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Trip 37 — Jeju and Xiamen Walks

Xiamen day 1: Railway station to Siming
Saturday, 5 August 2023

Today: 7349 steps/6.06 km/3.77 mi/1h 7m

On the surface, China was as accessible to visitors as it had been on my last visit, in 2019. Shanghai's street signs and train announcements were in Chinese and English (though the verbiage could be a little off), LEDs on the Bund swirled "Welcome to Shanghai" in English, and roaming with T-Mobile still bypassed the "great firewall," China's banning of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other shady services. My Shanghai public-transportation card still worked. My ten-year Chinese visa, now in an expired passport, was still valid, and I could enter the country by showing both passports.

But getting through a day in China is now a hassle for a foreigner who doesn't read Chinese and hasn't done some preparing. I had done little beyond taking the on-the-honor-system required rapid Covid-19 test a day before flying in and submitting the online health declaration.

For one thing, outside mapping services, or at least Google Maps, have outdated information, no longer show the names of metro stations, and can't provide transit directions. (They can provide walking routes, unlike in South Korea.) In order to figure out how to get somewhere on the metro, I had to use the national Baidu mapping app.

Baidu is only in Chinese. So the brute-force method I had of taking the metro somewhere involved finding my destination on Google Maps, scrolling to the exact same place on Baidu, looking for a metro station nearby, matching its Chinese name on the metro map, and going to that station. Then I could use Google Maps to walk the last distance.

It's startling to realize how much we rely on technology until we can't use it anymore. It wasn't so long ago that I traveled with a paper map, maybe collecting one at a tourism kiosk, looking up maps in a guidebook, sometimes hand-scratching a rough map for the night if I didn't want to carry the book around. I got off the maglev airport train, entered the subway, and punched the name of my hotel into Google Maps, and only then did I learn that the app was not going to tell me where to alight.

The other main issue for visitors these days is that it's increasingly difficult to pay for things by producing cash or a credit card on the spot. Vendors expect to be paid with the local WeChat or Alipay app. Until recently, it wasn't possible for non-Chinese nationals to use those apps at all.

I'd known this for some time and kept it in the back of my head that at some point I was going to have to figure out the WeChat wallet feature. Just finding it was an issue — it doesn't show up on the English WeChat unless you search for "wallet" as a contact — and then I went through the steps of inputting my passport information and adding a credit card.

Figuring I had completed everything, I went out for a martini and tried to pay, only to be greeted with the message that I hadn't completed "real-name verification" and I needed to submit photos of my passport details and my face. Trying not to hold things up at the bar, I hastily took the pictures and rushed through entering the accompanying information. Another message popped up: They're reviewing my details and they'll get back to me within three days.

Fortunately this bar took credit cards directly, and they probably would have accepted cash as well. But this was the big city, one with lots of visitors. Would Xiamen be as forgiving?

I went back to my hotel and did some research on the WeChat verification process. I learned that even if they ever did review my details, they probably wouldn't accept them, because I hadn't entered my middle name and the photo of the passport page had been dark and off-angle.

I had another chance to get things right, with Alipay. I took the clearest photos I could, put in all the information exactly, and despite the app's hanging on submitting the passport page until I restarted my phone, I received an immediate confirmation that the verification was complete. I tested this news at the Shanghai branch of Revolucion Cocktail, which had been my favorite bar in Guangzhou when I worked on a couple of theatre programs there.

It worked, and I joined the club of visitors to China who can strut in almost anywhere and say, "Oh, Alipay. I've got that."

Until I tried to do laundry yesterday. A shopping mall wanted $5 per item, and my hotel even more, but I found — based on posts and mapping information from years ago — a place about 30 minutes away on the metro where there might be a self-service bank of washers and dryers, like those I'd used in Seogwipo.

The machines were there, but the payment was only via WeChat, not Alipay. A woman next door was stir-frying noodles outside. "Can you please help me pay for the washer?" I asked in my politest Google Translate. "Then I can pay you with cash or Alipay." I wasn't certain I could accomplish a peer-to-peer payment on the app, but I thought it would be true.

First she tried to guide me through WeChat on my phone, resulting in the same failure and "We are reviewing your information" message. Then, maybe just a little grudgingly, she paid with her phone and I gave her the cash. I wondered whether she got such a request for help often — or will, with things opening back up.

While the washer was running, I had 32 minutes to walk around the neighborhood, a residential area near the Nanpu Bridge. Fruit stands and grocery stores and a woman selling live crabs and snakes. Kids riding bikes, everyone riding bikes. I had a fantastic pork bun. And some people were paying with cash. I was relieved that I hadn't saddled the woman with an obsolete currency that no one would take.

A man at the first bar, who had witnessed my attempt to pay, owned an art gallery, and for something unique to do and the thrill of seeing whether I could find it, I went there. The space was calming and airy and contained an exhibition of the paintings of Liu Weijian. Several involved takes on modes of travel and featured lonely roads or landscapes with just one vehicle. One was an empty highway and sidewalk, with buildings looming ahead. Another was a somber, mystically lit walk along what appeared to be a fjord, with mountains in the distance. It put me right back on Eysturoy.

It's only China's wayfinding and nearly cashless society that are hostile; the people are friendly. One bought me a shot of shochu topped with an Oreo cookie and kimchi; somehow the extreme flavors balanced each other. By the river were people who wanted to take me away and give me a massage — and I didn't even know them! What kindness.

Off the Nanjing pedestrian road was a railcar converted into a sushi bar. I stepped in for what I thought was going to be a snack before dinner, but it turned into a full meal. I was sitting next to a man, and on his other side were his mother and his son, who looked about seven. It was the son's birthday.

On my other side was a young woman filming every bite she took and making expressions and hey-there finger poses for wherever she intended to post the videos. Sometimes she didn't even eat; she just prepared the mouthful, posed, and took the video. When she was finally done with her photography responsibilities, she turned the camera off and took a bite that was way too big for her mouth. She saw me catch her in the act, and we all laughed. Then I took a bite with too much wasabi and heaved for a moment, and we all laughed.

There was much laughter, aided by the man's repeated pouring of sake and ordering of beers. He was a travel guide in Asia and particularly liked Japan. He was also a fan of the National Basketball Association. I mentioned the Boston Celtics and he rattled off some of their names.

"I actually like Kobe the most," he said.

I wasn't sure whether he meant the city or the player.

Travelers to China can now buy train tickets online. The site isn't something obvious like China Railway; it's the cryptic 12306.cn, which seems more like something in the dark web where you might order prescription pills. Other than a persistent "System is busy" message that I had to sidestep by going to the Chinese site first and then selecting English, I was able to register my passport details and buy a ticket fairly easily.

The system gave me a slap on the wrist at first, though. Booking opens 15 days before departure, and I wanted to buy as soon as I could, after barely procuring a standing-room-only ticket for a ten-hour sold-out journey a few years ago. (I was able to sit in the dining car as long as I kept ordering meals.)

It wasn't too expensive to try business class for the six-hour ride to Xiamen. Business is a step up from first, the opposite of on the airlines — China Railway already had a first class and needed something to call their new higher-level product — and has two-by-one lie-flat seats. But there is no consistency across all trains whether the single seat is the "A" or the "F' seat. I just knew I didn't want a middle ("C") seat.

There's no seat map at booking and no way to select a specific seat. From the trip reports that I could find, it seemed the "F" was more likely to be the single. When I first tried to buy a ticket, the system offered me seat 1A.

I hoped that I could cancel the order and that the seat wouldn't go back into the inventory immediately — that it would still be blocked as pending. It worked. I tried again and got 1C. I canceled out of that booking and got 1F on my next try.

But by now I'd found a video of someone reviewing business class out of Shanghai. He was in a single "A" seat. All right, then. Maybe I needed an "A" after all.

This time the system wouldn't let me proceed. You made too many cancellations today, it said. Try again tomorrow.

"Tomorrow" in Beijing time was enough of a timeout, and that same evening in New York, the day before I left on this trip, I purchased seat 2A.

All I had by way of confirmation was a print-out of the reservation number. The confirmation merely stated that I should be ready to show my passport. There was nothing that looked like a ticket. Surely there would be a QR code, or some proprietary kind of barcode that would let me electronically enter the station and go through the boarding gates.

But this is China. They knew who I was and where I was going.

Shanghai's Hongqiao Station is a very busy place in the extreme western end of the city, adjacent to its smaller airport. At the entrance to the main hall was a security and identification checkpoint. Without a Chinese ID card, I was directed to the manual verification, at the gate at the far right.

I handed her my passport and she typed its number in. Oh, yeah, the computer told her. He's on the 12:55 to Xiamen. She waved me through.

The train hall was massive, with thousands of people and many platform gates. There was nothing obvious showing which one was for train G1659. The giant departure board was halfway along the gates rather than at the station entrance. I did find the information I needed on one of the small screens along the way, but doing so involved stopping in the middle of foot traffic and straining my eyes.

Gate 13, side A or B. I saw it but I couldn't get to it through the crowd. It was just beyond a bottleneck halfway along the hall.

Where was the back of the line? The sign said "Check in." How long did I have to do that? Did I need a paper ticket? Why wasn't the line moving? These were all things that needed to be resolved 20 minutes before departure.

Then the line in the status column on the big departure board changed from "On Schedule" to "Check In," and everything was settled at once. The line started moving rapidly as people scanned their ID cards and went through the gates. A staff member had to assist me, but all she needed to do was scan the passport and send me along.

Seat 2A was part of a pair, but it wasn't too bad having a person next to me. He helped me find the container of rice, under the braised duck in my provided meal, and he assisted me in recovering a conversation that apparently went like this between an attendant with a drink cart and me:

"Are you going to Xiamen?"

"I'd like a Coca-Cola, please."

He got off after about an hour, and my next would-be companion was part of a family of three who had separate seats all over the cabin, so I switched with one of them at their request and had a solo seat for the rest of the trip. We tunneled through mountains. I set the bed and dozed; I watched the videos on the entertainment player (information about the railway in Mandarin); I was fed a second meal (chicken). I'd chosen this train largely because it meant not waking up too early in Shanghai and because it was the only one to go from there all the way to Xiamen island; the others stopped at Xiamen North, on the mainland.

Xiamen is a big city trapped in a small space. Arriving just after sunset, I turned from the station onto the main road and passed dozens of little eateries lit up at night. The busway ran above the street; somewhere below was the metro. Next to me was the thrum of a busy avenue.

The quality of driving in China is still awful, with cars turning right on red without stopping, regardless of the existence of cross traffic. Scooters zoom along the sidewalks. This is one place where I assume drivers will ignore my priority in zebra crossings, and if my progress along the sidewalk veers even one degree to the right or left, I look behind to make sure a scooter or bicycle hasn't already intended to use the space.

Suddenly the lights and traffic went away and I was on a disused rail path, approaching the Hongshan Rail Tunnel. Bats were making their nightly debut. I entered the tunnel and for about ten minutes was walking blissfully on a cool, well-lit trail with depictions and a history of the rail line that used to run through there, along with whimsical paintings and train-related figures in the niches. Other people were walking the route, which might have seemed eerie I'd been the only one.

I had booked the Jinjiang Inn Xiamen University Zhongshan Road, and soon after exiting the tunnel I found the location indicated on Google Maps. Only it wasn't a hotel; it was a German restaurant. I seemed to be in a gated residential complex. I showed a picture of the hotel to one of the guards, and he pointed in a certain direction; when I failed to find it, I asked another guard, who indicated that there was no hotel in the immediate vicinity.

I went back to the German restaurant. A woman invited me inside, where I saw the first western face I'd encountered in my brief time on the island: the owner, a Dutchman named Joost. "Please, can you help me find this hotel?" I asked.

The woman was his wife, Maria. They sat me down and gave me a bottle of cold water. Then they expended their most heartfelt efforts trying to find my hotel.

"They changed the name two years ago," Maria said.

"What's the phone number?" Joost asked. "We need to call them."

I found the number from the booking. Maria tried it. "No one is answering," she said. "But they changed the name two years ago."

"Do you have the address?" Joost asked. I plugged it into Google Maps and, after an eternity, it tried to send me back to the mainland.

"No, no," Joost said. "Zhongshan Road is not so far. Walking distance."

"It'll have to be walking distance," I said, and I explained why I was on the island.

Joost was punching things into his phone, trying to come up with a correct phone number. All he could find was the hotel's alleged amenities. None of the booking sites listed a phone number. One of the young staff members at the restaurant joined in on the search.

We were not far from the edge of the island. "There are many hotels in the area," I said. "I'll just go find another one."

"Did you already pay money?" Maria asked.

"Yes, but I'm not worried about the money. It's through my bank and they'll make it right."

"I'm almost there," Joost said, furiously typing. He was determined to get in touch with this hotel.

"I just know they changed the name two years ago," Maria said once again.

I felt bad taking so much of their time. "I think I should just go find another hotel." I looked at the map and found the closest one. "Do you know the Seven Days Inn?"

"I've been here for ten years," Joost said. "I've never heard of it."

"Well, if I walk for ten minutes in this direction, there are lots of hotels—”

"I found it!" the young staff member said suddenly. "It has a new name."

"Can you show me where it is on the map?"

After various comparisons of Baidu on his phone and Baidu and Google Maps on mine, I was confident that I had pinpointed the place he was talking about. I didn't quite grasp that he had identified the correct hotel — one in a place different from where I was led to, and with a different name — but at least there would be a hotel there.

I saw that it did have the correct address. "Fengchaoshan Road," I said. It was right there on Google Maps. "Why did it try to send me to the mainland?" Google Maps, which had led me accurately down tiny trails in Malta, past millennia-old ruins, was all but trying to get me lost in Asia, almost mockingly.

"Do you have a business card?" I asked Joost. "I'll tell you the outcome." He gave me two. "And hopefully I can dine here sometime; it'll be too late tonight."

Maria walked me to the edge of the property and sent me in the right direction, first along a highway and then along a park. From there Google Maps wanted me to walk around the block, but I saw that I could cut through an alley. In ten minutes I had reached the Magnotel. My confidence was boosted by the signs saying it was part of the Jinjiang group.

The receptionist found my reservation and handed me a key card. The room smelled funny, but it was reasonably clean and had good air conditioning. I tried to keep the power on by inserting one of Joost's cards in the slot instead of the key, but this was one of those places that require the actual card, as I discovered with my pants down in the bathroom.

Finding dinner was much easier. "Shall we have a drink?" one place proposed in neon.

Why, yes, that's a splendid idea.

Go on to Xiamen day 2