Friday, July 20, 2007

Baby Pingyao?

We took the sleeper train to the Ming dynasty walled city of Pingyao - so remarkably preserved you don't really even need to imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago.

Temples and impressive buildings aside (for photo's click here) there wasn't a whole heap else to do in Pingyao - architecture aside, the most interesting aspect of this stop was getting our train tickets out of there ...

Although China is moving toward capitalism at relentless pace, the railways remain state owned and highly planned. The impact of this for travel is that tickets (particularly "soft sleeper") can be very hard to come by indeed. Tickets only go on sale 3 days in advance, by which time many have already been pre-allocated to party officials, state enterprises and people with connections in high places. The remaining tickets are allocated somewhat arbitrarily to various stations en-route - with Pingyao having no of allocation whatsoever.

Enter the national pastime of getting round arbitrary rules. We soon discovered that guesthouses along the way are the best people to get the tickets you need - by emailing ahead to get round the 3-day rule. In this case it meant them calling someone at a station 90 minutes before Pingyao to buy a sleeper ticket from there.

On the day of travel the helper catches the train at the earlier station, exchanging the ticket for the bunk token. The guesthouse provides a photocopy of the ticket, which you swap with the helper on the platform as they alight .. presumably to catch a bus home. Ridiculously inefficient, but it works.

As I finish writing this from our hotel in Vietnam, at last I've stepped from behind the bamboo firewall and been able to get at my photos - the remaining Japan photos from Tokyo, Hemeji Castle and of course, Mount Fuji are all live now (including some rather better ones of the mountain than my blind guess for the post!)

While we stayed in Pingyao our friends Anna & Dave had a baby boy - so a big congratulations to the Vickers family. Although we still haven't heard whether or not they decided to go with our suggested name of Pingyao - come on guy's, you know it would be great ...

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