Oh, for a Thimbleful of the Warm, Warm South (Station, that is)

I posted a short version of this the other day, but decided I would just go ahead and include the whole thing. So let’s get to it: observations on the Beijing south train station.

1. Multiple levels, multiple climates – First of all, the train station is massive. It’s really more like an airport than a train station. There’s a top floor, where you buy your tickets and can wait for your train in any of a number of semi-decent chairs and benches. You can also buy bottled water at Armageddon prices, or grab some KFC. There’s a second floor, which is really more like a placebo floor because it has no effect on your journey through the train station aside from making you switch escalators; and then there’s the bottom floor, which is where you catch the subway and, should you be so inclined (and only God knows why you would) you can buy overpriced Ma Hua, arguably the worst snack ever devised by man. It’s essentially a lump of deep-fried twisted dough that’s been embedded with such delectable treats as rock sugar and strained peas (or that’s what they look like anyway). It really looks like they just up-ended a trash can, rolled the dough around in the refuse, and then dropped it in the fryer. I keep waiting to see Ma Hua on sale that’s got bottle caps and cigarette butts nestled alongside the rock sugar. (Note: it’s supposed to be a classic product of Tianjin. I find that terrifying.) Anyway, the temperature difference between the bottom and top floors is frankly absurd. The top floor has huge skylights which, although adding a certain aesthetic value to the design, also focus the sunlight into the barely-air conditioned space so that sitting there is not unlike sitting under a giant magnifying glass. The bottom floor is more like the Bat Cave, which is to say it’s big, open, windowless, and chilly. There are no creepy lone vigilantes wearing leather bodysuits flitting from pillar to pillar, but there are plenty of creepy lone Chinese commuters carrying smallish zipper cases that flirt dangerously with the line between purse and satchel, and sporting toupees that would make William Shatner blush with shame. Personally, I prefer the bottom level. No one hangs around there, probably because unless you’re of the odd temperament that likes isolated, chilly spaces that no one frequents (yes, like me; and like many spiders, as well), then the cavernous, fluorescent-lit area feels like death’s ping-pong room, and this works fine for me because it means I can read and think without listening to anyone two seats over cracking sunflower seeds in their teeth and talking with their outside voice. Anyway, it’s either that or the top floor, which in the summer months could easily double as a greenhouse.

2. The faucets in the bathroom – China’s “green” movement is both admirable and laughable. Yes, they are investing quite a bit of money in green technology, but at the same time they’re playing fast and loose with environmental standards for their factories. To me it seems a bit like cleaning up your house so your kid can raise a camel there. The faucets in the south station bathrooms were clearly designed to reduce water output and thereby save a precious natural resource, but I’m bound to say I wish this had been done differently. They’re motion-activated, but the sensor only kind of works. Typically you stick your hands under the faucet, water comes out for no more than a second, then stops, and you have to pull your hands back, stick them in front of the sensor, and try again. Too, the stream of water coming out of the faucet is a weak, chilly flow that’s curiously urinal in nature, similar to what I imagine it would be like to have a penguin pee on your hands. I can’t imagine ever being in a scenario that would feature a penguin peeing on my hands, but if I ever was, I can almost guarantee my first thought would be, “This feels just like the Beijing south train station faucets!”

3. Random dudes – Train stations are the same the world over when it comes to spotting odd people. In the south station, for example, I’ve seen some of the most impressive mullets the world has ever known, the kind that require a level of commitment to absurdity normally only seen in religious extremists or game show hosts. A few days ago I also saw a Chinese man wearing U.S. Army fatigues, complete with boots and a 101st Airborne patch on the shoulder. ??? If I wore the same thing, it’s doubtful I’d make it out of the station alive. Somehow no one minds if a Chinese man is wearing it. Oh, and the random fatigues-wearing dude was also wearing fingerless Michael Jackson gloves, a fashion choice which would cost him his life in any regular military unit.

4. Busted ticket machines – With the introduction of any new technology in China (or most, anyway) comes an inevitable, and easily-observable, decline into chaos and malfunction. The ticket machines were introduced to speed up traffic. They’re where you buy high-speed rail tickets for most of the closer cities like Beijing. They’re also where you see one of the more fascinating displays of China’s growing pains. Even though there are walls and walls of ticket machines, usually the lines for the regular ticket windows are still out the door. No one seems to trust the machines, which I find humorous because the people at the ticket windows are notoriously surly and unhelpful. I once accidentally bought a ticket at the Kunming train station that took me roughly 1000 miles in the wrong direction, all because the ticket window lady didn’t care what was happening to me. Okay, it was also because I wasn’t paying attention. Still, I got to see Xian. Also, every time you line up at a ticket machine there are always several people who are standing by the machines, watching other people use them. These spectators are the same people who insert their tickets the wrong way while passing through the gate for their train. The south train station has taken to stationing railroad employees near the gates to explain, generally through a megaphone, that the ticket goes into the slot blue-side up. It doesn’t matter. The ticket machines are convenient. . .until they stop working. The past few times I’ve been to the south station, I’ve seen more and more broken ticket machines. On this most recent trip there were only three functioning machines in the entire station. That’s out of a total of about 150.

5. Food options – Okay, first of all, I have to give the Chinese credit for trying. Old train stations were pretty wretched when it came to food options. You were usually way better off grabbing some street food outside. Now the situation has been reversed, to the extent that there isn’t any street food outside. Inside, however, there’s at least one place where you can get some pre-packaged sandwiches on decent bread, and a few okay coffee shops. Personally, I never buy Chinese food in train stations because it goes against everything in me to pay 15 yuan or more for a plate of food that looks and tastes like it has been pre-digested by a mule. Especially when I can get MUCH better food for a third of the price on my campus. And here I have to give a grudging kudo to the MacCafe. Yes, complimenting a MacDonald’s franchise is a little like cheering for Goliath over David, but the fact is they have good(ish) coffee for not too expensive, and it tastes great when you’re killing time in the Bat Cave.

Just a few random observations. I may take down a more thorough list in the future, but for now, this will do.


4 Responses to Oh, for a Thimbleful of the Warm, Warm South (Station, that is)

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  2. Jay says:

    Great picture youve painted. Entertaining

    I hate those aholes behind the ticket counters in Chinas train stations. They are the worlds worst ambassadors. I once paid $300 for tickets to Beijing and missed the train because i was directed to the wrong platform. When i tried to exchange my tickets for another train the b@!$:h behind the counter literally flung the tickets back at me and waved me away as the crowd shoved me aside. I have no desire to return to China.

  3. Ben says:

    You forgot to mention that the South station actually has 3.5 McDonalds: one restaurant on the second story of the upper floor, one McCafe on the upper floor that only serves ice cream, coffee and pastries, one restaurant in the basement, and one McCafe that also serves food near the taxi stand in the basement.

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