On Friday I had another prenatal appointment (4th appointment, 3rd doctor, 2nd country). I don't mind prenatal appointments, but I wish we didn't have to travel 12 hours to get there. On Thursday night we headed to the train station to catch an overnight train to Beijing. Since you can only buy train tickets 1 week ahead and there are apparently only a few tickets allocated to Weinan, the only train we could get had us arriving 2 hours before our appointment, cutting it a little close since we had to get all the way across the city.
Unfortunately, our train was already half an hour late by the time it got to Weinan. We could just hope it wouldn't lose even more time as the night went on. This train was one of the few double-deckers I have been on. Usually the sleeper compartments have three bunks stacked on top of each each other, but the double-deckers are broken into two levels that are two bunks high. This is an advantage if you are on the top bunk because there is less climbing up and down.
When I headed to the bathroom I was very surprised to see a western toilet. Surprised and not so happy. I like western toilets in private, and they're fine in religiously-cleaned places like Starbucks, but in normal public restrooms, give me a squattie any day. China restrooms in general range from dirty to gag-you gross, and train bathrooms are definitely not at the top end. Western toilets are even worse because people aren't used to them and good aim doesn't seem to be a high priority. For the rest of the train ride, I walked down a couple of cars to the “normal” bathroom.
The Point of the Trip
We got into Beijing the next morning about 1 hour and 15 minutes late, but fortunately we got to the hospital just in time. We aren't the only ones who travel in from out of town for appointments; several others were waiting with travel bags. Everything was fine at the doctors – just a typical, don't-do-much kind of visit. We did get to hear the baby's heartbeat again.
Unfortunately, they still charge you for don't-do-much visits. Medical expenses are a little more shocking here because we pay for everything up front, then submit claims to insurance for reimbursement. While being treated at a normal Chinese hospital usually costs a couple of dollars, this is a Western-standards hospital, probably the best medical care available in the country, and the price reflects that. I don't know anyone about to have a baby who doesn't worry about money a little bit, and a big old doctor bill doesn't do much to make you feel better about that.
The Western Experience
The country's best hospital is located conveniently close to the country's best Mexican food (and best milk-shakes!). Just a five minute walk and we are sitting in Pete's Tex Mex ordering our old standards – a burrito and amazing peanut-butter chocolate milkshake with a couple of cinnamon rolls for the road. The novelty of these foods just makes them taste all the better.
After eating we headed next door to Jenny Lou's, a western foods store. It was my first time, and I was in awe. It was like being in a tiny American supermarket. I stood before a whole row of cereals. Dozens of different kinds. This is the kind of thing I dreamed about (literally, several times) when I first came to China. I may have teared up a little bit when I spotted Corn Chex, I was so moved. Every aisle had new things I hadn't seen since summertime. At one point I glanced up and what did I see before me but MAC AND CHEESE! Whole boxes of it just sitting there waiting to be bought. I had no idea it could be found in China. It was a truly incredible moment, one that only a true Mac and Cheese lover could understand.
To complete our western experience, we headed to IKEA (also close by) to look at some baby furniture. While IKEA itself is western, it has really been taken in by the Chinese middle-upper class population. We only saw a couple of other foreigners there and probably close to a thousand Chinese. People don't just come for the shopping – they come for the experience. In nearly every display, people are relaxing on chairs, sprawled out on beds, reading a book, chatting with friends, sitting at a desk working on their computer. They will sit for hours at the cafe. But a lot of people also buy things. We bought...two ice trays. But I came away with lots of ideas!
Finally, we headed back to our company's hospitality center to pick up train tickets. Another catch to the train system in China is that for the most part, you can only buy tickets for trains leaving from the city you are currently in. This seems particularly stupid to me, since most times when you travel somewhere, you also have to travel back. Since many times we are traveling back within a few days (or in this case, the same day) of arrival, there is no guarantee there will still be train tickets available. Enter the travel agent, who will charge a hefty commission to buy tickets for you and have them waiting. Our train tickets were supposed to be waiting for us but unfortunately, they weren't. This was a problem since our train was leaving in 4 hours. We called the company and they assured us the tickets would be there in a couple more hours.
As we waited, we decided to try out another Beijing phenomenon – ordering pizza. Get this – you can call one of several pizza restaurants and they will deliver right to your door. Isn't that amazing? It didn't seem quite as amazing when two hours had passed and we still hadn't gotten our pizza. It finally did arrive – cold and rather disappointing – but just in time before we had to leave for the train station. Fortunately, our tickets had also arrived by then.
The Last 12 (er, 15) Hours
The train ride back was uneventful. The others in our compartment stared suspiciously at us the whole time, but as soon as the train pulled out I went to bed, earplugs and face mask in place. I have no doubt they were still staring. I've never seen a Chinese person use either, and they seem to grow up with a certain immunity to loud noises and bright light.
I slept pretty well on the train ride despite the acute discomfort of my back and hips. Normally the hard, shelf-beds don't bother me, but these days even my own comfortable bed leaves me feeling arthritic. After two nights on a train, I felt like I could hardly turn over. Still, during the times when I lay awake thinking how uncomfortable I was, I also thought about all crowded seating cars we past getting on the train.
The majority of Chinese will sit packed in with 100 other people overnight rather than pay extra money for a sleeper. This train was especially crowded since this is a holiday weekend (not Easter, but “Qing Ming festival” - tomb sweeping day). The aisle of the seating cars were filled with people who would be standing for the next 12 hours. So lying in bed thinking of those people, I thought, “How did I get to be one of these lucky people with a bed? I'm so rich.”
There seem to be two types of train-riders: Those who sleep until the last possible minute and those who get up at 6 or 7am regardless of when the train will arrive. Our crowd was the second type. We woke up to the crunching of apples and cucumbers and the slurping of the customary bowls of instant noodles (no train ride is complete without it!).
A few hours later we arrived at the Xian train station, which was packed with holiday travelers. We had to decide whether to wait for the next train (which would likely be late) or get a bus (which would probably take a long time) back to Weinan. I thought we should try the bus option, but it was a bad plan. Weinan is *technically* an hour away, but after an hour we had barely reached the outskirts of Xian. Once we finally got out of the huge traffic jam, we had another hour over bumpy back roads because the main highway is under construction. Eventually, 39 hours after leaving, we were happily back in Weinan. I walked in the door and immediately started cooking up some Mac and Cheese!