The HostelBookers search results flickered against the dim light in my hostel room. A tremor of panic made my hand quiver against the track pad of my laptop. Fuzhou does not exist, at least in the backpacker’s realm. Hostels were a zero search result for this southern Chinese city.

I vaguely wondered if the Wikitravel page about entering Taiwan by ferry was a joke, a myth created by a jester holding the Internet thrall with misinformation, cackling at how stupid someone is for even trying such a half-baked idea.

I guess that stupid someone is me.

Maybe I was so primed to sniff out a new adventure, that defeat was unspeakable. No one in my circle had heard of entering Taiwan by this method, which was reason enough to pursue this unique way of leaving China.

I staved off the panic threatening to sever my hope of crossing into Taiwan and reverted to my former ways of making travel plans, by googling Hotwire.

Budget and logistics forced me to book the JinJiang Inn, near the Fuzhou Railway Station. The railway station was located by the very bus station I needed, the one that would spit me from one shore to the other. This was worrisome to me, it sounded mildly dangerous. Areas where railway stations are situated often attract nefarious characters, the kind who enjoy raping solo females. I re-tasted this mild panic, sensing something familiar – the tingling of the unknown. I was use to traveling to places where scads of other backpackers had been, a well-worn trail for me to follow. This time it was blank.

My loose plan was this: Shanghai to Fuzhou by train, stay overnight, rise early, grab the buses as instructed and pray that Wikitravel is accurate. Take ferry to Matsu. From Matsu, find a way to Taipei and make it to a hostel.

All in one day.

I decided to up the stakes a bit. No reservation for the ferry. No accurate idea on whether a ferry to Keelung, Taiwan ran or was there actually an inclusive ticket I could buy with ferry and airplane ticket wrapped up in one?

These questions swirled as I settled into my last bed in Shanghai. Unknowns and unheard of cities can be exhausting.

Gritty Fuzhou. If backpackers never heard of it, it doesn’t exist

Shanghai to Fuzhou

The expansive ceilings and polished floors of Hongqiao Station welcomed me back. On this occasion, I had little time to gawk at the clean lines of glass, lighting and technology. The metro took longer than expected, leaving minutes for me to dash madly for the automatic turnstiles, where slim Chinese women dressed like flight attendants waved me through. I calculated smartly.  Instead of booking a slow K-train to Fuzhou, I had splurged for a D-class train, the second generation of fast trains in China.

I only had to endure seven hours, instead of the antiquated seventeen. China spun its magic spell on me again, their progression to dropping ten hours off train travel –a feat that even Canada has not accomplished– left me smarting with admiration.

Slipping through the automatic doors of the train, I found my designated seat and settled in. Sleep soon claimed me, though I didn’t know I’d need it so badly until later.

Sprawling ghost town at morning

Fuzhou, the Wild West

Arriving at night should have worried me. Especially to a city that doesn’t have a transparent foreign tourism industry in place, yet part of me was thrilled with that prospect. Is this how pioneers of the Wild West felt? Snagged by curiosity of what might meet them, even if the rolling hills and plains could bring victory, defeat or worse?

China is alien at the best of times, but what met me as I walked through the corridors of Fuzhou South Station was a dearth of foreigners. The only foreigner to be seen was me, and even I could pass for Chinese if I keep my mouth closed.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness as I followed signage towards the taxi stand. My shoes echoed throughout a nearly empty parking lot, punctuating my solitary position.

Two uniformed train employees stood alert, flagging over a taxi for me.

I got in and flashed the driver an open page to my Moleskine, the address for JinJiang written clearly in Chinese. He pressed the gas pedal and grunted in unison, moving me closer to a bed for the night.

We weaved through freeways, and all I could do was trust, not knowing exactly where JinJiang was in the city. I gathered it was in the center, since Fuzhou South was further out, newly built to service the fast trains.

We rounded a curve sharply, when the driver suddenly halted. He rolled down the passenger window to allow conversation to filter in from a random man standing at a crosswalk median.

It was soon clear the random man was a potential passenger, because he situated himself in the front seat. I saw no bags with him, wondering why he was so far from the center.

They conversed in their language, which sounded singsong with rolling “r’s”. I guessed from hand gestures and laughter that this new passenger was explaining why he needed a ride.

I couldn’t fault the taxi driver for trying to make a few extra dollars, yet suspicions grew when our new addition turned to me.  His language flowed out. I tried to end the translation pain by countering in English, yet he persisted. I knew he asked a question, and I recognized the Chinese word for “one”. His index finger poked in the air to illustrate the number.

“Only one? Right?”

Right. What had I just agreed to? The Wild West of Fuzhou is a black widow, sucking you into her web of helplessness.

Fuzhou’s night scenes offered glimpses of retail stores, restaurants, engulfing billboards selling noodles or American Campbell’s soup and a few hotels. Distraction didn’t work, as my mind rattled off scenario after scenario.

Was the taxi even taking me to JinJiang? Was this a fake pick-up scam, and I was being led to a more expensive hotel and the front seat passenger was a tout in the cog of fleecing foreigners? Or was I about to be driven outside to a field with only cicadas and stray dogs to keep my deceased body company?

I pressed the taxi driver about my destination, pointing at the new guy who he seemed to like better than me. He spewed out a litany, where the only word I understood was “JinJiang”.

That was a good sign, at least he remembered where he was taking me.

After what seemed an eternity, he finally pulled off onto a commercial street, collecting fare from my suspected scam artist. 20 RMB off my bill. It can be satisfying to be wrong for a change.

Would I find this at JinJiang?

The Real China

We turned on a street that would hopefully produce my hotel. The heaviness of darkness cast shadows, leaving holes where a person might stand or an animal might lurk.

In these shadows, on the left was a blast of bright light, the outline of a massive building. Railway station? The taxi had turned onto one of those streets. Where centuries past, buggies and carts expelled exhausted human breath. Horses neighed, trotting alongside sweaty cycle riders. Women in cotton shifts sold ginger, garlic or vegetables from the periphery, their raucous gossip merging with the din of moving bodies, voices, children yelling in play.

It was narrow, this street, and the real China caught my breath. Nothing was fashioned after the western aesthetic like I had witnessed in Beijing or Shanghai.

Food hawkers bent over their steaming wares. Family owned stores were managed by a teenage son, instead of a stranger.  Dingy eateries started to bleed into each other, delicious smells wafted to my nose, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since the morning. The  pavement was sooty, bits of garbage strewn to the sides, sinking into gaps in the sidewalk.

The taxi crawled, to compensate for the clog of pedestrians. The remnants of what is or isn’t China fell way to familiarity. A shoe store with harsh lights revealed a bored girl standing against the display shelves. I could make out a larger grocery store, and then we passed by what had to be small hotels, but their smudged windows and lack of foreigners entering or exiting perturbed me.

In all this, Fuzhou had everything that was needed to provide a city of 7 million. Yet, it felt harsh, untouched. Maybe because I hadn’t heard of it before, except in relation to entering Taiwan, or maybe I was just unaware of its charms. There was grit and muck. I wasn’t invisible anymore. A small woman with two backpacks in a faraway destination is not an unusual sight. I was.  People’s stares lingered on me.

I grew weary, my brain firing with a fresh set of paranoid scenarios. I imagined JinJiang to be a dump or so intangible that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the staff.

The taxi finally stopped in front of JinJiang and I gasped. The facade of the hotel was simple and pleasant, the revolving door and well-lit lobby could have passed for New York or London. The fare of the taxi worked out to be 60 RMB, minus the 20.

I stepped out, still bracing for obstacles, but as the revolving door swooshed behind me, a cherub faced girl behind the reception desk greeted me in Chinese, then soon switched to English when she found out my flaw.

The lobby interior included a couch set and an elevator. A slick advertisement for the hotel restaurant was in English and offered a western breakfast.

After checking in, I rode the elevator to my room on the 7th floor, still unsure what I would discover.

For a $29 room I got a five star suite replete with closets, mini-soaps, a hot, hot shower and a western toilet.

After a meal at a local eatery, and instructions from the cherubic front desk girl, I had the next step towards Taiwan. The railway station was a stone’s throw away from the buses I needed to master by the next morning.

I laid in my comfortable twin bed, feeling humble and stupid.

I learned a few things.

I assumed Fuzhou was boring. After an evening walk to see where the railway station was located, there was action, a thriving set of lives in mid-stream, developing and creating. A functional city with everything in its place and everything Chinese, not for the tourist.

I assumed that taxi drivers are always out to scam you, which is rare in China.

I assumed this would be impossible, because everything outside the backpacker path must be, and I was wrong.

I had grown soft, sedate.

That’s why it was timely to shake things up again.

Entering Taiwan was next, and I fell asleep finally unafraid of the unknown. I slept like a baby, untarnished, ready to discover possibilities.

Fuzhou delivers the best bed I had in China. What will Taiwan bring?

How to Get to Fuzhou from Shanghai (What Wikitravel Doesn’t Tell You)

  1. A good source for train numbers and schedules is Shanghai Highlights. The site also lists trains from other point-to-point destinations, not just from Shanghai. Train classifications in China vary, so check which ones to take. I took the D-train, which are bullet trains that go as fast as 200 km/hour. I recommend this one for a speedy trip. First class seats are only 300 RMB ($50), second-class is around 261 RMB ($42).
  2. To book: go to Shanghai Railway Station on Metro Line 1 (red line) and walk to the ticket office (you have to walk above ground a short distance). Be sure to write down the date, time of departure, train number and destination (Shanghai to Fuzhou, in this case) on a piece of paper. Bring your passport for identification.
  3. Don’t fret if you have to change your ticket. China is pretty lax about this. I had to switch to a different day and all I did was return to the ticket office and they reprinted a new one for me.
  4. For accommodation, I used Hotwire, but another good booking site is Fuzhou is not a backpacker destination, so what’s available are mostly luxury or small business hotels. I stayed at JinJiang Inn, it was the most reasonably priced one. I know you’ll be scared by the reviews on TripAdvisor, because they are mostly in Chinese, but I had a positive stay there. The hotel was nicer than some of the hostels I encountered in other major cities.
  5. If you take the D-trains, they usually stop at Fuzhou South Station, a bit outside the city center, so you might have to take a taxi to get to your hotel. Make sure you grab a taxi at the official taxi stand, as those ones are metered. My taxi cost around 100 RMB ($16).

Next: In part 2, how to enter Taiwan by ferry.

*I added this how-to section because the Wikitravel description on entering Taiwan by ferry is slightly vague.