CLI Perspectives: When everything goes wrong

This week, CLI Perspectives brings you a post from Benjamin Horn. Ben, a student from the University of Pennsylvania, tells an epic tail of his adventures to Hong Kong amidst the rainy season in China. Read more to see what nail-biting situations he gets himself into.

When everything goes wrong

By Benjamin Horn, CLI Chinese Immersion Program student

The frogs were chirping delightfully to the not-quite-visible stars as I set out on my journey, shouldering only my Swiss backpack and a sense of nervous anticipation, an almost manic excitement. On the bus ride to the train station, I clutched my small pink train tickets tightly in my hands. My teacher at the Chinese Language Institute, had helped me purchase them about a week ago, when I realized it would become necessary to go to the jewel of southern China, the great island metropolis of Hong Kong. My visa, a multiple-entry tourist visa, was only good for 90 days each stay and I was (frustratingly enough) in China continuously for 92 days.

I planned to hop across the border to Hong Kong and back, thus giving me another 90 days in the country, well over what I needed before my flight back to America. It would be a whirlwind trip: I would train there on Friday evening, cross the border, and have about a day in Hong Kong, before returning on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stay for much longer as money was tight.  As soon as I explained this to my teacher, he helped me go online and purchase the train tickets, as they sell out very fast in a country with a very mobile population of 1.35 billion people.

For the ride to Shenzhen, where I would jump across the border, I had a hard seat ticket and I estimated it would be an uncomfortable 13 hour ride. For the way back I managed to secure a much more comfortable, albeit a little more expensive, hard-sleeper – certainly worth the price of admission. It was at these tickets which I stared as, my features lit by the garish neon light of the hundred signs of Guilin, I contemplated the next 13 hours. I knew it would be uncomfortable, but then I would be there and would be able to meet up with my friends. Getting off the bus, I walked into the station and onto my train with trepidation and after finding my seat, settled down to sleep away the next few hours.

Occasionally, it happens that every plan you make goes wrong and, for better or for worse, you end up having an adventure. This is, I’m afraid, what happened to me. For around six o’clock in the morning, four hours before our supposed arrival in Shenzhen, our train stopped. And it remained stopped for the next seven hours. It turned out that Typhoon Utor, which I had thoughtlessly disregarded as having an effect on any of my travel arrangements, was bringing heavy rain to the mainland, flooding the tracks at key locations, creating bottlenecks and huge delays for all trains. I had slept most of the first 8 or so hours away, and remained aloof from the Chinese people sitting around me, except for a slightly embarrassing request for some toilet paper (not provided in Chinese public facilities).

I was a little afraid of testing out my Chinese outside of the classroom, even though I had been speaking in Chinese with my teachers for the last couple of months. Nevertheless our delays, which ended up causing us to arrive in Shenzhen 13 hours late, created a sense of camaraderie that eventually overcame the barrier of language.

I began to talk with the people around me, who, as we approached Shenzhen, began to advise me about my trip to Hong Kong. Apparently, if we arrived in Shenzhen past midnight, I would not be able to cross the border onto the island. However, I had booked no hotel in Shenzhen. I was worried, to say the least, as we crawled our way through the typhoon and cooed at the devastation we could see manifest around us: rivers that overflowed their boundaries, red with mud; whirlpools spinning piles of debris; waterfalls in the place of stairs. The guy sitting next to me, a worker at the Shenzhen International Airport, continued to reassure me that we would be able to figure something out. I stared out at the landscape and took another breath of the stale, artificial air.

We did in fact arrive in Shenzhen past midnight, thus confounding my plans to go to Hong Kong that evening. It was now Saturday night, or Sunday morning, depending on your perspective. When I and Xiong, my airport worker friend, stepped off the train, I roared with glee. The train had begun to feel like a prison, and I drank deep the muggy air of Shenzhen.

We exited the station and looking around, I thought that I was spoilt for choice. Hotel signs loomed every which way on gigantic skyscrapers and I was confident it was only a matter of time before I found a reasonably priced room. I was hopelessly wrong. Xiong and I walked around for about an hour, but couldn't find any room for me – every hotel was booked solid. I felt bad about keeping Xiong waiting for me, so eventually I turned to him and told him that I could handle the rest myself – in a worst case, I thought, I would go to a bar and settle down until dawn.

Yet Xiong had other plans. He called his friend and, in a display of genuine kindness, offered me a bed at his home. I was surprised and pleased, and quickly accepted. We took a taxi out of the city to the suburbs, if they can be called that - huge skyscraper apartment complexes touching the sky – and met up with one of Xiong’s friends who drove us to the airport.

Behind the airport hotels was an anonymous looking tower block that actually served as the dormitory for the airport workers. Xiong’s room was not luxurious: three to a room, the beds bunked above desks on which sat a few personal possessions. One of Xiong’s roommates was gone for the night so he gave me his bed while he slept on his roommates. He even let me take a shower, using his shampoo and soap. Dizzied by Xiong’s kindness and my own exhaustion, I easily fell asleep on his bamboo mat bed.

We got up around 7:30 AM, as Xiong needed to go to work and I needed time to cross the border and to return for my train in the afternoon. We headed to the airport worker’s dorm’s cafeteria for breakfast, where we were joined by several of Xiong’s friends. They were all shocked to see me, a foreigner, in their cafeteria of all places, and even more shocked to learn that I could speak with them in Chinese. I even cracked a few jokes.

Xiong regaled in the attention he got for having a foreigner friend and I was only too happy to praise Xiong to the heavens. We headed to the airport after breakfast and I was helped in booking a bus to Hong Kong city center. Xiong and his friends headed off without much to-do, but before he left I tried to give Xiong some money for his trouble. He wouldn’t hear of it. So I told him to give me his address, and I would send him a gift from England. He was thrilled at that, and we exchanged contact information. As he left, he told me to come back to Shenzhen after I graduated. I smiled and waved goodbye.

As the bus to Hong Kong weaved through the streets of Shenzhen to the border in the morning sunlight, I marveled at the scale of everything. Guilin, the city in Guangxi where I study Chinese at the brilliant Chinese Language Institute, was big by American standards, but a town by Chinese standards.

China's cities are built on a different scale: they are titanic. Mammoth skyscrapers spring up everywhere, soaring highways rise and fall, lights, trees and cutting edge architecture blend to create the impression of intelligent design. Shenzhen is a city that sprung up “overnight,” its economy jump-started by Deng Xiaoping’s gift of Special Economic Zone status. Although in terms of historical and cultural sites the city is perhaps lacking, in terms of entertainment it is surely not. Jaw gaping, I watched the city pass by until we reached the border. After passing through the security checkpoint without too much hassle, I got on the bus to Hong Kong island.

Hong Kong is a curious place – a unique blend of British and Chinese that I doubt is found anywhere else in the world. I only had two hours on the island, just enough time to eat lunch at a delicious Indian restaurant and explore one of the cities stylish malls, but I enjoyed everything I saw. As a British person myself, I felt particularly aware of the British elements I could see – from the more obvious things such as driving on the left hand side of the road to the more subtle, like the style of the public transportation (the MTR is endearingly reminiscent of London’s Tube). I would like to go back. After buying a book for my train ride back, I headed out, riding the MTR all the way back to the border.

I must admit to a certain smugness as I sat munching on a bar of chocolate in Shenzhen train station. I had managed to get to Hong Kong and back, thus renewing my visa, in one day and I felt prepared for the journey ahead. I thought even if the train was delayed, Xiong had texted me earlier saying I would be wise to buy a bus ticket as delays were inevitable, I could sleep comfortably, read my books, and enjoy a leisurely journey looking at the rainy countryside. My reverie, however, was shattered as all of the sudden all the electronic boards in the train station went blank and people with microphones came out and started yelling in brazen Chinese.

I…couldn't believe it. Surely not? But indeed, all trains had been canceled due to the inclement weather. I wandered outside the train station in confusion for a couple of minutes, but then thoughts of another night in Shenzhen with no hotel (and this time, no Xiong) pushed me towards the nearby bus station. Luckily, I was accosted by a travel agent – usually I would wave these people away, as the transportation services they offer vary widely in quality, but this time I had little choice. I purchased a ticket without so much as haggling, and then returned my train ticket.

I got onto a sleeper bus for the first time and crawled onto my tiny bunk. Curiously, there were many foreigners on my bus, and I found a nice couple, students from England, to talk to in the early hours of the evening. Falling asleep was difficult, but sheer exhaustion usually does the trick. When I awoke, we were back in Guilin.

I got off the bus and roared. Everything had gone wrong, but in the course of things going wrong I had had an adventure, and, to be honest, it was really quite a fun adventure as well.

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