’s hat and blazer – take on the attributes of a jack-in-the-box.
After that wave of laughter had subsided, we were really in stitches at one point, the girls got straight back to their task: to tell me what they had been doing in Tunxi. The bought out the old let’s-show-her-in-writing-so-she-can-read-it-because-the-problem-is-clearly-her-lack-of-oral-skills trick. The Chinese business letter they whipped out for me to read, unsurprisingly, did not ease our mutual confusion. I can read the date, I thought, impressed with myself.
But, once again, I crushed their dreams.
And it was touching that they cared so much about continuing a conversation with a foreign stranger. It was short-lived, but I felt a breif sense of community with the folk at the station. I managed to learn the Chinese words for sister, name and tired, too, which was a bit of a boon.
I reckon it’s the absurdity of these sorts of situations that make them so memorable. It’s really not every Wednesday night you find yourself at a train station in rural China trying to understand the local dialect. For me, that’s the real brilliance of travelling alone and visiting exotic places. Climbing Mount Huangshan and road-testing stinky tofu are fascinating and thrilling experiences, but the ones that make you laugh and take you by surprise, they’re the real gems.
The never-ending game of Charades continues.

4 thoughts on “Waiting for the train.

  1. Now ur talking a language I can understand sis, feels like I’m right beside you on the train from your amazing descriptions.. Keep on trekking xoxo

  2. Penny that was hilarious.
    Have you thought of learning “I no speak chinese”
    I tried to look it up for you but gave up.
    Did you take a video- the camera does have that setting but it uses a lot of memory.
    Nice to talk to you today
    AW

  3. Very funny Pen, and I can just picture it. You definitely need a picture book to show people, or maybe you could draw a picture and ask people to write the word below and you write it too.
    You are up to the challenge I think!

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