The worst journey of my life was a short one, and the reason that led to this journey was a small one. It all began with a tiny Chinese character that looked like this “ 北“ .
‘Bei’ is the Chinese word for north, and it was printed on a little pink ticket that took me on an 8-hour train ride back to Beijing.
But when I hopped into a cab from my hotel and ordered the taxi driver to Shenyang Station, I had no idea that my train actually departed from Shenyang North Station.
Shenyang is the industrial capital of Liaoning province in northeastern China. A city of heavy industry, the view from my hotel window for the past four days during a student conference were grim smoke and grey skies. I couldn’t wait to be back in my dormitory in Beijing, where I would be safe and warm in my bubble.
“Wrong station,” the train officer told me as I handed her my ticket. My classmate and I were standing on the platform, our heavy backpacks on our shoulders ready to board the overnight train.
“What?” I exclaimed in confusion.
“This is Shenyang Station. Your ticket is for Shenyang North,” she replied.
My heart sank. We only had 30 minutes before our train departed for Beijing. I had no idea where this other station was, and my stomach churned.
And just then, two young men conveniently turned up by our sides. They were both Chinese and probably in their late 20s. “Shenyang North station?” they asked.
“Yes?” I replied dazed and confused.
“What time is your train? C’mon, we’ll take you there,” they hustled. In our panic and frustration, we followed them like sheep to the slaughter.
Inside a black car, we watched as the meter rocketed from 10¥, to 20¥ to 100¥ in a matter of one minute. The big red numbers that showed 100¥ jumped to 200¥.
“Something is wrong,” I whispered to my friend in the back seat. “I think this is a hei che.” Hei che (黑车) which literally means ‘black car’, is the Chinese metaphor for an illegal cab.
“Oh my gosh, what should we do?” She whispered back timidly.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Maybe we should bargain,” she said. “Tell him we can only give him 50 kuai.”
“50 kuai!” I shouted. “We only have 50 kuai.”
The two men laughed at us from the front seat. “Look at the meter, girls. It’s 400 kuai now.”
“80 kuai,” my friend piped in, raising the offer. “We are students. We have no money,” as if we were in a clothes market bargaining for T-shirts. We carried on for a good five minutes before the driver finally stopped the car.
“Out, get out!” he shouted at us. The front passenger got out, too, and opened the car boot at the back. He ruffled around looking for something, and I thought for sure we were going to die that night. Perhaps he was going to hit us with a metal crowbar.
But without another word, he closed it with a bang and off they went in the car, leaving us stranded in the middle of the quiet road in a northeastern Chinese town at night.
We quickly walked to the end of the highway, flagged a legitimate taxi with a lighted top, got to Shenyang North Station and ran till our lungs burst into our train compartment a fraction of a second before the doors closed, laughing and crying at the same time.
W P Lim