Written by Jul 21, 2005 17:07
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A hard time leaving

Jindezhen, so called 'Capital of China’ - porcelain china that is. Only four months in China, with limited language, I was traveling alone but managing all the same with a little help from shy English speaking locals. Just when I needed help someone would kindly offer to translate for me, with shaking hands and a breaking sweat. I was, more often than not the first foreigner they had ever spoken to.

After two days touring the sites in the oppressive summer heat – you could almost fire the china outside it was so hot – I was ready for my next cool mountain retreat. My new revised plan was to visit nearby Wuyi Shan, in Fujian’s northwest before taking the train to Xiamen. In order to travel light I had stripped pages from my ‘Lonely Planet’ but Wuyi had not been on my original itinerary so I would be traveling blind from here on. No language, no maps, no tips, no good.

Whilst in Jingdezhen I had availed myself of the services of the local CITS and hired an English-speaking guide for a morning and also made enquiries about the best way to get to Wuyi. Of course this information is free and later turned out to be pretty useless too. I was told, while there was a train at around 7.30am the best option would be the sleeper coach, which left opposite the train station at 9.30am and took about 7 hours. Why they used a sleeper coach for a daytime trip was beyond me, perhaps they made the return trip overnight. My first preference was to take the train. I’d seen a few sleeper coaches and heard some personal accounts from other travellers

I was up early, checked out of my lovely air-conditioned room, jumped into a taxi and gave him directions. This was to be a day I wished I’d stayed in bed? Like most cities in China there is always more than one bus station and in my haste to get to the station early to queue for a ticket I showed him the address for the wrong one, the one I had arrived at two days before.

On the way to the ‘wrong’ station my taxi ran over a dog. With already frayed emotions from a week of travelling solo in a very alien environment, this was more than I could take at this time of the morning. We were not supposed to be on this side of town. This detour also cost me valuable time I needed to queue at the train station. When it was finally my turn at the counter, all I understood was ‘mei you’, meaning ‘don’t have’ which could mean one of several things. Sold out, no train today or no train at all to Wuyi. And today of all days there was no English speaking help anywhere in sight.

I later discovered there is no direct train so I would have to change trains but I didn’t know this, neither could they tell me this, and even if they were trying to tell me, I couldn’t understand them. As 7.30 approached and there was still a mass of people at the ticket counters, I was by then causing a delay, I gave up in disgust and headed across the street to try my luck on the recommended sleeper coach. One look at it and I knew that I didn’t want to take it but after checking out my options, there really wasn’t much choice. So I bought a ticket and waited in the strangely deserted bus station.

At 9.30am I went outside to see if they were boarding yet. The men I assumed to be the driver and conductors (there were two wiring young men handling this job) looked at me, smirked and exchanged a few words at my expense. This did not bode well but I had little choice. A few other passengers began to mill around and place their belongings on the bus. Just before 10.00am a group left in a taxi and the rest of us got on board and we finally left the station.

It is customary for each bus to pass a check point at the station and again very often on the outskirts of town. Two reasons for this – take a head count to compare with ticket sales and to record departures and arrivals. Just after we passed our checkpoint with only five passengers on board we stopped to pick up those who had left earlier in the taxi. Discounted tickets perhaps, family or friends perhaps? Now we had a total of ten passengers and three crew.

The road followed the train line south for a while but there was barely a straight stretch, little tarmac or blue metal in sight, and constant road works so we bounced and wound along mostly in second and third gear. The driver was also making some very slow and noisy gear changes. In the next city we stopped briefly and picked up three or four men who stood smoking and chatting with the driver in the front of the coach. Shortly after passing through this city we pulled off the road in a small village. It was 12.00noon and the Chinese eat like clockwork so I put this down to a lunch break.

We all got off the bus, some sat, some stood, and it was intolerably hot. One o’clock came and went and no one had ordered any food. Most of the village had come over to take a look at the foreigner. All the other passengers had quietly slunk off so I hardly noticed that I was the only passenger left. The driver had, I noticed also gone off and he returned and left again but one of the men we picked up in the last town remained and seemed to be responsible for both the bus and the foreigner. He made some effort looking for a passing bus to put me on but as very little traffic passed in either direction, just a few small local buses, I did not expect too much.

As two o’clock approached I was becoming a little apprehensive and my already frayed emotions unravelled a little more. During this time I managed to get a refund on my fare, all Y55. It had become increasingly obvious that the bus was not going any further. I could not find out if they planned on taking me anywhere either. If not to Wuyi Shan, then back to Jingdezhen or somewhere, anywhere but here.

They continued to sit around talking, sometimes looking at me and laughing; it turned out, about what they were going to do with me. At around 2.30pm a student who was too shy to talk to me eventually came outside with a note she had written explaining that the ‘bus was destroyed’ (interpret- ‘broken down’) and everyone was friendly and only wanted to help me get to where I wanted to go.

Well I had a hard time with the ‘broken down’ excuse for a moment as we had pulled off the road under our own steam. However I remember the driver having trouble shifting gears so assumed that this may be the reason they had decided to cancel the trip. So what to do now? I had been unsuccessfully trying to contact friends who could help me. My mobile was also getting low on battery but I was able to charge it in the cafe (and I use this term loosely). Eventually my friend called me to see how I was going and give me more information about Wuyi Shan, so I quickly put my ‘man’ on to talk to her, explain where I was, what had happened and then let them decide what was the best plan to get me on my way again.

So, around three that afternoon, two of the men escorted me back to town, paying all the local bus fares, and carrying my bag, where they then helped me get a sleeper ticket for the next days train to Xiamen, where my arrival was eagerly anticipated. They even offered me accommodation with friends in town for the night but I politely declined and asked them to find me a hotel. I needed some space, some privacy. I might not get that anywhere else. Could my now very frayed emotions handle any more today, after the dog incident in the morning, and more than three hours of uncertainty by the road side in the stifling heat. I was nonetheless again impressed with how well they treated me despite our inability to communicate well.

There was a wedding reception in my hotel that evening so I ate in my room looking out over a city I still did not know the name of. I wandered around for a while in the evening before dark and bought some supplies for the train trip in the morning. I slept well that night, anticipating my first long train journey in China and dreaming of several weeks relaxing with friends, enjoying the beach I missed so much. At the end of the day I was grateful for friends in far away places.

A new day

As I checked out of my hotel the next morning I asked for directions to the train station and they kindly offered to take me in the hotel service van. Having learned to travel pretty light for just a few weeks around China my pack was the size of a large ‘day pack’. The driver carefully placed my pack between our seats while he drove to the station. Not too far. At the station I found a seat next to a family of three boys and placed my bag on the floor beside me. I was early and had about an hour to wait. So there I sat watching everyone watching me in the stifling, oppressive heat.
A few minutes before our train pulled in we were instructed to take positions on the platform where our carriages would come to rest. I picked my bag up, slung it over one shoulder and walked out into the hot sunshine, found my spot and looked around for some shade. It was then that I noticed I had grease everywhere. On me and on my clothes. Should I have stayed in bed today? This could not be happening. This was a new day after all. The grease had been on the bottom of my pack, picked up from the hotel’s service van. It had been sitting over the gearshift. I managed to clean most of it off without making more of a mess before the train arrived and was able to change and wash my clothes as soon as the train began to leave the station. Toilets are locked while trains stand at stations to avoid leaving nasty deposits behind. It’s quite another matter when moving as everything is either flushed on the tracks or tossed out the windows leaving nasty deposits and trash throughout the countryside. Work that one out.

It was only then that I realized all the windows in my carriage were open. I had been puzzled yesterday about the cheap price of my ticket. Now I understood why. My bunk was the top tier in the six-berth cubicle and hot air rises. I managed to spend most of the day perched on one of the little spring loaded seats in the aisle of the train, looking out the window as 19 hours of beautiful scenery slipped by. A wet cloth and the fresh air became my air-conditioner. Two hours into the journey a student from Jingdezhen, finally had the courage to come and chat with me and I later had a brief chat with another passenger before I took to my bunk for the night, once again anticipating my arrival in Xiamen, and being greeted by friendly but this time familiar faces.

Do you ever have days like these? I have discovered this is not unusual.

I did eventually make the trip to Wuyi Shan for the weekend with my friends. Two noticeably hassle free and pleasant overnight trips by air-conditioned train. But that's another story.

Places of interest in Jingdezhen

Museum of Porcelain, The Art Porcelain Factory & Gallery, Museum of Ceramic History and the adjoining Ancient Pottery Factory, probably the most interesting of all, where craftsmen demonstrate the traditional Qing and Ming porcelain making techniques of moulding and baking. You’ll also see close up an ancient wood fired kiln. Take a taxi or bus No 3 to the terminous on Cidu Dadao and walk the short distance under the stone gate and follow road through the bamboo forrest.

Best time to visit - any time but avoid summer if you can

For more on Jingdezhen and the Ancient Pottery Kiln and Factory take a look at photo album

 More Jingdezhen Travel Reviews
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