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Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Kung Pao Chicken Tianjin China.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

Battling through the rush hour melee at Beijing Railway Station wasn’t much fun at all. Finally, having bounced off the shoulders of a hundred and one careless commuters, we reached the promised land of Waiting Room Number 2. Inside, we found an air-conditioned hall the size of a small European country. Settling down in one of the endless rows of metal benches, we gazed up at the giant information board. An incomprehensible parade of fluorescent Chinese characters.

Which one was our train?

Was it leaving on time?

Should we present ourselves to someone?  

Arrivals and departures Beijing Railway Station

Searching for our train at Beijing Railway Station.

They were calling departures every five minutes or so. Which, it seemed, was the signal for a furious, uncivilised rush towards the exit gate. This was pretty rough on the gate’s lone, dopey-looking security guard in oversized trousers. In fact, the poor guy had no chance of checking all the tickets before the human wall literally smashed right through him.

Watching the bodies pour forward, I scanned a pair of cloned businessmen barking into their phones. Behind them, a massive family overloaded with shopping bags and suitcases. Then, a group of rubber-skinned labourers, half a dozen massive wooden crates set before them on metal trolleys. Docile and expressionless, wherever it was they were headed, they didn’t seem very excited about it.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Give Me Money a short story from China.

Fun and games at Beijing Railway Station.

Consulting the guard, we learned that our train to Tianjin was next up. Sure enough, we soon found ourselves riding a wave of eager passengers, invisible hands pushing into my back. Clambering aboard our train, S found our seats with ease. The carriage was modern and temperature-controlled. Moreover, our chairs were comfortable and we had ample table space. All in all, our expectations had been exceeded! 

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

A Chinese school group quickly surrounded us as the train pulled away. I got chatting to the teacher, a smiley guy who looked a bit like a teenager himself with his boyish looks and bird’s nest hairdo. While his English was minimal, he managed to explain that they were all on their way home to the city of Chengdu. “38 hours!” he moaned, scribbling the number down on his newspaper. 

Luckily, our own ride was an uncomplicated two hours, which flew by in the snap of a finger. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to teacher-boy. When we pulled into Tianjin he was fast asleep. His backpack clutched into his chest like a pillow, the newspaper pressed up against his cheek.

Bullet train Beijing to Tianjin

Teacher boy on the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin. July 2009.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

I had a less than enthusiastic feeling about Tianjin City Youth Hostel the moment it came into view. It was an eyesore of a building, dumped onto the side of a highway like a messy afterthought. “Welcome you”, said the man behind reception, in a tone that couldn’t have been less welcoming.

Exploring the lobby while S checked us in, I immediately noticed how horribly neglected the place was. There was a broken chair and dusty floorboards in the common room. In the sad looking kitchen, I spied an overflowing rubbish bin that should have been emptied days ago.

Actually, I’d seen worse in India…much worse. But this, in its own way, was still impressively crappy. Heading up the stairs to our room, a peeling sign on one of the archways informed us that we were staying in ‘‘The first hostel in Tianjin since 1974”. Unfortunately, it felt like we were still in 1974.

Tianjin City Youth Hostel China

The entrance doors. Probably the most exciting thing about Tianjin City Youth Hostel.

The room itself actually turned out ok. The dictionary definition of basic, but cleaner than I’d expected. Nevertheless, we didn’t want to waste any more time in the hostel. Back at reception, I asked Jackie Charm how far the nearest restaurant was. He answered with a surly “far”. So we decided to just head out blind, exiting the gloom of 1974 into the afternoon sunshine of 2009. 

Twenty minutes later we came upon a little restaurant. It didn’t look very inviting but lord we were so hungry. It was a hole-in-the-wall type joint, with plastic orange tables and a mountain of green beer boxes stacked up against the far wall. The place was largely empty, just three old men perched beneath a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. The only decorative touch to the entire restaurant.

Chairman Mao Tianjin Restaurant.

Nameless restaurant, ‘somewhere’ in Tianjin.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

One of the men was the owner. He was a middle-aged man in a white vest who looked absolutely astonished when we walked in. Rising slowly with a cocked eyebrow, a sideway glance to his smirking friends, he shuffled over and presumably asked us what we wanted. With no physical menu and limited linguistic skills from both sides, it was a miracle we managed to order. 

He then disappeared into the kitchen, while his friends smoked silently and stared at us. Barely five minutes later the boss man returned with two piping hot bowls of tomato, egg and rice. It was delicious, a stir-fried concoction rich in ginger, soy sauce and black pepper. Known as fanqié chao dàn, among other names, we destroyed it in a matter of minutes.

Fanqie Chao Dan Stir fried tomato and scrambled eggs

Fanqie Chao Dan: So simple, so good!

“Welcome to China!”

It was another kilometre before we arrived in downtown Tianjin, a compact commercial district built around The Hai River. It was here that we came across a holidaying Chinese family. They were SO excited to meet us. Thus the mother insisted I pose with them all for a photograph. At her request, S captured the moment with their beast of a camera. “London very cool!” exclaimed the father, thumbs aloft, his wife and daughter giggling in unison. “Welcome to China!”

Downtown Tianjin China

“London very cool!”

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Delving into my guidebook, I learned that Tianjin dates back to 1404 before becoming a major treaty port in the 1860s. Forever in the shadow of its big brother Beijing, the city later fell into depression. This was compounded by the devastating Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, the second deadliest quake in modern history.

Happily, Tianjin was now in the midst of a huge, multi million yuan rejuvenation project. Sitting on a bench down at the riverfront, we could see cranes, diggers, mud pits and buildings under construction as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it did have the feel of a city that was going places.

Give Me Money a short story from Tianjin China.

Tianjin, China.

Photo courtesy of Yaohua2k7.

Our somewhat aimless wanderings took us into Tianjin’s old town, where we walked through a number of European flavoured neighbourhoods. It was an interesting district, a handsome, albeit jumbled juxtaposition of Gothic and Renaissance buildings alongside traditional Qing structures. There were very few actual sights , though we were impressed by the towering form of St. Joseph Cathedral.

St Joseph Cathedral Tianjin.

St. Joseph Cathedral, Tianjin.

Photo courtesy of Sevgonlernassau.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Guwenhua Jie (Ancient Culture Street), with its craft shops, food stalls and upmarket lantern boutiques. There was also a sizeable temple, while the buildings were all Qing replicas, with bricked facades and ornate, painted windows. The district had been built as recently as 1986 with the purpose of making it a Chinese folk customs heritage centre. 

Ancient Culture Street Tianjin China.

Ancient Culture Street, Tianjin.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

We’d been enjoying our stroll very much, taking in the aromas of a large teahouse and watching bicycles clatter past in both directions. Suddenly, I saw a young man striding towards us, noisily clearing his throat as he came. Before we knew what was happening, he’d violently deposited a large glob of phlegm on the pavement, just inches from S’s feet. It had happened in an instant and now he was already far away, no looking back. “Did that just happen!?” asked S, stepping around the pool of offending filth. “Yes” I replied, my growing appetite temporarily derailed, “yes it did”.

Short stories from China

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

The following morning we awoke early to the sound of roaring traffic beyond our paper-thin walls. Good old Tianjin City Youth Hostel! With no suitable breakfast options around, we headed straight to the train station for what we knew would be an unpleasant task.

It was Noodles back in Beijing who’d advised us to always book tickets for our next destination well in advance. Remembering his advice, we figured twenty four hours should be enough time to secure two good seats on a morning train to the city of Jinan. 

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Tianjin Railway Station.

Photo courtesy of David Dong. 

It was total bedlam in the station, with scores of people rushing around. And not a word of English to help us on our quest. With absolutely no idea which line to join, we simply picked the shortest queue and crossed our fingers. I could tell the guy behind the counter didn’t want to deal with us the moment I laid eyes on him. I handed him a prepared note with all the details of our trip. But to our surprise, and general dismay, he merely skimmed over it, shook his head defiantly and flicked the paper back at me.

Give Me Money a short story from China.

Train station madness.

Méiyou!” he shrieked, folding his arms.

“Um… Jinan?!” I repeated hopelessly, while S backed me up with a supportive “Míngtian” (tomorrow). But ticket man was not playing ball. Méiyou!” he repeated, again and again, his lips achieving a whole new level of pursed with each utterance.

It was only later that S discovered the meaning of Méiyou, a firm and direct “don’t have”. We didn’t know what to do. The man had a weariness about him that suggested he’d dealt with the likes of us a thousand times and was finally at breaking point. We were about to give up when, quite suddenly, a guardian angel swooped in to save the day. She was a tall, graceful Chinese woman in a flowing white dress.

“Excuse me, may I assist you?” 

Having told her what we wanted, she wasted no time in relaying the info to Captain Inflexible. For a solid two or three minutes they yipped away at each other like excitable puppies. And then it was over, two tickets rattling out of the printer, the lady personally handing them to me with a placid smile. It was exactly what we’d originally asked for! A train to Jinan, second class, leaving the following morning. Where had it all gone wrong? “Thank you!” we cooed in unison. Moving away from the queue, I realised there were about thirty people staring at us. “Uh, let’s go” I whispered.  

Little girl Zhonxing Park Tianjin China.

Zhonxing Park, Tianjin.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

With the clock ticking down on our brief Tianjin adventure, we spent our second and final day much as we had the first. There was an hour lazing around Zhonxing Park, where a collection of old ladies performed elaborate stretching exercises. Elsewhere, a group of gossiping mothers kept half an eye on their children, who frolicked together around a large fountain.

Porcelain House Museum of Pottery Tianjin China.

Porcelain House, Tianjin.

Quite accidentally, we also stumbled upon the fascinating Porcelain House, a contemporary centre for pottery and antiques. Originally an old colonial building, an eccentric artist by the name of Zhang Lianzhi remodelled the entire building using broken porcelain parts.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Goubuli Restaurant, Tianjin.

We took lunch at Goubuli Restaurant, a renowned Tianjin eatery dating back to 1858. Leafing through their extensive menu, S was horrified by such tantalising dishes as Preserved Duck Tongue, Stirred Jellyfish Head and Chinese Caterpillar Fungus. There was also a dark green vegetable plate listed as Rape

In any case we were only interested in one thing, a round of the house speciality, Baozi. The steamed dumplings that arrived a short time later came served individually in beautifully presented wooden containers. Some were filled with pork, others with beef. All of them doused in spices and a dark, dense gravy.

Steamed dumpling Goubuli Restaurant Tianjin China

A plump, steamed Goubuli dumpling.

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

That evening, there were more culinary delights on Nanshi Food Street (Shipin Jie), an indoor food arcade. Settling down in one of the street’s large restaurants, we ordered a plate of spicy Kung Pao Chicken to share. It was also here that I first tried Mahua, a sweet, deep-fried dough twist that I found oddly tasty. 

Give Me Money!!! A short story from China.

Nanshi Food Street, Tianjin.

Our waitress was a right character. “HELLO!” she screamed manically, arriving to take our order. Then there was a militant “OOOK!!!” as she marched off to fetch our drinks. We’d just started work on the Kung Pao Chicken when she stomped back over, squatted down between us and bellowed an ear shattering…. 


… right into my disbelieving face. Never before or since has anyone asked me for the bill quite like this. Scrambling for my wallet, I paid her and made a silent prayer that she would now let us finish our dinner in peace.

Walking back to the hostel that night, S and I reflected on what a great time we’d had in a city where there wasn’t actually that much to do. Not that we needed to be wowed by grand attractions or historical sights. Rather, I found myself on an organic high that came from simply being in China.

Everything was new, from the sights, sounds and smells, to the intriguing cuisine and the fascinating, often confusing people. For the first time in my life I felt like an actual alien, an altogether different species from those whose land I walked. I was curious and excited as to what would come next. On our second train journey… in the city of Jinan… and beyond…

‘Give Me Money!!!’ is the second instalment of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    Your description of the train stations and ticket tellers is so accurate and brings back many unpleasant memories. Almost at many as your descriptions of the food brings back pleasant memories. Thanks for the memories.

    August 12, 2020 - 12:57 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Memo, hope you enjoy the journey and looking forward to hearing your thoughts on each chapter as always.

      August 12, 2020 - 10:22 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Loving your China stories; you have a great knack for depicting the chaos and language/cultural barriers of being a traveler there. Even as someone like myself who can speak Chinese, I’d also struggle to get by if I solo-traveled in China. Duck tongue and jellyfish might sound horrific, but I assure you that they’re actually pretty good! Can’t wait to hear of more tales from China!

    August 12, 2020 - 3:02 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Rebecca, thanks for the kind words. I’ve tried both duck tongue and jellyfish in the years that followed this series and… well…. meh, ha ha. This was my first year in China, hence the reactions are a bit heightened. One of these years I will get round to publishing collections from my second year (also Beijing) and my third and fourth years (Zhejiang Province and beyond). Looking forward to delving into your own China files!

      August 12, 2020 - 10:19 am Reply

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