Every time I get into a line that ends at a clerk surrounded by Chinese characters, I become acutely aware of a vast emptiness in my head. You know. The place waiting to be filled with Chinese vocabulary. The language barrier becomes painfully real and I feel I could be swallowed up by my own ignorance. I wonder things like: “Where will my ticket really take me?” and “Will I be able to find my way out of the station?” These concerns are not unfounded.
Yet, more often than not, the person at the counter responds compassionately to my blundering confusion. They seem to intuitively know that it is in everyone’s best interest if I end up in the correct place. So it was with the employees of Taiwan’s High Speed Rail (HSR).
The first ticket clerk spoke enough English to be helpful. Even with limited vocabulary, she explained how the reserved versus non-reserved seating worked. Don’t laugh. It’s not that simple when you are facing a two hour ride at 150 miles per hour and want to know if you’ll end up standing the whole time; or possibly hanging at an angle from the hand grip!
We could have saved ourselves some time in line by purchasing the tickets online and guessing at the reserve system, but it can be hard to predict the schedule when you’ll be looking for underground train stations in the middle of Taipei. It’s not just a matter of finding “the” building and going subterranean. There is a whole other city underground in that section of Taipei, connected by tunnels of shopping malls. And it’s not just one underground level. You could live there and never come up to see the sun. Except, amazingly, we have not seem vagrants living down there. To make things more confusing, some of the inner vaults of the station are so blocked from outside light that it can be difficult to remember which level you are on.
So – We decided to wait and buy the tickets once we got to the train station. The train station at Taipei Main Station that is the hub for: the subway system (MRT), the regular train, the fast train (HSR), and I think I saw signs for buses, too. If it gets to be transportation-option overload, you can always grab a taxi and go back to the hotel.
If you understand the abbreviations, which thankfully abound in the letters of our alphabet, it is possible to follow the signs to your destination. In the long run, it is even likely that you will reach your goal. However, it is a lot of visual information to process.
If you need help, don’t expect the average person on the street to understand those letters. They must be “Greek” to them! Most of the time they have no idea what I am saying. I was told recently by a native Chinese speaker that it is confusing to them that we use the same letters over and over in different words. To them 5000 different symbols makes more sense…. And people aren’t exactly rude, but most of them know where they are going and are intent on getting there. So, just step aside now and then to re-orient yourself and check your coordinates.
Our one-way reserved-seat tickets to Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan (which is at ZuoYing Station) cost us about $50 US each. With them in hand, we did a little exploring in the time we had. We found an unobtrusive information booth at the ground level. They were able to find us an English map of Kaohsiung in the back room.
Then, we made our way to the waiting area. We might have missed the soft buzzer if the rest of the passengers hadn’t headed down the stairs. Sounds can be echoey down there and there are a lot of foot steps and low conversations to mask other sounds.
We had to find car 1, which meant we had to walk the length of the 12 car train. The seating was spacious and comfortable compared to our economy class airline seats we had lived in for 20 hours the day before. Reveling in leg room and angles of reclining, we read the digital information sign at the front of the car. Soon, we were attempting to focus on scenery whizzing by.
I get a cross-eyed headache remembering it. For the first third of the trip, we went in and out of tunnels. It has the makings of pyscological testing protocol. I would be enjoying the patterns of rice paddies, when there would be a loud, deep woosh and everything would go black. After a few times of this abruptness, my brain requested that I close my eyelids. This I did for a short while, but I really wanted to see the country I was passing through. Thankfully, the route got flatter.
Almost exactly two hours later we were at Kaohsiung. It would have taken around six hours to drive there. Or, more accurately, we would NOT have gone. There wouldn’t have been enough time.
Now, we had a lovely interlude where we visited some friends, then headed over to the Gushan Ferry. I’ll write about that later. Suffice to say, it was a fun afternoon, but we needed to head back that evening.
Again, we had not purchased the tickets ahead of time, being unsure of our afternoon escapades. It would have been better if we had been able to plan ahead. Sunday evening it was a mad house of people trying to get home. We would have had to wait over two hours for reserved seating, so took the dive with non-reserved. Thanks to Greg’s quick thinking, we ended up with the last two empty seats in the train car we entered, though 1/2 train car apart. It is a good thing we were at the beginning station, too, because the aisle filled to capacity at the next stop.
With one more stop, Greg was able to find us two seats together. There wasn’t much to see in the dark, so I went to sleep for the rest of the ride. Arriving in Taipei about 1.5 hours later was jolting, but only to my mind. My thoughts were fuzzy until I had to help Greg navigate through the underground shopping mall. He may have the upper hand on the streets, but I was the star in the underground shopping mall!
For this first trip on the HSR, I don’t think we could have done things differently to reduce stress. It would have been worse to try to keep a tight schedule with so many unknowns! However, for another trip on the HSR, I would:
- Purchase both sets of tickets online or get them at a 7-11 store. The pick-up line for pre-purchased tickets was VERY short.
- Be sure to pay the extra for reserved seating.
- Take water and snacks. Food was allowed, unlike the MRT.
- Find maps of our destination ahead of time.
It is worth noting that, other than the effects I’ve mentioned, we never felt the speed of the train. There was no sensation of being pinned to our seats with our jowls flapping. In fact, there were not seat belts. The ticket lines were easier to deal with than airport security, and there was less waiting time to board. I, the helpless female, would not hesitate to use the HSR to visit other parts of Taiwan, so it should be easy for the rest of you.