You know the line about assuming, right? “When you assume you make an a-s-s out of u and m-e.” Today we’re going to show how false assumptions can land you in a small Mongolian outpost at midnight with no travel options for another 17 hours. Or something equally fun.
This week we bought our train tickets to Mongolia. We’ve been on several trains during our time in China, and we’ve got the hard sleeper/soft sleeper, upper and lower berth thing worked out. We know what food to bring, the etiquette of sharing a compartment with 2-4 strangers, and how to use the hot water dispenser without getting third-degree burns. We know how to entertain ourselves on a train and, more importantly, how to sleep on one. We are surprisingly well suited to long train journeys.
A nice discovery given the fact we committed to an 18,000-km overland journey, dontcha think?
We are becoming train travel experts, which is why buying the tickets to Mongolia should have been a non-event, certainly not worthy of a mention here.
But here we are, because Warren and I made a classic communication mistake that might pop up in your relationships, too:
We assumed we knew what the other person was thinking.
Let the mind reading begin
Not surprisingly, the sign for the foreigner window at the Beijing train station is in Chinese. But because we are super smart we just looked for actual foreigners in a sea of Chinese people to find the right line.
We wanted tickets to Erlien, a city near the border but still in China. We planned to stay overnight and take a cab to the border the next day and then book a local train to Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator. The savings in taking two internal trains over one international train is enough to justify this interruption in plans for budget travelers like us. Or so we thought.
The clerk told us she could not sell us tickets to Erlien and we woud have to go to the International Hotel across the street. We tried to figure out why we had to leave the train station to go to a hotel down the street to buy a train ticket, but sometimes things in China defy explanation.
We arrived at the swanky International Hotel and asked the concierge where to buy a train ticket. Surprisingly, he knew exactly what we wanted and pointed us around the corner in the lobby to a CITS (China International Train Service) office, which is where international train tickets are booked. Duh. We could have found a CITS office in our own neighborhood.
We told the clerk what we wanted, and she said we would have to get those tickets at the Beijing train station; she only dealt in international travel. We told her we had just been there standing in line and had been directed there, but she just shrugged.
The problem with mental communication skills
After a bit of jaw clenching, we began looking for alternatives. We spent 10 minutes discussing the options with the clerk, and none of them were as good as the one Warren had so carefully plotted out from his research. She finally told us she could get us just over the Mongolian border to Dzamyn-Ude, where we could then buy a ticket on a local train to Ulan Bator. The problem? The train arrived at midnight with no options to get to Ulan Bator until 5 p.m. the next day.
Things were starting to get more expensive, and we were well past the time we allotted for this little errand. Add this to our already complicated feelings about China, and you can see where this was heading.
I was worried Warren was getting frustrated at the runaround and why things were not adding up to what he found online through reliable online resources.
He was worried I was getting frustrated at the time investment to buy the tickets at a discount versus the actual money we would save.
We were both wrong.
When Warren said he wanted to buy the tickets to Dzamyn-Ude I quickly agreed, for the exact same incorrect reasons he suggested buying them in the first place.
We were trying to make life easier for each other and screwed ourselves over in the process.
As we were walking out the door, Warren said he was really frustrated we had to spend more money, but he knew I was getting agitated and wouldn’t want to keep going back and forth to save a few bucks.
I stopped in my tracks and said, “I only agreed to it because I thought you were getting frustrated over the time we were spending dealing with unhelpful people.”
U + Me = Ass
Effective verbal communication skills
We all like to think we know our mates inside and out, but we don’t. Little things like this serve as a great reminder that it is okay to take a step back and check in with each other instead of being the martyr or the parent and “resolving” the situation in the way you think is best for everyone.
In our case, there were no other customers in the CITS office and the train station was just 2 blocks away. We had no other appointments and could have taken some time to regroup and figure out the best plan instead of just taking the first feasible solution. Hell, we could have waited another day to buy the tickets if wanted to.
So this little mind reading exercise has bought us a train ticket to nowhere, or what will surely seem like nowhere when we arrive in the middle of the night with no firm plan for moving forward. Our research since then has not painted a pretty picture, what with Mongolian train ticket lines being compared to rugby scrums and complaints about oversold trains and sharing beds with little old ladies.
But that’s what all this “just-in-time” decision making is all about, right? People get to Ulan Bator all the time on this line, which means we’ll figure it out, too.
So we’ve relearned this lesson about false assumptions and will be applying it as we move forward on the rest of our Eurasian Adventure 2012. We have a lot more train travel in our future as we visit Mongolia, head across Russia, and explore Europe this summer and fall, and we’ll work on being more deliberate in our decision-making and asking questions out loud instead of assuming.
Learning to connect with your partner and verify their opinions and feelings is much more effective than guessing at them, even if you might be right 80% of the time.
It’s that 20% that will land you in a remote Mongolian outpost in the middle of the night. Figuratively speaking, we hope.
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