China: traveling in a massive population

NANJING, CHINA – Sweating profusely, I forced myself to the front of the ticket line, an all too common occurrence in China. After purchasing the ticket I sprinted out of the ticket hall and up the overcrowded escalator, all the while maneuvering around people and jumping over luggage. Bursting out of the escalator, I zigzagged through the packed train station. Like the Ray Rice of Nanjing, I spun, juked, and stiff armed Chinese men, women, and children out of my way (nobody was actually stiff armed).

The lone guard at the security checkpoint yelled for me to stop and return as I flew past. How was one small Chinese security guard going to stop a Westerner barreling at full speed towards the row of escalators leading to the train platforms?

View from the Nanjing South Station.
View from the Nanjing South Station. (Vadim Rubin)

Our train departed at 1:49pm, I arrived at the station where Robbin was waiting at 1:49pm.

“Can we get on the train?” I asked the attendant.

“No, I’m sorry the train is already gone,” she told me. I looked down outside the window at the platform and saw our train still docked at the platform.

“What do you mean? I see the train right there,” I said with an excessive amount of endorphins.

“No, it is already leaving,” she abruptly replied. Without a call to the conductor or suggestion of any other options the attendant continued walking away. Seconds later the train left the station.


An average day at the ticket office. (Photo by Vadim Rubin)
An average day at the ticket office.
(Vadim Rubin)

When it comes to dealing with mass amounts of people this kind of customer service is common. In a country with 1.3 billion people it’s impossible for high traffic businesses/companies to rely on the slogan “The Customer is Always Right.” A large majority of people utilizing services, such as high-speed trains, are from lower income brackets and are not even sure what constitutes good service.

It’s often easy to identify migrant laborers from the countryside: dark skin, lack of hygiene, use of large rice bags for luggage; usually these bags will be used as pillows for sleeping on the ground outside of the station while they await their train. As long as they can get on a train for a cheap price they’ll endure the longest lines and the most crowded places.


Defeated, Robbin and I returned to the waiting seats. “That dumb-ass clerk! If she hadn’t give me the wrong ticket we wouldn’t be sitting here right now!” I exclaimed.

We were traveling from Nanjing to Zhengzhou to visit the place where the first monks became renowned for their practice of the martial art of Wushu, the Shaolin Temple.

A really sweaty westerner ran through the exit to the far right. (Photo by Vadim Rubin)
A really sweaty westerner ran through the exit to the far right.
(Vadim Rubin)

About a week earlier our dream of traveling all around China was shattered because, little did we know, purchasing train tickets ahead of time is an absolute must. We wanted to travel as far as Chengdu to see the wild pandas, but our plan was thwarted since all train tickets were sold out for the next four days. This time we learned from our mistake, but made a new one, we didn’t add human error into our travel time.

The thing with Chinese workers is that the majority of them work extremely hard, but they don’t work smart. They can work twelve hours days, but don’t question the work they do or how they can further advance themselves. The clerk who processed my ticket is an example of the blindly direct work pattern most Chinese exhibit in menial positions.

To purchase my ticket I handed my phone to the clerk. The phone had a text message with my travel information and code for the train tickets. She glanced at the message, mechanically typed the numbers into the computer and handed me the train tickets.

Finally! A success in China travel! After several failed attempts at travel, getting lost in the city, missing busses, an excessive amount of walking and getting wrong directions time and time again, we finally had a smooth transaction. Robbin and I pranced towards the platform that read “Nanjing à Zhengzhou” and double checked with the assistant if we were waiting at the correct platform.

View of all the train platforms. (Photo by Vadim Rubin)
View of all the train platforms.
(Vadim Rubin)

“This is not the correct ticket,” she said.

“What do you mean? We are going to Zhengzhou,” I told her. She pointed at the ticket and I finally realized why we were at the wrong platform. The ticket was for our return trip, Zhengzhou to Nanjing.

“What can I do? It’s already 1:43!” I quickly blurted out.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s not my problem.”

Goddam it, we are making this train!

“Wait here, I’ll be back!” I yelled to Robbin as I dashed back down the two flights of escalators and back into the ticket hall. I returned to the same clerk and handed her my phone.

She entered a number into her computer twice. “This number isn’t working,” she said in a stern face.

“Scroll up the page!” I hurriedly yelled. She entered in the number that was one inch above the previous one on the cell phone and printed out our departure tickets, but by the time I got back to the station it was too late. We would have to wait for the next train to Zhengzhou.

We eventually made it to the Shaolin Temple, but our trip there was an important lesson in most Chinese transactions. It wasn’t their problem.