Thoughts on Traveling by Train in China, 10 Years Later

Thoughts on traveling by train in China after ten plus years.

I’m sitting in the equivalent of a dining car right now, the privilege of which I had to pay 30RMB for a pot of coffee for, surrounded for the most part by train workings with large calculators going over piles upon piles of receipts. I had thought that buying a bottle of iced tea would be enough to assure me a seat in this car, but then I was very politely informed that the seats are reserved for people partaking in “afternoon tea.” Hence the coffee. At least I also got a small plate of salted peanuts for my troubles. I’m also using my iPad to type as I’m not certain the individual cars have power ports so I don’t want to use my laptop unless I absolutely have to. People are also more and more speaking Cantonese, the southern dialect of Chinese that is entirely incomprehensible to me. I feel my ability to communicate quickly slipping away so for the most part, and also to get some semblance of preferential treatment; I’ve switched to using English most of the time.

The last time I was on a train in China was trying to get home to Beijing from Shanghai. We had purchased our tickets late, or it was some kind of hurry to the station, but whatever the reason we didn’t have the right tickets and were stuck for all intents and purposes standing, many people deep, trying to breathe through a small opening in the window. Compared to what I’m sitting in now, it’s like a completely different world, though I guess that statement’s reasonable considering how China works. Skipping over some details and leaving a whole bunch for later, on that trip so long ago we managed to upgrade our tickets on board to the “soft sleeper,” the type of ticket I’m in right now. What I’ve described before were the “hard sleeper” or “hard seats,” I don’t remember which. The major difference is that instead of six bunks per open compartment with infinitely more people just hanging out in all the hallways and walkways, the “soft sleeper” only has four bunks, air conditioning, and a door. In fact, it was such a difference in temperature, so much colder, that I actually got sick by the end of the trip. But that was then, and only serves as historical context of a sort. This record is about now.

The coffee is quite good by the way; very rich. I only got two packets of sugar, and I have a feeling they’ll charge me if I ask for more, so I’m going to try a cup unsweetened it’s just that good.

My train tickets cost just over 200$ round trip, much cheaper than any airplane option. The train takes 24 hours each way, and is only reasonable time wise because I am unemployed at the moment. As unreasonable as it must seem, there’s a part of me that really enjoys traveling by train. I like the sounds, the views, the way the train shakes as it goes over the tracks. I like the people. Being much older than I was that first time taking the train, having, I hope, matured a bit, I actually regret getting the fancy seat that I have. I feel very isolated from the rest of the train and the people on it. The people traveling in the “soft sleepers” are usually families, and they buy up the entire compartment and close the door for privacy. It’s like their own private little train compartment, and they don’t come out, and they don’t interact with other people. In fact, I feel a little bad for intruding on the other people in my compartment, a Chinese couple and their son, but what can you do. I met some foreigners from Yorkshire in the car I’m in, but they’ve retreated into the safety of their compartment as well. I must have wandered the length of the train as far as they’d let me 3 or 4 times already, seeking out people, not necessarily to talk to because I am still deathly shy, but just to watch, and see how they pass their time.

First is that they really like to share beds. There’d be three young Chinese girls all sitting on the same tiny little bottom bunk, sharing one thin blanket, across the way from an equally crowded other little bottom bunk, this one full of adults, and they’d all be playing cards on a makeshift table made using their luggage. I’m talking about the people in the “hard sleepers,” where there are three levels of small bunks in compartments of six. Quite an impressive site actually also watching these people climb up and down these layers of beds. I had though it difficult to climb onto my bunk which is just one level up, but to imagine climbing six is something else altogether. There are these tiny little fold out metal steps built into the walls, one for each level. They still have the price tag on some of them: they cost 6RMB each apparently.

They also like traveling food. Even the family in my compartment, they have an entire suitcase full of just food to eat. Last I saw them they were slicing their way through one of those cream roll cakes. It looked very good actually, but I personally find it difficult to travel with that much food. My mother is like that though, and in the past whenever I’d leave from home to go back to college she’d back even perishables into my luggage despite my best protests. I think it’s because I like to travel light so it’s difficult to justify an entire extra piece of luggage devoted solely to food. I mean, what do you do with the luggage after the journey when it’s empty? I don’t plan to eat on this journey, mostly also because I don’t think I can bring myself to use the toilet facilities. There’s also this really famous Chinese kind of snack food that’s a whole chicken or duck that’s been stuffed into a vacuum-sealed bag. Walking up and down the aisles it’s easy to spy multiple families going at this piece of cold meat with impressive gusto.

Hard to believe I’ve not yet typed two pages after all this time. It’s actually quite difficult and perhaps not entirely worth it at all. I might transfer this file over to my laptop and continue the typing from there. I’ve switched to my laptop now. I have about an hour and a half of battery life left and I’ve switched the font size formatting. I’ve now typed even less than I had thought for all the effort it cost me; definitely typing on the iPad may not be the world’s greatest idea. I’m also feeling a bit motion sick right now which is surprising.

Some kind of companion on this trip to take in the sights and observations with me would be appreciated. It’s only been a couple of hours and already I feel like I’m running out of things to do. It’s just that, and I think the Chinese people want it this way, like I said I feel very segregated from everyone else. The private compartment, the locked doors between trains, the “fee” to sit down at the dining car, it’s like everyone else wants to be left alone, except me. I want some company. In a way that’s a very Chinese inclination; people who for most of their lives were never alone and so are not used to being alone, find solitude a luxury, something to pay extra money for, and I technically have, so I guess I’m reaping what I’ve sown. It’s still kind of weird though, like, there’s no observation car like in the States, a place to lounge, hang out, and chat with the other passengers.

The entire process of getting on the train was a little harrowing. Apparently I was late without evening knowing I was, but this particular train stops boarding 20 minutes before departure, and I got here at 20 minutes before, and was at the wrong entrance on the wrong floor and had to go all the way back down to go through immigration. I’ve technically “left” the country already, as far as my passport is concerned. I guess that makes the interior of this train like an airport and airplane, a pseudo no man’s land where I can temporarily be in and out at the same time. But I hadn’t expected that, which caused the mad rush at the onset. My entire day actually was surprisingly hurried, so much so that I never got to take that shower I was planning on.

This morning I went to get my cell phone registered so that it could be used outside of Beijing. Unless your phone is registered either with a China resident or under your own passport, apparently your usage is limited to the city in which you purchased it. I noticed this for the first time on my way to Tianjin with the IFC when half way there, my service just stopped. I figured if I’m going to be on this train for 24 hours, and in China proper for the vast majority of it, I may as well be able to make and receive phone calls. So I ran over to my cousin Michael’s place and we headed to the China Mobile store to get things taken care of, when to our dismay, apparently we needed some PIN number that was on the back of the SIM card holder when we first bought it and no one bothered to keep that little piece of plastic, so lo and behold, we can’t make any changes to my service without changing the PIN first, and that process takes 2 weeks or more. So, solutionless, I buy another phone number, activate it properly, register it, pre-buy a whole bunch of time because I have to as a kind of deposit, forward my old number to it, and voila, here I am, in the middle of no where, but still in cell service. Not the most elegant of solutions, but one nevertheless.

But this process took longer than I thought, and there’s construction going on at my mother’s place again as they try to fix some of the small things while they’re in town, and for some reason my grandfather showed up again, and everything was out of place and I was already running late and I just ran out of time. I had also never been to the Beijing West Railway Station before, so I had no idea how to make my way around it, which didn’t make things easier. It’s a pretty station though, massive in size and scale, overpowering even in its façade, kind of monumental, and like all things Chinese and new, it sported those traditional temple style roofs of red and gold, just enough of a tacky hint to make it look like a Las Vegas hotel. This is actually the older train that I’m on, and I think it takes longer, but when I purchased these tickets I didn’t have options for the other one, or I couldn’t understand the options for the other one, but here I am. The good thing about this train is that they have 2 person compartments with private bathrooms, but since I wasn’t planning on getting one of those compartments anyways it may have been more reasonable to try to get on the newer train. Ah well.

What did impress me a lot though was that as the train was leaving the platform, there were these uniformed staff members, standing at attention, at set intervals along the platform, watching after the train as we left. It felt like they were sending us off, with style even, and I felt sort of like royalty.

Getting on the car, they traded my paper ticket for a plastic one, I’m not sure why. The staff also came around and wrote down everyone’s name and a form of ID, probably to make sure they don’t lose anyone, though I’m not actually sure if there are stops along the way, we haven’t made any yet, so there may not be an opportunity to lose anyone. The first hour or so I took lots of pictures out the windows, but they’re really dirty and there’s a pretty strong glare. I took some interior photos, and almost got a very good one of the uniformed staff before one of them shyly turned away and asked me not to take his picture. I want to have photos of the rooms, compartments, other people, but I worry that it’ll impose on someone else’s privacy. It’s an odd feeling, being out of place, and I definitely feel it right now. I’m operating under the assumption that I paid for my pot of coffee, I paid for my seat in the dining car, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave any time before I’m good and ready. I already fought off an attempt to be dismissed when I went to get my laptop. I asked one of the staff to watch my things and not take away my coffee because I’ll be right back, and she suggested, rather strongly, that I just leave. And now, I’m the only one left in here, surrounded by staff going about their business, cleaning the floors, getting boxed lunches ready, taking their meals, smoking, and everyone now and then one of them gives me an odd look as if to ask why I’m still here. Nevertheless, I don’t intend to leave unless I want to.

They do allow smoking on these trains, incidentally. That and the cold coffee and the reading as I type is probably what’s contributing to my minor bout of motion sickness right now.

As I said, I probably walked up and down the length of the train 3 or 4 times. There’s just nothing else to do. I was glad to be able to walk even because before the train started to move, all the interior doors between compartments were locked. Even the bathroom was locked, and none of these doors were meant to be opened until the train was underway. You still can’t go very far though, even with the opened doors, and there are still doors that aren’t open or places that you get waved rather pointedly but politely not to enter. Again, I’m cultivating that American aura in myself right now for the preferential treatment. As I walked, I’d look into all the cars as discretely as possible, and saw what I’ve described already, and the following:

A foreign couple wearing matching black and white horizontal striped shirts, the guy sporting a massive beard, wearing paper Chinese complimentary sandals. Everyone’s wearing those sandals incidentally, though I haven’t switched to them yet.

Rows upon rows of sleeping Chinese, in the middle of the afternoon, the provided blankets wrapped tightly around them as they sleep with just the tops of their heads poking out of the piles of bedding.

Chinese children, jumping around with more energy than is appropriate, even so far as jumping between the two bunks, climbing all over the place, even on the three level bunks. They’d straddle the open air between the two stacks of bunks, one foot on either side’s foothold.

Families setting up their own personal “space,” including massive water thermoses they’d fill from the provided boiled water spouts at the ends of the trains.

Teenage looking Chinese kids watching foreign TV shows with Chinese subtitles, shared on one monitor on a makeshift table.

Lots of staff, in their own private though tiny little compartments, reading newspapers with one foot up against the wall, oblivious to my presence as I walk by.

In the “soft sleeper” rooms there are also fold out chairs against the windows on the hallway. In the “hard sleeper” compartments they also have these seats but in addition they have a small table between them, a much better layout I think than in the “soft sleepers,” again one of those instances where I don’t think we’re expected to use those fold out seats in favor of the provided table inside the private compartment. And again, I want one, a better place to camp out is all I have in mind.

That’s about all I remember from looking in to the train compartments, I’ll probably take another walk around later though to stretch my legs.

The scenery’s been off and on at times serene, peaceful and impressive. There’d be fields of agriculture as far as the eye can see, tiny Chinese row houses built of grey brick with blue metal roofs, massive apartment complexes in various stages of completion surrounded on all sides by construction materials, piles of steal and brick, construction cranes, huge swathes of just dirt, like its been strip mined for something, little rivers and ponds and insect breeding grounds, intricate networks of pipes connecting various bits of farming equipment, power plants and highways. There’d even be a town or city that we’d speed through, abandoned looking other train stations with people sitting against carts of fruit, strip mall type places that must have just sprung up due to their proximity to the train tracks, and other trains that rattle our car as they’d pass in a blur. We’re going surprisingly fast actually where I can’t get a still photo of the scenery right next to us. It all passes in a blur.

I’d taken a good number of trains in the past in the States. I’ve gone cross country by train a few times, a 60 hour trip, on the cheap even where all I had was a seat. Those trips go through Chicago, and get stopped along the way by cows crossing the tracks. And as uncomfortable as it is sitting here amongst the staff all taking their breaks, it’s still a bit of a slice. Some of them speak Cantonese, which I can’t understand, but what I can understand is that they’re making fun of one of the staff for having already eaten a bowl of noodles and rice, and still eating more. There’s a closeness to these people, a kind of camaraderie, and they’re so into their own little things that I really don’t think they pay any attention to me at all. In the States such a thing would never happen, the staff would never all surround a customer on their breaks and take their meals. But I forget what I was going to talk about now. They’re really loud though! I go back and forth between listening to them and my iPod, though I can’t really write when listening to music, nor can I write though listening to really loud Chinese people. It’s nice listening to my music though, I realize I rarely do that nowadays, and it’s very appropriate when travelling by train because it feels sort of like a soundtrack to the scenery going by, and I feel it affecting my step as I walk even. And it’s neat when the track changes because the difference is great when watching farmland going by and listening to Depeche Mode versus Eminem; really great.

I wonder what happens at night on these trains. Does everyone go to sleep? Is there staff around still? Most importantly, is there a place for me to hang out when everyone else is asleep and the train is quiet, some place away from the cigarette smoke and chatting Chinese people, where I can look outside and watch the darkened landscape go by. It’s a paradox really, my desire to be with people during the day, or at least in some kind of company so that I don’t feel too much like a tool in my private little room surrounded on all sides by white walls, and my desire at night to just be alone to watch things go by.

I’m going to stop writing now, to continue later, but the cigarette smoke is actually really getting to me plus I’m out of coffee and peanuts and iced tea so I feel like I’ve gotten what I’ve paid for from this dining car. To be continued at another time then, these thoughts on train travel. I will re-sync though with the iPad so that I can continue writing there if I’d like later.

I am once again sitting in the dining car, 30RMB for a pot of coffee and the privilege of sitting here. I guess they don’t understand the idea of public use on trains. Having listened more carefully this time, apparently my choices were either a pot of tea, a pot of coffee, or absolutely nothing but the privilege of sitting here. Again, I went with coffee. I guess if I’m not going to eat I may as well drink lots and lots of caffeine. I’m not entirely sure how I want to handle the sleeping situation. You see, I don’t want to disturb my fellow travelers in the compartment and have excused myself outside. This also gives me a chance to charge my computer; I have thankfully found a charger in the dining car. Not that I’ll really need it the more I think about it. I do get in decently early tomorrow and apart from this evening there’s not much time left.

But rich coffee and salty peanuts are good accompaniment to reading, which I am doing on the iPad. Again, I paid for it so I intend to stay until I am content. In the intermission between writing I spent a good time doing nothing, just listening to music and watching the scenery go by. I also spent some time taking photos like a hawk, camped out in front of the cleanest window I could find, snapping away happily. I unpacked my bag a little so that I could carry it with me around the different compartments. I suppose I’ll go back to my proper room in a little while. For now, I’ll charge my stuff and read my book, and write off and on when the fancy strikes me, and drink my coffee and eat my peanuts. Although it’s cost me close to nine dollars already, I find the environment of the dining car peaceful, though smoky earlier in the day, but much more mellow now that even the staff are tired and half falling asleep in the chairs.

I’m going to post this now to the blog as I’m not sure what else I’d like to write about it. I’m sure more will come later, and that will make the second part of this series, if I get to it. I’m sure I will as I will undoubtedly need things to do on the return journey as well.

One last observation though was just how drastically different the scenery was the second day on the train. All of yesterday was farmland and flat with some farming and agriculture infrastructure visible every now and then, along with an odd town of sorts. But as I half asleep and blearily peaked out the compartment windows into the morning light the first thing I noticed was stone! There were huge mountains on either side of the train with shear, exposed stone like one would expect from those cliched Chinese paintings. And there were small creaks and streams, and while still lots of farmland, more power generating infrastructure, and definitely more things in ruins. It was noticeably more tropical also, with banana leaf looking plants, actual palms instead of plastic ones like in Beijing, and the housing architecture had changed. Not the massive apartment complexes of which there were still plenty, but the small row houses reminded me of ones you’d find in the Caribbean: low, made of stone, with dirt floors and exposed windows and roofs to let in the sunlight and elements, painted bright colors of blue and red and yellow. And though the entire trip didn’t have many stops, maybe four and none of which lasted more than a few minutes or were we allowed off the train, but this second leg did see a proper hour or longer stop in GuangZhou, a decently big city apparently, where they separated the car because some people were getting off and only some of us, those who’ve gone through immigration, were continuing on the rest of the train. Oh, and as creepy as it is, as soon as the train crossed literally into the border of Hong Kong, my cell phone service automatically switched, I received a text message welcoming me, a text message informing me on how to continue using my phone, and another text message informing of the new rates for calls. Yeah, the Chinese government’s not stalking me or anything…

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