eing a chronic planner and high-stress traveler, spontaneity is usually not my favorite thing when it comes to getaways. But surprisingly often, that side of me gets swept up in the romance of it all, the excitement of adventure – the nagging voice best for advising I do a couple more hours of research, instead chastising for not making the most of traveling around the vast and varied country I call home.
One Friday evening, after one of those days and months of false promises of “next weekend,” my partner and I book one of the first Airbnbs we see and make for the train station with visions of hopping on the next train to Nanjing, in the neighboring Jiangsu Province, for a last-minute relaxing weekend. Under an hour away on the fast train, but far enough to be considered a getaway, a trip to the old southern capital is an easy win to satisfy both sides of my personality.
Now, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’m fully aware that if there are two things that generally don’t mix, it’s spontaneity and Chinese train stations – sprawling over multiple floors with ticket booths miles away from the platform, they’re not exactly famed for their user friendliness. Still, we arrive at the station at 8:30pm armed with the knowledge that there are multiple fast trains to Nanjing every hour and confident we’ll be on one by 9:30pm latest. Wrong. The only train that’s not sold out is the last train of the night: the midnight slow train. Visions of a snappy journey and pre-10pm arrival go out of the window, replaced with the reality of a four-hour odyssey, complete with a rock-hard seat and a 4am finale.
Pulling into Nanjing after a few hours trying to unwind beneath stark strip lights that are a signature feature of the old trains, we crumple into a taxi where I plug my nearly-dead phone into a very dead power pack, just managing to send the vital accommodation details over to my partner before the battery goes. Except, it seems, for the door code. Oh, and then there’s the fact that our Airnb hosts have given us the wrong apartment number. And so, in the early hours we’re trapped outside a random apartment, helpless while we wait for someone to come to our rescue.
Ready to get the relaxing part of this spontaneous weekend underway, we wake up itching for a warm shower and coffee. Kettle flicked on, phone finally plugged in, shower cranked up to scalding... nothing’s happening. There’s no power. In fact, there’s no power in the whole complex – there are scheduled power cuts in the compound through the whole weekend, we’re told. Weary and lost with now two dead phones (absolutely essential for both payment and navigation) we head out in search of coffee and functioning plug sockets to recharge.
By late afternoon, we’ve turned a corner. We finally see a bit of Nanjing, and as the headache from the previous evening’s antics fade into the background we return to the apartment – which we’re assured will be powered until 6am the next morning – to devise an itinerary and book our tickets back to Shanghai for the next day.
With now very limited time for sightseeing, less willing to leave things down to chance, I go at planning with military-like precision: zero nine hundred hours, wake up; ten hundred hours drop bags of at train station and collect tickets; eleven hundred hours taxi to the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum; fifteen hundred hours taxi to train station; sixteen hundred hours purchase train ride snacks; seventeen hundred hours, train home.
Things are going uncharacteristically well in comparison to the rest of the trip, until around twelve hundred hours, when our plan unfurls itself like a runaway toilet roll. After a fair walk to the mausoleum entrance, we’re turned away without a reservation. From here, it’s a downward spiral. We joke about how funny it would be if we had dropped our bags off at the wrong train station, which, of course, we have and only discover half an hour before our train is set to leave. The correct station is about 35 minutes away. Perfect.
Accepting defeat, we line up to rebuy tickets from the train station we’re at – naturally, they’re all sold out. Our only option is a no expenses spared, business class seat for a train leaving from the other train station in four hours.
Lying down in that luxe, recliner seat on the journey back to Shanghai, I can’t help but think two things: 1. I wish that this was the slow train, because the plush seat is more comfortable than my bed, and 2. The spontaneous part of myself was right.
From the little I saw of Nanjing, it was great. I do need to escape my Shanghai bubble and see more of China, only... maybe it does pay to plan a little.