Crossing Into China

The Black Market Blues

“You don’t know where you’re going, 
You don’t know what you’re doing,
Hell, it might be the highway to heaven, 
And it might be the road to ruin,
But this is a song, 
For strangers in a car,
Baby maybe that’s all we really are,
Strangers in a car….”
–Marc Cohn, “Strangers in a Car.”

 Getting to China was as simple as riding a subway across town, thanks to a rare bit of preparation on my part. I bought my ticket for the train from the border town of Canton (Guanzhou, pronounced “Go-Juan-Jew”) to Beijing before I left.

Although I beat myself up for paying government rates rather than negotiating at the station, it proved to be a good idea. Getting to the border crossing was easy, so was the walk across the extremely long train station corridor that served as the border, but the Guanghou train station was a madhouse. There were people trying to get in being held back by police, crowds sitting around waiting for who knows what and a few westerners hanging around the edge of doorways where a bunch of Chinese teens and young adults were doing what the Chinese youth do best: trying to squeeze way too many people through way too small a doorway to get where they wanted to go. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn the practice was a national pastime because they were doing it with the same amount of fervor I imagine Cubans reserve for baseball and Canadians save for hockey. 

Once three Dutchwomen and I made it into the station we realized it was worse inside. Since there weren’t many chairs in the station, passengers settled whereever there was spare space. A few stood around looking for places to lean while many sat on their suitcases and others were sprawled across the floor with whole families sacked out catching some sleep before their trains arrived. Much of what space remained was taken up by a variety of souvenir stands and food vendors. I’m sure there was a place to buy tickets somewhere, but I couldn’t see it. 

Finding the ticket window wasn’t a problem for me because I already had my ticket. It presented a problem for the Dutch women, however, because they’d waited until they got to Guanghou to buy tickets, and were having difficulty doing so. By the time I boarded my train two hours later, they were still negotiating their way through the system. I didn’t see them again until the end of my first day in Beijing. As it turns out, they finally bought black market tickets. By the time they did there were no tickets left for the late train and they had to spend the night.

I’d heard warnings from other backpackers about the need to buy tickets on the black market when I was still in Hong Kong. Although I didn’t believe the reports, I decided not to take chances, and the convenience was worth it. Similar warnings about month-long waiting lists for tickets on the Trans-Siberian, the danger of theft, mayhem and murder, and the need to climb a mountain of paperwork just to get into Russia prompted me to turn to a travel agency. In both cases, I’m glad I did.