The 2:15 to Shanghai - Episode 2

2020.02.28

Travelling with me was our company’s system controls specialist, Allan.  He had been in China, working on various pump station automation equipment for the past two months.  He was good at his job and had earned the respect of our client, but now his work was finished and he was on his way home to Canada with me.

Our cushion of time was running out.  Without being asked, we threw our bags into the van and jumped into the back seat.  That gave our hosts a message and quickly we were underway through a melee of people playing bicycle-death roulette with us as we weaved around them on the road that cold winter morning.  We were surprised, but thankful, when we only took five minutes to get to the station.

I wanted to get some fruit and cookies for the trip.  I had eaten on the railway diners in China before and the thought of having every meal in the dining car did not bode well with me.  We managed to stock up at a street vendor’s cart in front of the station as the time approached 2:00.

Guo then appeared out of nowhere to confirm that we were ready to go.  Now, I thought, we will finally get our tickets.  He dug into his pocket and produced the illusive documents as well as some extra change and our passports.  Evidently, the tickets were cheaper than we were originally told.  I thanked him and suggested we make our way to the platform.  "No problem!  Just wait here." I turned to the senior engineer, Mr. Zheng who was hosting us and asked, "Does Mr. Guo actually know when the train leaves?"  Zheng responded, "Mr. Guo is responsible for this arrangement and I must leave the organisation up to him.  He is very good at his job.”

There it was again.  The 'system' working its way into our arrangements.  The 'system' meant that it was embarrassing to ask someone about what they were actually up to, as they were expected to do their job properly, regardless of the fact that it appeared as though something was wrong.  Time was ticking on and I recalled what was translated for me from the sign on the wall in the hotel.  'Quingdao to Shanghai train leaves at 2:15 from Weifang Station'.  The time had come for me to take things into my own hands, embarrassing or not.  I asked a young engineer who was accompanying us and who spoke English, to ask Guo about the time of the train departure.    This time I watched Guo carefully as he answered.  I couldn't understand a word he said, but his eyes and body language told the whole story....he didn't have a clue.  That was it!  I told Al to grab his bags and run with me for the platform.

As we entered the station I looked for our train number on the platform sign.  I saw it, but I couldn’t see a crowd in front of the ticket-taker at the entry to the platform.  My heart sank.  No crowd meant that there was something wrong.  In China, without fail, at any major city railway station, every train has a large crowd trying to get on every departing train.

We hurried through the crowd in the huge waiting area of the station and made for the entrance to the platforms.  When I showed my ticket to the ticket taker she started yelling all sorts of things at us.  I wasn't sure what she was saying, but judging from her arm swinging and the tone of her voice things were not as they should be.  Nevertheless, she punched our tickets, pointed to a platform, and off we ran with Mr. Zheng and Mr. Guo in pursuit.  I could see the train that we had to get on, but it was over two tracks and we had to get there via a subway.  Down we went, coats and bags streaming behind us.  As we came out the other side we were greeted by the chief conductor, identified by a red band around his arm.  He also was waving and shouting at us.  He pointed to a door in one of the cars and we climbed aboard just in time to hear the whistle of the station master blow.  I turned around, shook hands with Zheng to wish him well just as the train started to pull away.  I saw Guo standing in the background and I was tempted to yell out to him, 'No problem!’.  But knowing that I would probably have to depend on him again for arrangements during another trip, I decided to keep that bit of sarcasm to myself.

Episode 3 - next week