Sunday, October 07, 2012

Train of thought

"Please sit in the seat number shown on your ticket," the PA boomed at every stop from Qingyuan to Wuhan. And Wuhan and back. It was a simple rule but one that we couldn't follow. It is the rule that it is imperative to break in China. This rule, though elegantly simple and common sense, doesn't fit with the ticketing system that operates in China: Ticketing for train trips during the national holiday period can only be bought 5 days before the day of departure. Since 100 million people want to buy those multiple tickets and the best way is to use the internet to buy the tickets, thereby avoiding the pandemonium of the ticketing office. The computer system chooses the seating and your travel party / family is left scattered in three different carriages.
Fortunately, everyone knows the drill. You ask someone else to move to another cabin so that you can sit next to your wife and they'll get up straight away. It is one of the few acts of public kindness that people know is not a trick, that I help you, someone else will definitely help me. Or perhaps everyone wants to do the fingers to the System embodied by the PA.
But of course, the Good Samaritan whose seat you're in may get off the train before you, and so another passenger might get on with your new seat number. That's fine: You just tell them the situation and they head to the other carriage to sit in your ticketed seat. Of course, if they themselves are in a group, they may just evict you.
Either way, on our slow train to Wuhan and our fast train back, it gave us something to do, besides play cards, read books and eat. Wuhan itself had more: Cheap taxis, sweet rice wine for breakfast, and hordes of people looking for some holiday diversions. All the places we went to, bar one, was overcrowded to the point of obliterating almost any redeeming tourist value. But so long as you are there for a collective experience that'll bring you closer together, you'll enjoy! We lined for Huanghe Lou in a massive queue that snake around the base of the building, slowly crawling into the building, but once there, it was a queue up the stairs, and then a queue around past the gift shop, which led to another queue up another set of stairs. We pulled out at this point. Whatever was at the top would not be able to be appreciated.
And that's what this autumn's enlightenment might rest upon, if I were to go by the Wuhan newspapers: what is the enjoyment of travel and how can a system give the most enjoyment to the people. It might sound a bit patronising but Chinese people are still learning how to be travellers and appreciate special places and events properly. They know its special and thus go there just to indicate that they've been there. They "got the t-shirt".
The system for public holidays is peculiar. The government will change the weekends for most workers around public holidays so that everyone has continuous long holiday stretches (with continuous long stretches of work before or after. If there were a three day public holiday from Wednesday to Friday, they may move one weekend to Monday and Tuesday, thus giving a seven day break, for example. This is very benevolent of the authorities to ensure that people have maximum togetherness on special days. But holidays aren't necessarily just for family togetherness: this system is the bane of the traveller. Because there is no flexibility for most workers, everyone is off on those exact same seven days, using transport on the first and last, going to various sites on the third, fourth and fifth days. Most people choose to have their "family togetherness" from their home because of an aversion to the throngs of people choking anything worth being at.
At almost every site, I found myself repeating the idea of giving companies, or people, the power to stagger their own holidays around national holidays. And was met with an article suggesting the same thing in the paper. At least someone is listening.