It is a strange law of nature that no matter how many roads you build, and no matter how wide they are, they will still fill up with cars immediately.

In the same way, it seems, no matter how modern the Chinese rail network becomes, it still takes just as long (if not longer) to get tickets as it always has. And with the new stations built up to two hours' drive outside the towns they serve, it still takes exactly the same amount of time (if not longer) to get from A to B.

My friend F's going-away trip to China was a case in point.

There we were, all modern and well prepared with online bought-and-paid-for tickets on the bullet train from Changsha, capital of Hunan province, to Zhangjiajie, of Avatar fame, apparently, and rooms booked in an interesting-looking "new old" village of some sort in walking distance from the craggy karst formations.

Except ... the new law of nature. Just because you've bought tickets online doesn't mean you can actually get them.

After standing in line for 45 minutes in a cavernous hall in Changsha - and this after having stood in line for half an hour in a cavernous hall in Shenzhen - it was too late by the time I got to the counter, and we missed the train to Zhangjiajie.

In the olden days, although the train journey itself would have taken much longer, we could have just sashayed into the station, stood in line for 15 minutes and come out victoriously clutching just-paid-for tickets.

There was another train from Changsha to Zhangjiajie, which would get in at - 04:00. Absolutely not, I said. But F's big eyes turned all French Bulldog.

"My last trip to [China], ever …" the eyes said.

Getting up at 4am after four hours' sleep was as horrible as I had imagined and the hotel F had booked was more than an hour's drive away. And when the taxi had deposited us and screeched off as we cried plaintively "eh … where …" we found ourselves in the blackest hole in the universe.

A word of advice: the hotel business isn't the right one to be in if you're so stingy you can't afford to hang a light bulb outside so people can read the name.

After 20 minutes of fumbling around in absolute darkness, we saw a ghostly green light: a bank with three cashpoints. We huddled there for an illusion of warmth until the clock struck 07:00 and a greyish dawn rose over one of the darkest and stingiest guest houses in China. But we might as well have stayed in the bank, for that hotel had never heard of us.

Modernity, I'm not impressed.