How not to take the train in China

Catching a bus, train or plane in a foreign country can be a challenge. Usually I like a bit of a challenge, but in China it was almost impossible.
After spending some time in Beijing it was time to move on. Next stop: Mount Huashan.
I looked up how to get there and all I had to do was book a train ticket to Xi’an and from there buy another ticket to Mount Huashan. Shouldn’t be too difficult.
Off to the train station I go.
I arrive and look at the timetable and cannot read a thing. Everything is in Chinese. I could get out my phrasebook and start translating, but that would take me weeks.
But no problem, I will go to one of the many desks and ask a member of staff.
After 10 minutes I give up trying to explain to her where I want to go.
Back to the hostel I go, I will ask the staff there what I need to do. They actually speak very good English.
They tell me they can book it for me and I am so relieved. However, the trains for the next day are full. Apparently this normal, and you need to book ahead. OK, what about the next day? She tells me there are only hard seats left. Xi’an is a very popular destination and the best soft seats or sleepers get booked up early.
A hard seat is not my first choice, but I want to move on from Beijing and decide to book the ticket.
I have a 24 hour train ride ahead me on a hard seat. Not looking forward to that and
I decide to enjoy my very soft and comfortable bed a bit more that night.

The next morning I arrive at the train station and again attempt to figure out where I need to go to catch my train. I came early, so I do not need to rush. On the ticket my destination is written in Chinese and I can compare that to what is written on the board and I find it! After that I can figure out which platform I need to go to and I manage to find my train.
I made it. I can relax now.
After a few hours the seat gets more and more uncomfortable, but I hang in there. The seat is actually not that bad, and still has a thin soft cover, which is more that I was expecting. After about 10 hours I cannot feel my bum anymore. And after 20 hours I promise myself never, ever to book another hard seat again.

There are some delays on the way and I am not sure what time we will be arriving.
But I will just read the station names on the platform. O wait, I can’t read them! They are written in Chinese.
At every station I ask people ‘Xi’an?’ I get only blank stares. There is no conductor in sight to ask either.
I check my ticket again and look at the name, and compare that each station.
I do my best following my route on the map in my Lonely Planet.
I finally make it to Xi’an, or so I hope.  I have to buy a new ticket to Mount Huashan.
Here we go again.
I join a queue and after an hour I make it to the front, only to be told I am in the wrong queue (or I think that is what she says) and she point to another queue. I join that and finally manage to get my ticket.

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It is 2 p.m. I have been travelling for close to 30 hours and I just want to get there.
I look at my ticket and see my train does not leave until 7.50 p.m.
Now what? I have almost 6 hours until my train leaves. Plus another 2 hour train ride to Mount Huashuan. By the time I get there, I would have been travelling for close to 40 hours and have only covered such a tiny bit on the map.

I decide to go to the hostel that I have booked for when I return to Xi’an tomorrow and hope they will let me spend some time there. They do. I get to take a shower and can actually leave my luggage there for the night and only have to take a day pack to Mount Huashan.
I explain to them what happened and they start laughing. They look at my ticket and explain to me that my train was actually leaving at 2.17 p.m. Just 17 minutes after I bough the ticket. What I think is the time, is actually the price of the ticket.
I want to start crying and want to give up on going to Mount Huashan, it obviously is not meant to be.
But they are so helpful and explain to me that I was booked on the slow train and that there is actually a fast bullet train that will get me there in just 30 minutes. This leaves from a different station (how confusing), but I can get the metro there.
I decide to give it a go. They book a ticket for me and I am on my way again.

I find my train, get on and sit back and relax. The train travels at a speed of up 300 km/h. In no time I am at my destination.
Hey, this station looks familiar. I feel like I have seen it before.
Turns out my train from Beijing  stopped here on the way to Xi’an. I could have been here hours earlier.

But all delays, frustrations and confusion was more than worth it. Mount Huashan is beautiful.

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All my credit goes to the amazing Shuyuan Youth Hostel in Xi’an.

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