Having a rare common weekend off, my American friend and I opted to travel to a place we'd heard a lot about. Hengdian is supposedly the Hollywood of China, and we even went so far as to check out the website. In true Chinese form, it was impossible to maneuver with a lot of sparkly graphics that serve no purpose, and was frustratingly vague. The only information we managed to glean was that there would be some kind of theme park there which, we surmised, would be completely awful and, hence, totally worth the trip. We were more or less expecting a smaller, Chinese version of Universal Studios. Or something.
We rolled our lazy selves out of bed to catch the 6:00 am bus out of Anji to Hangzhou, where we then hopped a taxi across town to the south bus station (having arrived into the north bus station). Luckily, there was a bus directly to Hengdian and we even had 45 minutes to spare before it departed. So, we sat in the waiting room of the bus station and made fun of bad, middle aged male hairdos.
About halfway into the 4-hour ride to Hengdian, my friend realized she'd forgotten her passport. Under normal circumstances, this would be dangerous but not terribly crippling. However, when checking into a hotel or hostel in China, every traveler must present a passport. One ID is not enough to rent a room; all passports must be shown. We sat on the bus and freaked out for about half an hour, trying to decide what to do. I considered trying to rent a room myself and sneaking her in, but thought better of it. In the end, we figured we’d let fate run its course and hope for the best.
As the bus drove into the outskirts of Hengdian, we could see that the so called theme park was actually just a variety of movie sets that were scattered in the outlying ends of the town, and definitely were not within walking distances of each other or the town center. They had designed this thing so that you could not access it without being booked on a group tour - HOW CHINESE! So, there we were in a completely unfamiliar town with no hotel room, lacking one passport, and no way to get around to the sites we came there to see. For awhile, we just wandered -- bought some DVDs, roamed the streets, got stared at, and were solicited by the many rickshaw drivers around.
Knowing there was no way we would be able to get back to Anji that night and we would be forced to roam the streets of some town, we decided to make for Yiwu, a larger nearby city boasting world famous commodities markets. After lunching in a terribly cliché "western coffee shop" (read: pizza with peas and corn), we managed to find a minibus that took us to another town called Dongyang. Hengdian being too small to have a real bus station (as was evidenced by our arriving bus which just sort of dropped people off on random street corners), Dongyang serves the outlying areas and you must minibus to Dongyang to get long distance buses. We shelled out the 6 kuai for the minibus, tried to get some sleep on the 20 minute ride (unsuccessful), and eventually boarded yet another bus, this time to Yiwu.
Rule number one when arriving in an unfamiliar Chinese city with no map or earthly idea of where you are or where to go: get in a taxi and ask to be taken to McDonald’s. If there is no McDonald’s or the taxi driver seems confused by this request, ask to be taken to KFC. It’s not that you necessarily want to eat at McDonald’s or KFC but just that, logically speaking, most Mcd's and KFC's are located in town centers, so you have more likelihood of ending up somewhere centralized. If we were going to while the night away in some strange city, we might as well get to the center of town first.
Yiwu surprised us. There were a lot of foreigners; in fact, it was virtually teeming with expat life. By 6 pm, we had sipped on sodas and the sun was going down. Wandering around a central park we saw lots of people hanging out on an open grassy area, most of them near a free movie that was being shown on a large screen, and there were even some half-naked bums helping out the local scenery. All in all, it was pretty entertaining. For about 2 hours. After that, we wandered through a night market but decided against sitting down because we were both really tired and neither of us felt like being the local spectacle. We opted into a small, brightly-lit restaurant with "point and ask" refrigerator for food ordering. Just what we needed.
I'd remembered hearing about a Russian bar in Yiwu that was supposedly a good time. All things being equal and Yiwu being a fairly small city, how many Russian bars could there be? It’s really this line of thinking that gets you into trouble in China and that night was no exception. Pulling the old hat trick, we hailed a cab and expertly asked for "Russia bar" (elousi jiuba). The driver was confused. First, he wanted to know which Russian bar. Then, he wanted to know the name of the Russian bar which, from my memory was simply "Russia bar", but whatever. I told him I didn't know, nevermind, I hadn't been, just heard of it. Not wanting to lose the fare, he ushered us back and told us he knew of an "English bar”. At this point, we were tired and the prospect of being up all night in some odd city was too much. So we hopped in and hoped for the best.
"The best" turned out to be...well…interesting, Yiwu, being such a huge place for commodity sales, has a large Middle Eastern community. The taxi driver drove us right into it. Just as if we had driven out of China and smack into the middle of, say, Lebanon. He dumped us out on a curb at the foot of a 3-story building with something written in Russian and said, "There's the English bar right there. Now get out. HURRY."
Out we scrambled, as dozens of Middle Eastern men were eyeing us wryly from beneath their long, white robes. I was nervously asking myself what we were doing there, completely out of our element. There were no Chinese people to be seen anywhere, not to mention that this so-called "English bar" didn't exist either.
We got our bearings and actually decided that this end of town was not dangerous and was, in fact, pretty cool. It was full of life, tons of people on the street, not many of them Chinese, either. As we explored, we walked into this little cluster of small blocks that was clearly the international center of life. Each block was a kind of "country" of its own, housing restaurants, shops, bars, and people from various places. There were all types of foods to be had - Korean, Japanese, Indian, Moroccan... and the list went on. By then, it was about 11 pm and we wanted to find a nice lively bar to waste some hours. Unfortunately, the Muslim-orientation of the area meant that there were fewer bars than might be expected. We passed several Indian restaurants that smelled of divine curry and boasted only Indians. I can only imagine what sort of treats you would find in a place like that.
We settled for the most Chinese thing we could find: fried street food, a.k.a. "yangrou sticks", a.k.a. spicy mutton skewers. I drank a beer and made small talk with the two Chinese guys sitting at the next table, one of whom was a Chinese national now living in France.
With full stomachs, we finally discovered one little western style bar which was completely devoid of people. We sat for a few hours and drank some beers and just tried to stay awake in the waning night hours. Around 1:30 am, we had the thought that maybe there would be slow, overnight trains from Yiwu back to Hangzhou, which would mean we could hop on, catch a few hours sleep, and arrive to Hangzhou nearly in time for the first bus home. Abandoning the bar table, we hailed a taxi to the train station. Upon arrival, the taxi driver managed to slip me a counterfeit 50 bill, which was pointed out to us a few minutes later by the train ticket sales agent.
There we were. 2:00 am, slightly tipsy, very tired, toting a counterfeit 50 kuai bill, with no idea how long the train would take. The scattered people hanging out at the train station in the middle of the night weren’t interesting, as most of them were just sleeping on the ground or standing with their luggage. We'd been sold "seat-less" tickets, meaning they were essentially standing room, or hard seat if you could elbow/fight/push/murder your way into one.
As soon as we stepped on board, we saw one small unoccupied bench. Most of the people were crammed in, trying to sleep on top of each other, on top of their luggage, on top of the little tables, or just simply on the floor. Whatever - we climbed over and around and shoved our way onto the bench, closed our eyes, and come what may, figured we'd just SLEEP.
Sleep we didn't. We were, of course, the complete oddity: two insane laowai girls getting on a train in a small town in the middle of the night. It turned out we'd actually stolen a lady's seat (she’d gone to the WC during the stop), but we just kept on pretending to sleep with our eyes clamped shut. Every so often, I would peek through my eyelid just enough to get a glimpse of the lady just standing there, staring down at us. Later, she crammed herself onto a bench across the aisle and started making a ruckus with those people - probably serves us right for stealing her seat.
The train was not slow. It was fast. These myths about slow overnight trains are completely bogus. The train arrived in an hour and a half, meaning it was then 3:30 am. In Hangzhou train station. No bus 'till 6:30. No place to sleep. No place for anything. Nothing open. We skirted into an internet bar across from the train station, which killed about an hour. After that, we wandered the streets until dawn.
Finally, the morning was upon us and we got a taxi to the north bus station. I had the not-so-great idea of peddling off the counterfeit 50 bill to the taxi driver who knew immediately it was a fake and got in a huge rage and threatened to call the police. We just pretended we didn't understand, flipped him another hundred bill (which he inspected closely), and FINALLY GOT THE BUS HOME TO ANJI WHERE WE SLEPT FOR 2 DAYS STRAIGHT AFTER THAT HELL.
Moral? Always…always bring your passport...