*Short Tales from the Road is a collection of my travel stories on the road while walking the world. It’s about the good, the bad, the funny and the unexpected situations that I’ve encountered on my travels.*
We missed the 2.10pm bus heading to Xitang. Abby and I were taking our own sweet time packing and heading to the bus station; and by the time we made our way there, tickets were sold out.
“When’s the next bus?” I asked.
Abby turned towards the lady at the counter, and they exchanged several words in Mandarin. I have to admit I’m a hopeless Chinese, I couldn’t make out what the lady was saying.
Abby turned back to me, “The next one is at 3.20pm. We’ll take that, but it’ll be dark when we arrive.”
The journey from Shanghai to Xitang takes about 2 hours, but the sun sets at 5pm in Shanghai during winter. During our trip to Shanghai, we wanted to spend a night in one of the watertowns just out of the city — and we choose Xitang. Most people make a day trip to these places, but we wanted some time alone to explore the town without the crowds.
The bus was on time and we had a smooth journey to Xitang. It was dark when we arrived, and everyone seemed to know where they were headed to, except us. The bus station was completely deserted, except for 2 guards standing at the entrance. We approached them.
“Excuse me,” Abby said in Mandarin, and showed him our accommodation confirmation slip, “do you know how we can get to this guesthouse? Are there any transport available?”
He looked at the slip, which was in English. “I don’t know where this is,” he replied, “But there’s no transport at this time, so you’ll probably have to walk.”
“It’s in the ancient town. Is that far?”
“No, it’s about a 15-minute walk,” he replied.
It definitely felt much longer than that. With our heavy luggage in tow, we walked through dark lanes, passed uneven pavement, and maneuvered our way around heavy road construction. It was tiring, but that wasn’t the worst part. When we arrived at the small lane where our guesthouse was supposed to be — it was dark. And quiet.
“Where’s the guesthouse?” Abby asked.
“According to the address, it’s….” I stopped in front of a vacant building, “…here.”
The door was locked. There was no doorbell. There was not even a sign.
I looked at Abby. She stared back at me. And we both just stood there in the pitch black, trying to figure out what we were going to do next.
“Is there a contact number on the confirmation slip?”
“No there isn’t.”
“Can you get on the net?”
“No I can’t.”
The internet restrictions in China meant that we couldn’t access many applications on our phones. Yes, even with VPN. And especially with that pretty useless 4G Wifi dongle I got from Malaysia.
I spotted a dim light from the building next to our ‘supposed’ guesthouse.
“Wait here with the luggage, I’ll be back,” I told Abby.
I walked over to the next building, which turned out to be a quaint tea shop. I knocked on the door, and struggled in what little Mandarin I knew — trying to ask for help.
I guess the tea shop girl understood me, because she walked over with me to the empty guesthouse. “There used to be a hotel here,” she said, “But I don’t know what happened.”
We told her our situation and that we couldn’t find a contact number to call.
“I’ll look it up on the internet.”
She got a number off a website, which she then proceeded to call. There was a man on the other line. She told him who we were and explained our situation to him — and then just trailed on in Mandarin that I just couldn’t grasp. Abby seemed to understand what was going on, but I was completely clueless.
In the end, through my broken Mandarin, her thick accent, and Abby’s translation — I found out that the guesthouse got shut down by the Chinese authorities a couple of days ago, and that the owner had sent me an email to inform me that they couldn’t accommodate us.
“An email?” I asked.
“Yes. He said he sent it 2 times, and he was a little worried that he didn’t get a response.” she explained.
It was only then that it dawned upon me what that blank email from an anonymous sender I got a couple of days ago was. Yes, China and its internet restrictions. I was already in the country and couldn’t load those emails.
“So what do we do now” Abby asked.
“I guess we’ll just look for another guesthouse.”
“And lug the bags around these uneven pavements again?”
“I guess we have no choice.”
The tea house girl seemed to sense what our conversation was about. “I have a friend who has a guesthouse just next to my shop,” she said in Mandarin, “I’ll call him and ask if he has a room.”
She did. He had a room. And he came over to help us with our bags in 2 minutes. And we finally, had a roof over our heads.
Turns out the new place we ended up staying at is called the Xushe Boutique Guesthouse (叙舍客栈 – Xu She Ke Zhan), with pretty decent online ratings. The owner, Bao Zi (包子, translates to ‘Little Dumpling’) was the most helpful host — he recommended us a couple of great restaurants for our meals, and he even offered to help buy our entry ticket into the Xitang ancient town with a discount. Whenever we needed assistance during our stay, he was just a “WeChat” message away. He made our visit to Xitang, all the more convenient, and enjoyable. I guess every cloud has a silver lining.
So what has this taught me?
Murphy’s law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. When I travel, I must always be ready. Get that contact number, just in case. Double confirm, just in case. Get to the bus station on time, just in case. I really should have known better.
Well now I will remember.
And although we thanked the nice tea house girl profusely after all the help she gave us, we didn’t ask her name. I wish we had… so to the girl in the tea house next to Xushe Boutique Guesthouse in Xitang — thank you for helping two silly lost girls that night.