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Let China’s trains take the strain

Flights within China are rapidly becoming one of the best travel options in this prodigiously vast country.  China Airlines has some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, and they are very generous with their beer.  It’s not hard to find one way deals for 400 Yuan ($50 US) or less. 


However, during my two month visit I succumbed entirely to my masochistic (and miserly) impulses and traveled entirely by rail, a few buses, and the odd boat.  And when riding trains it was usually in the cheapest class – that of the hard seat.  The prices I paid for these all night extravaganzas – the twisting up of my lower spine like an octopus tentacle and a near-permanent state of bleary eyed stupor – were rewarded with a heavy and authentic immersion into the culture of the Chinese farmers and peasants. 

June 7th. Qingdao – Tai An 

This was my first trip on a Chinese train, riding in hard seat class.   It soon became clear why foreign travelers avoid this option and pay a bit more for a hard sleeper ticket.   The other passengers seemed to be rural Chinese who smoked continuously, spat on the floor, threw garbage out the window, and referred to me always as laowai (the Chinese equivalent of foreigner, or farang).  Clearly, they had never seen a foreigner close up before, if at all.  Whenever I drifted off into something that could be called sleep the mischievous, child-like man on the seat across touched me and I woke up in a rage. 

June 16th. Beijing – Dandong
Sometime after midnight we stopped at a small station.  All the passengers were asleep; all was peaceful.  An influx of new passengers filled up the aisle looking for seat vacancies, and then a short way down the carriage there was suddenly some shouting.  Everyone jolted awake and flew towards the disturbance.  From the epicenter could be heard the unmistakable smack of punches landing on hard body surfaces, while everyone was yelling and shouting.  To my ears the noise sounded like brutal grunts and harsh barkings.  Some train police rushed down the aisle to the scene, and gradually the commotion subsided – though not without one more relapse in fighting, this time between one man and a woman.


June 18th.  Tian Jin – Pingyao
This all night hard seat ordeal reached its end around 2 pm in the afternoon.  The train was moving at a crawl; it made frequent stops at obscure towns where no one boarded or left the train.  Along one stretch of desolate, arid land there were strange abodes dug into the clay slope sides.

June 20th. Pingyao – Xian
It can be difficult getting a ticket in small cities that are on a route between major cities.  Usually all the seats and beds are sold out at the city of origin.  This was the case in Pingyao, where my only choice was the spirit-crushing hard seat standing ticket.  Luckily, I had taken the desperate measure before this journey of an acupuncture treatment for my lower back. 

June 23rd. Xian – Deng Feng
The crowds of people camped out in front of the station in Xian were the largest I saw in China.  These were the people who couldn’t afford a hotel and were barred from entering the station without a ticket.  Maybe they were victims of the new Chinese Dream. 


I gave in and bought a hard sleeper ticket for the first time.  The comfort, cleanliness, personal space, and quietude seemed like a miracle.

June 26th. Kaifeng – Nanjing
Exiting the train after the 12 hour ride I noticed a pregnant lady standing near the door, as well as a young woman with Down’s syndrome, both without seats.  In fact, there were so many standing passengers that the door could only be jammed open part way as a struggle flared up.  Disembarking passengers pressed towards the door as newly boarding passengers pushed forwards, all this while a brutal policeman struck and shoved people and shouted ferociously.  The crowd was seized by a blind panic.  I finally fought my way off the train.

June 30th.  Suzhou – Shanghai
Stepping off the train at Shanghai station I was immediately overwhelmed by the masses of people everywhere.  My Danish friend Finn had a seat just two compartments away from mine and we had agreed to meet when we arrived.  After struggling out of the main current of people I took a resolute stand and tried to identify my lost traveling companion from the crowd of thousands.  The situation was completely hopeless.

July 9th.  Wuhan-Chengdu
This train ride took more than 20 hours on account of a detour to avoid the floods.  It was another standing hard seat disaster.  I counted 60 people who had seats and another 60 standing.  For the first five hours I was standing between two carriages, next to the doors.  When the food or drink cart went by everyone had to stand up and shuffle around or else suffer a violent collision with the push cart. 


The train workers treated the standing passengers like farm animals, shoving and elbowing their way through the aisles.  Fortunately, a university student took me under his wing and offered his seat when he got off.  When we finally rolled up to the Chengdu station I felt some liquid splattering on my legs.  A mother was holding her baby over the aisle and it was pissing onto the accumulated layers of filth and garbage.

July 13th.  Emei City – Panzhihua
This was to be my last ride in China.  The train followed a wide river of muddy waters, with rice paddies along the banks and tremendous rising hills.  Darkness fell and an old man offered me a part of his seat to share for the night. 

Some final thoughts on travel by way of hard seat: Taking the hard seat class on a Chinese train might not always be cozy, but as long as you’re not standing, and your trip is not much longer than 12 hours, it may very well be a rewarding experience.  It reveals the daily reality for more than a billion people.  The most interesting conversations I had with Chinese were in train waiting areas and hard seat compartments. 


I also encountered one man who had the loudest, most obnoxious yawn I’ve ever heard, was offered the phone number of an excited middle aged lady, another time was shoved violently by an old lady, and had a push-up contest in the middle of the aisle with a traveling salesman, among other strange sights and experiences.  I even saw another foreign traveler, once.

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