While plotting my route to Qingdao, where Welm lives, I wanted to include a place that was definitely not a tourist town. Somewhere I could get a taste of “real China”, whatever that means. I guess I wanted to experience a place that is completely untainted by tourism or international trade, and boy did I choose good…
Bengbu is on the main Shanghai-Beijing train line and is clearly a decent-sized city, but it didn’t rate a mention in the Lonely Planet. Not even a “don’t bother”. Located halfway between Shanghai and the Confucius theme park that is Qufu, it seemed ideal so I booked my ticket without knowing a thing about the place. I didn’t even have a map. Stepping out of the train station into the warm afternoon sun I was assailed by several dozen touts offering taxis, motorcycles or pedal rickshaws to take me wherever I wanted to go. Not knowing where that was, I chose instead to walk slowly around the nearby area and take it in.
The first thing that struck me is that I am, quite literally, possibly the only foreigner in town tonight. They must get the occasional one because there is the odd sign about in English, but going by the gaping stares, smiles and occasional giggles I provoked the previous guy wasn’t here recently. The second thing I thought was that this is a poor town. The streets were genuinely dirty rather than just untidy, there are few restaurants (but loads of street food stalls) and a high number of unemployed people sitting around, chatting, smoking and playing cards. In Shanghai virtually all the people you saw idling during the day were old and retired, here many were of working age. It had the look of a place that once was modestly bustling, but that time had passed. I had the unsettling feeling that if I stayed too long I might draw unwanted attention, so I kept walking.
I was looking for a hotel without much luck. In most cities and towns the cheapest but sometimes dodgiest hotels are usually located around the train station, so I deliberately went a block or two onwards in the hope of finding something half-decent (I somehow don’t think there’s a YHA here). Walking past the blatant red-light district made me think I’d done the right thing, but after 20 minutes circling the area I had no choice but to turn back. The utter alienness of this place was getting to me, and I was seriously considering returning to the train station and taking the first seat out of town.
Then in front of me appeared a giant sign in English: “Railway Hotel”. Next door to the railway station, just to the side of where I’d started. After a painful exchange at the front desk I managed to book a room, even bargaining the price down a bit. And what a room! On a high floor with a view of sorts, excellent bathroom and shower, flat screen TV with the English language CCTV-9 and clean comfy bed. There’s an internet connection too but I don’t know what it costs, and I’m afraid the receptionist will hit me if I try to assault her with my Mandarin again.
Then to the train station to get a ticket out of here tomorrow. I decided to go fully prepared this time, making the effort to write out what I wanted in mandarin characters just in case my spoken efforts failed. Note that I can’t read a character to save my life, I simply copied them as best I could from the guidebook and crossed my fingers. Still didn’t work. Apparently I’d stuffed up one key bit of information and the machine-gun questions from the ticket officer left me blank-faced and reeling. But the gods were smiling and a young woman in the queue behind me jumped in to translate. Ticket sorted, I could finally relax and meander again at leisure 🙂
With the pressure off I found this is quite a friendly town, and with time to wander properly I discovered my first impressions were off the mark. The railway station is indeed the wrong side of the tracks; about 15 minutes away is the real heart of town and it’s quite attractive in a dusty, Chinese kind of way. There’s a large park with big lake that attracts dozens of tai chi practitioners in the morning, and an industrious buzz on the streets as people go to work and school. It still feels like its heyday was several decades ago, but it was a pleasant stop on the way to QD.