The Guangzhou Breakdown

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Guangzhou railway station

Flag of China  , Guangdong,
Monday, September 5, 2011

That sinking feeling is sadly once again upon us. And its once again journey related. On a train leaving Hong Kong at 16:35 we were due in at Guangzhou at 18:30. This would give us a clear 2 and a half hours until our connection train to Nanning. It was going to be a bit annoying waiting in the station but it's only a couple of hours.
An hour into the journey we pull to a halt and proceed no further. From a generous playful chinese man we learn that the train is 'broken' as it is very old. It's going to be an expensive breakage. Our train route to Vietnam was going to come in at a little under 100 pounds for the two of us which includes two nights sleeping, so good value really. The hitch with this though is we need to be in Nanning on the train we booked over 5 days ago (and the seats were booking up fast then). We are not on that train. We are without anywhere to stay (as we were meant to be sleeping on the overnight to Nanning) and there is money down the toilet in terms of the train tickets wasted. Chinas wonderful network of trains sadly showing a weakness just when we need them to be perfect. The plan would have to be revised when we finally get to Guangzhouto try and find a flight , maybe a late flight straight through to Vietnam, but it will cost, about 230 each at the last count.

It was such a small decision to make when we were in Hong Kong, the train leaves every couple of hours - do we take the earlier train and have longer to wait in the unknown station of Guangzhou, or do we take the later train and wait at the cosy end of Hong Kong. It seemed such a straight forward choice. This is definately not the way I/we want to remember China.

......Two hours later......

The train started moving and would get in at 8.45 at the earliest giving us less than 20 minutes to get through immigration and onto our train to Nanning. Its now to the point past unlikely where you have to accept it. Like being stuck in a traffic jam and you have missed the start of the meeting. Why stress, it won't get you there any quicker - you may as well just turn on your ipod and chill until there is something you can do about it. So we did.

Kate caught a bit of a conversation going on just outside the train conductors booth. The ladies had been hiding away a little since the train had been stationary and I didn't blame them. They would be dealing with a lot of angry passengers. One chinese lady was clearly past berserk that she would miss her flight out of Guangzhou, and the rest of her family also - but what could the staff on the train do, very little. They didn't want to be stuck on a train for 5 hours which was meant to take less than 2 like any of us. Another tall chinese man from a different dialect was also to miss his flight, the conversation was stilted but we heard he was definately going to miss it. A senior conductor then started taking details of the mans train and flight tickets. Kate saw an opportunity and took the tickets from me and thrust them in the conductors face. With a sigh she started taking down our details too. We didn't know what for, but at least they were doing something.

The conductor disappeared and we were then none the wiser. The train had come to a halt again for a while and we had definately missed our train. As the train finally made progress and appeared to be fixed a lot of the passengers seemed to chill out a little while some who still had tight schedules got a little more agitated as there was still a chance for them.

As we approached Guangzhou the conductor asked us to move up to the Dining car with our bags. She suddenly looked more official with her special hat on and her eppaulettes.

We shuffled down to the Dining car with the other hopefuls. The generous chinese man from earlier tried to explain to us that the train company had got the conductors to try and reinmburse though put out by the breakdown. All great, but that won't get us to Nanning.

When the train had stopped, all chaos ensued. The conductor jumped off followed by a lot of the Chinese passengers. We assumed she had told them to follow her so we also grabbed our bags and pursued. As all the other passengers made their way to immigration we waited until we were escorted by the station bound conductor, we were being handed over. The new babysitter for us looked flustered and a little uneasy about what she had to do. I was very uneasy as she seemed to pelt off up the stairs and not really keep the group together. I helped a lady carry her huge bag, which was heavier than my own and she just got in the way a little, and by the top of the stairs we had lost the flustered attendant.

We found her again trying to shuffle her 'specials' through immigration as quickly possible but she wasn't having much luck. The group was all split up amongst the norms and we found ourself placed in the Chinese immigration queue instead of the foreigners to get us through quicker. Then security tried to move us to the foreigner queue "you foreign, line 5" and me and Kate both got a little animated, "we were told to stand here, we aint going anywhere" as we had been told to stand there. It was frustrating, tiring, and confusing. He asked to see our ongoing train ticket, at which point he highlighted the fact we had missed our train. "Really, well thanks for that useful information - thats why we are trying to get through... (pillock said quietly under my breath - very quietly)".

Through the bad organisation, we were the last through immigration. Typical. Try and speed something up and it ends up being slower than if we'd done it ourselves.
When we got to the group the attendant pointed at Kate and spoke "you train..Huoche.. stay" We were being left. The flight people were off to the airport and we were left with yet another confused looking railway attendant. She appeared to have a walkie talkie attached to her head as it didnt seem to move as she ferried us across the deserted station. We took a couple of short cuts through special attendant only corridoors and eventually came out at the long haul ticket booth.

They were trying to give us alternate seats for tommorows train and we were obviously grateful for it. But we were also put out. We wanted compensation for tonight - we would have nowhere to sleep. I got frustrated with Kate as she was a little like a dog with a bone when I was happy to take the alternate tickets and search for a hotel for the night as quick as possible. Eventually a more senior railway attendant stepped in and spoke a few words of chinese to the ticket office clerk. They offered us somewhere to sleep inside the station in the soft sleeper lounge and we could stay there till the morning. Expecting beds we accepted.

He led us to a room full of comfy sofa chairs and indicated that we could push them together to make beds. He didnt speak English but he was trying really hard. He was very endearing. He showed me the room next door which had air con, but the chairs were much harder - he at least offered a choice. We settled with the comfy chairs- the room wasn't too warm anyway. Two or three attendants were then in the room and they were chatting away clearly trying to help our predicament. They smiled and pointed to a stack of water bottles and told us to help ourselves, shoving a few bottles into our hands. As we sat waiting for them to leave, our mr helpful attendant turned up with a big fan and plugged it in by our beds. These guys essentially didn't have to do anything for us. Getting us alternative tickets was great, more than I expected. But they really tried to help us out for somewhere to sleep.

After a good nights sleep, they came in and woke us and showed us to our train. Heading out of Guangzhou early in the morning on a 12 and a half hour hard sleeper but during the day. Will be a tough one.

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