The best and most interesting way for me to explore a place is through public transit. It can be very challenging but the rewards are worth taking the risks. I went to China last summer and spent 3 weeks exploring four of its popular city destinations. I spent a lot of time researching and planning travel logistics prior to the trip. And my efforts paid off! I was able to go places through various travel alternatives like taxi, train, bus, bike, boat and bamboo raft. I hopped on and off the subway in Shanghai and Beijing like a boss! I did a lot of walking, too! With my Asian features, it was easy to blend with the crowd. ATPing allowed me to connect with the locals as well as foreign tourists, see breathtaking scenery and experience the country’s unique culture in a way that I would never have had I not used the public transit. Here are some of my most unforgettable serendipitous ATP (Alternative Travel Project) adventures in China:
1. Hiking up the mountains of Longji terraced fields searching for my accommodation: I was at a crossroad and kind of lost when a Korean lady came along and helped me figure out where we were in the map. By some streak of luck, we were booked in the same hostel. She eventually became my travel companion, at least for that part of the trip.
2. Cruising along Li River, with a grand view of the majestic karst (limestone hills): I met a young Japanese family on the viewing deck having a great time. I was pleasantly surprised considering how the Japanese generally feel toward China and its people. It was like seeing two estranged friends reconciled. In my joy, I approached them and we had a nice friendly chat.
3. Bamboo rafting along Yulong River: I was lost in my own thoughts observing the goings-on at the riverbanks and trying to figure out how to get a ride when a Chinese university student approached me and asked the exact same question I had in mind. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! We went together and saved half the price of the ride. I relied on her to do the Chinese talking with the handler and she was delighted to have had the opportunity to practice her English skills with me!
4. Biking in Yangshuo: grabbed a map from the hotel and followed the trail which was quite easy, except for the part that went up the mountains. I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track then but didn’t really care. The view was marvelous and I had a chance to see up close the life of locals in the rural area.
5. Train ride: A glitch in my plan led to a series of unfortunate events until I found myself on a ‘standing only’ 17-hour train ride from Xi-an to Beijing. It was tough but it opened an opportunity to chat with a group of locals. They had zero English and I don’t speak Chinese. But thanks to a translation app we were able to communicate. We had such an animated exchange that a medical student seated on the opposite side who spoke English joined us. He was kind enough to be our translator esp. that the locals had several questions for me. We talked about a lot of stuff and even touched on Chinese-Japanese relations. It was an enlightening encounter which I excitedly shared with my colleagues and students back in Japan.
6. Taxi ride: From Xi-an, I arrived in Beijing at 11pm so the only option I had in getting to my hotel was by taxi. As I mentioned above, I met a medical student in the train who spoke enough English. In our chat, he warned me about taxi rides and how “clever” drivers can be. I was assured of his help in getting a cab upon arrival at the station. He did get one, all right, but he also rode with me! He said he would get off at the North Railway which was along the way. He was to take the morning train back to his university which is a few hours north of Beijing, and initially planned on sleeping at the station. But then he started asking about my hostel: Do you have reservation? How did you know about it? How much does the room cost/night? My antenna was up full scale. I was suspicious but wasn’t really worried nor scared. And then he said he’s coming with me, stay the night and leave early the following day for the station. If felt weird but I simply said, “Okay. I hope there’s room available for you.” Then he insisted on paying for our ride. I did try to refuse, but later gave it up as he was obviously trying to be hospitable. How much luckier can I get? He, too, was lucky that the hostel wasn’t fully booked. That was the first and last time I saw him, but we’ve become text mates.
7. Walking: There is opportunity aplenty for discovery if we just get our feet on the road and explore beyond known boundaries. Some of the most memorable experiences I had weren’t originally in my itinerary simply because I didn’t know there was such a thing in such a place. For example: I would never have been able to watch the show ‘A Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ if I hadn’t walked through the Muslim streets of Xi-an.
Using the public transit in China was fun and easy. But I also had my share of some quirky misadventures that tested my patience to the limits.
The bus ride to Badaling in summer can be the most challenging bus ride you’ve ever had in your life. It was for me and because of which I nearly gave up the idea of going to The Great Wall! It wasn’t just the act of finding a ride that was difficult, but also of having to tolerate people’s lack of discipline and social manners. Passengers filled the bus area onto the streets in an endless maze. I got into one line unaware that it was for ‘standing only’ passengers (seats were all taken). So I stood during the 3-hour ride in a crowded bus that inched its way through traffic slower than a snail can crawl across an entire leaf, and the people subtly pushing each other for a much needed breathing space! But no complaints though. It was all part of the adventure.
In Xi-an, I had a rather detestable hitch-ride with a local family. I visited an archaeological site which was about an hour away from the city with an Iranian companion. While waiting for the bus back to the city, we learned that it was off schedule due to technical problems. To make the story short, we hitched a ride with a family who was willing to take us, but for a price! My companion was bent on refusing but I had no choice but to take it because I was booked on a trip later that day and I didn’t want to miss the train. So we took the deal. The moment we were in the car, the man on the driver’s seat immediately held out his hand to ask for payment! Unbelievable! I said I will pay once we get to the city. Maybe he didn’t understand because he kept repeating the open-palm gesture asking for payment at every few kilometers interval and flashing a skeptical look. And each time, I would refuse. It isn’t like we were going to jump off the car any minute! We were getting indignant and would’ve disembarked as quick as lightning if only there were other means of transportation available… Well, this is another facet of China you only get to know by experience. The Chinese are really good at making money irregardless of how they do it. And in my friend’s words: “They really do worship money!” Had I known we’d be caught in a traffic jam into the city, which eventually was the reason I missed my train, I would never have taken that ride. Seriously!
And speaking of trains, your anger management skills will be highly put to test at stations and trains for long distance travels. Be prepared to be either yelled at or ignored at ticket counters. I am NOT kidding! I lined up at a counter to claim the tickets I booked online from a travel agency. When my turn came, the staff did not understand and just yelled at me. I was taken aback and felt so violated. Gosh! I just hate that feeling! There were also instances when customers yelled at each other or at the station staff for whatever reason… I guess the long lines make people impatient and they’re not so good at controlling their temper. Another thing that annoyed me while on board a sleeper train was the people’s lack of respect for personal space. While the low berth is the most comfortable in a 2nd class accommodation, it is also the least private as your cabin-mates tend to squat on it. They sit on our bed, step on it, rest their legs on it or put their things on it. Even if you show signs that imply off-limits, they just don’t seem to get it! And it’s probably stemming from a communist mentality – that all things are for common use. Either that, or they seriously need to be educated in GMRC.
Despite these fret-inducing circumstances, I still prefer to travel by public transit. Besides a cheap way of going from point A to point B, it is also a great venue for “people-watching” which is priceless. I was blown away by how much I saw, experienced and learned about China and its people by commuting. Meeting friendly ones on the road, in buses and trains and eventually ‘connecting’ with them was the best take-away I had from this experience. You can do it, too. Go out and experience the world the ATP way!