I never thought at the time, way back when that the decisions I was making would put me on a Chinese train rocking slowly and rhythmically through the night. I never thought when I arrived in Taipei in 1989 that I was carving a path that would bring me to Shangqui 27 years later.
Among a very small knot of people who get off the train in Shangqui at 3:10am, I am here, alone.
I had asked the car matron about where to stay in Shangqui. She said I could try out the Shangqui Bing Gwan. Of course there’s a Shangqui Bing Gwan, just like there’s a Beijing Bing Gwan and a Kaohsiung Bing Gwan.
I’m on my own.
Taxis idle in front of the station. The drivers smoke cigarettes and look over the debarking passengers as we are shuffling out of the station. I hang back as is my habit. You may get the best view from out front, but from the back, you get more context.
It’s cool and humid at the same time.
I scan the street looking for the signs of hotels and guest houses. Nadda. 3am is the very worst time to get off a train. It’s the dead zone between the when the very late night cats go to bed and the very early morning birds come out to exercise in the park.
I ask the driver to take me to the zui hao de bing gwan but I forget to ask that he turn on the meter. When we arrived at the hotel after a bumpy ten minute ride, he says I can pay whatever I want.
I give him $20 Yuan. But that isn’t enough. I give him $50 more.
I just gave the driver $10 for a ten minute ride. I’m a chump. On the ride, the driver asked if I’d been to Shangqui before. I lied and said I had a few years ago.
“Looks just the same”, I said.
I didn’t like the question.