Let me tell you a funny story. With a moral. You are short on time? I shall be brief.
So here I am in Harbin. Not exactly the most desirable town I have ever been in on my travels. Not exactly the nastiest either. Pretty much middle of the road.
I don’t really want to be here. I only come to catch a train. But that is all part of the journeying experience, and, as I think we have established with some fairly convincing empirics, I like travelling more than I like getting there. So being somewhere in between going places is an opportunity more than it is an inconvenience.
Anyway, so here I am wandering around trying to find this hotel. Because they (‘they’ being my guide book in this case) tell me that there I will find a travel agency where the staff speak English, and where they can help me to find a train ticket to Vladivostok.
Ah! There is the hotel. But I need to cross the street. Hmmm. This is not a simple Christchurch look right, look left, look right and then go. This is a serious four lane street. Lots of traffic.
Ah again! Happy news. I see a pedestrian underpass. Obviously it is combined with a shopping mall. I mean, why have a pedestrian underpass if you are not going to chuck a shopping mall at it? What else would I rather do while underpassing except shop?
So I wander down the stairs, and I am quickly sucked in to a underworld labyrinth. The stairs go down, down, down, flight after flight in different directions.
I get to the bottom, disoriented, and every direction I look in seems promising. This way for shirts, this way for shoes, this way for plastic things, this way for wooden things. But which way for the other side of the road? There are lots of signs, but none of them in a language I can read. There are lots of people, but no one who looks like a likely candidate for most helpful citizen of the month.
And besides, how could I phrase my question? Excuse me, which way is the other side of the road?
So I do what you have to do in such situations. I pick a direction and I walk in it. I walk quite a long time. Far longer than the street was wide, I think. Lots of shops.
These shops are not frequented by foreigners, at least to judge from the expressions on the faces of the people I walk by. I have not really mastered the art of interpreting Chinese faces (in my ignorance I assume it is a skill that can be learned). So perhaps it is just my feeling that I don’t really belong down here that is responsible for my impression that everyone is wondering what I want.
Aha! An exit. I wander up the stairs. But just imagine my dismay when I discover that not only have I not actually managed to cross the road, I have actually ended up 100 metres back from the hotel I wanted, and on the same side of the road to boot.
I think I need a compass.
Later on I actually manage to get to the hotel I wanted, only to find it is not the one I wanted after all. They point me in the direction of one that does sell train tickets. And they speak Russian and English there as well. I love it when a plan comes together.