Lesson: China is not Japan
The plan today was to visit my maternal roots in Shantou. We needed to take a morning 3-hour train over to Chaoshan, which was still another 1 hour away from Shantou. My mom’s relatives were meeting up with us at the train station to drive us over to Shantou. Not having learnt our lesson from yesterday, we did not give ourselves enough time. Rather, we were so used to the simple, hop-on hop-off rapid trains of Japan that we failed to take into account the immense size and convoluted security process of the Guangzhou South Train Station. It was nothing like the train stations of Japan. Indeed, it operated more like an airport. We arrived around 15 minutes prior to time for departure as we usually do for Japanese Shinkansens. I asked one of the staff where we need to go to board the train. They were not very helpful and just gave one word answers. We eventually had to ask another staff who said something to the extent of “yeah yeah.. you can just go through these gates” and pointed towards a general direction. We thought, ok we just need to go through this gates and we are at the platform, so we picked up some breakfast quickly to eat on the train. Unfortunately, after these ID checking gates, we followed the crowd upstairs and there was another security gate. The lines were long and we couldn’t find our train details on the board, so we asked another staff and again they gave abrupt, unhelpful answers and just asked us go to through security. Let me say here that this is not a matter of language barrier. I admit my Mandarin Chinese is not perfect but my mom is fluent. The directions were simply unhelpful. By this time, we were only 5 minutes or so away from departure of the train and we did not even know which gate we were at. We eventually found our gate number on the board inside the secured area and ran over. Then, when we got to the gate, all I saw were 4 bright red words – “ticket checking is over”. The staff at the gate said we missed our train and that we needed to change our tickets for another train.
Standing Room Only
Once at the changing windows, we were told that the next available train is in 3 hours and it is located at the other train station (Guangzhou East Station). Worst yet, there weren’t anymore 2nd classes seats for us to make a direct switch. And because 3 of our tickets were purchased using WeChatPay (by one of Bear Woman’s cousins), we are unable upgrade our tickets to 1st class seats with cash/credit card even if we wanted to. So we upgraded 1 seat and left the other 3 tickets as 2nd class no seats tickets. The thought of having to stand for 3 hours on a train concerned me. I was just thinking back to the not very pleasant train ride in Vietnam and how I was going to survive this here. Regardless, we pushed forward. Not wanting to miss this train, we rushed over to the Guangzhou East Station as soon as we can. However, it took us an additional 30 minutes to find the exit to get out of the secured area of the South Station. We again asked for directions but received less than helpful responses.
Dashing to the Dining Cart
We finally made it to the Guangzhou East Station and were able to sit down a bit to eat some breakfast we grabbed before. This station was a lot easier to navigate, with a small section just for trains leaving for Chaoshan. Bear Woman cleverly looked up tips on how to survive a train ride with no seats. The suggestion was to get on the dining cart and sit there instead. What a helpful piece of information! Once the gates opened, we rushed down the platform. I did not know how to say dining cart in Chinese but I ran towards the first staff I can find and said “Which cart can I go to eat food???”. He must have thought I was really hungry and pointed at the cart in front of us. There was already another patron sitting at one of the tables. Apparently she ran even quicker than us to secure a spot. The dining cart was actually quite lovely with nice tablecloth and booth seats that can seat 4. The 3 of us sat down feeling accomplished, as one of the attendants came over and gave us our menus. Then, we panicked because we knew some establishments in China only take payment via WeChatPay or AliPay. We did not have access to these without a Chinese back account and we were afraid that we would order and not be able to pay or worse yet, they will kick us out of the dining cart. Luckily, they did take cash, so we were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. We felt bad about our plan to hog the table for the whole ride, so we each ordered a drink also a wonton noodle to share even though we weren’t too hungry at this point. Aaron had the soy milk, which was a bit bland, as it was unsweetened, Bear Woman had their hot chocolate and I had a Vita Lemon Tea. The wonton noodle came in an instant noodle-like bowl with a seasoning package, where they just added water to it. The taste was ok and what one can expect from an instant wonton bowl. We nursed our food and drinks for the rest of the ride as we were afraid of being kicked out.
I went to check up on my mom in first class and she was sitting comfortably at a seat which coincidentally also had a table and was in a pod of 4. Walking from the dining cart in cart 5 to the first class seats in cart 1, I was able to see that only a few people were standing and most where standing around the junctures between the cars where there is more space. There were also a lot of empty seats, which I assume, some of these standing people will attempt to sit in if they get tired. I was just grateful we did not have to lay plastic bags on the floor and sit on them like we had originally envisioned if all else fails. I went back to the dining cart relieved. There were a few stops along the way and with each rush of passengers, some would come over to the dining cart to sit down. They did not kick out those of us who were already there but they did try to add more people to the tables so they can serve more patrons.
There was a table in the front of the cart meant for the crew only, from which they would have to continuously shoo people away. Some obeyed, others tried to negotiate, and still others straight out intimidated the staff by saying “What’s the big deal? Why can’t you move in and let me sit here?” The frightened staff reluctantly moved in to the window seat until we were at the final stop when she needed to get out to complete her duties.
We finally made it to Chaoshan! I have never met any of these relatives before but they were able to recognize me from photos my mom has sent them in the past. I joked that I was the mascot of the group because they were able to pick out our group using my face. After a warm meet and greet, they explained that because we had missed our earlier train and we only had so little time, it no longer made sense to go all the way to Shantou and that we should just stay in Chaoshan.
The people of Chaozhou area speak mostly the Chaozhou dialect, which I did not speak or understand. They were all proficient in Mandarin as well but less so Cantonese, so we mostly conversed using Mandarin. We drove over to a restaurant they had picked and along the way, we were able to appreciate the driving here. The road signs and lanes appeared to be optional. Honking is something that is commonly heard, similar to the streets of Vietnam.
The restaurant of choice today was a beef hotpot place, 老貓牛肉, which wasn’t surprising as we saw that there were a plethora of beef hotpot places in this area. Apparently Chaozhou is known for their beef. This beef hotpot had a simple clear broth base with some bitter melon, daikon and beef balls to start things off. The beef balls were surprising good. The taste, texture and bounciness was perfect! Then we had plates and plates of various beef parts that were either pre-cooked or some that required cooking in the hotpot. This was confusing. I had to ask before eating each one since I don’t want to accidentally eat something uncooked. There were beef tripe, beef tongue, beef tendon and beef slices. There was an open butchering area, where we were able to appreciate all the different cuts of beef on their menu. We ended the hotpot with lettuce and rice noodles (reminded me of Vietnamese pho noodles).
The Art of Gongfu Tea
After the meal, one of my uncles suggested we have some tea. He taught us the art of the Gongfu Tea Ceromony. This is a special way of making tea, which is believed to have originated in the Chaozhou area of China.
Here are the basic steps:
- Pour boiling water into small tea pot with some loose tea leaves (e.g. a black tea such as oolong, or pu-erh)
- Pour into the little tea cups and discard this first rinse.
- Repeat but this time you can drink the tea.
- After drinking, place back onto the large holding area and rinse cups using hot water to keep the tea cups hot and also to sanitize cups in case many people are drinking and the cups are to be shared.
Aaron also gave it a try. Each iteration is supposed to produce better tasting tea. The key is to move quickly and not allow the tea to steep too long or else it’ll be too bitter.
After our tea lesson, we went to get some traditional Chaozhou dessert. It is a sweet soup dessert with various ingredients that you can pick to add to your bowl. We had peanuts, sweet potato, rice, a seasoned hard-boiled egg. If it is too sweet, you can always cut the taste by eating a crunchy/spicy pickled vegetable found at the table. This dessert was quite lovely. It wasn’t too sweet which I liked. Apparently the better dessert shop has already finished selling for the day, so come early I guess!
Scarred from our experience this morning, we arrived back at the train station about 1 hour in advance of our scheduled train. We said our goodbyes and thanked our hosts and were on our way back to Guangzhou . This was a smaller station so it was a lot easier to navigate. As we boarded the train, we noticed a man sitting in one of our seats. I then asked him to move firmly and he moved somewhere else only to be kicked out by another passenger a few stops into our journey. I empathized that he probably got a ticket without a seat so he was just trying his luck with some of the empty seats on the train. We saw a few other people did that as well. Again, I felt grateful we did not have to do this earlier today. After an unremarkable 3 hour ride, we arrive back in Guangzhou around 10:30pm so we decided to call it a night.