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Email: Adventures in China – The Train

«Chengdu and Dali

Date: Tuesday, 2 October 2001 21:58 PDT
Subject: Adventures in China: The Train

My butt hurts and it’s only one hour into our 17 hour train ride from Xian to Chengdu. We only expected to spend two days in Xian but we had to stay three days because there weren’t any seats available to Chengdu. We went to the train station the morning we arrived in Xian. We filled out the form from the back of the ‘China by Rail’ book and got in line (the form is written in Chinese on the top and English on the bottom). Since I didn’t know which line to get into, I got into the shortest one. We were promptly told the correct line.

After 15 – 20 minutes we reached the front of the line. On the form, we circled the Chinese characters for a soft sleeper (four to a compartment). We wrote in our destination – Chengdu. The woman at the ticket window said in broken English “no soft sleeper”. After this, I thought she sold us tickets for the hard sleeper (six to a compartment), which I accepted. Sandy carefully studied the Chinese writing on the ticket. She was concerned that I had purchased the wrong class. Her first piece of evidence was the price – Y55 ($7 per person). Since we also received a small piece of paper in addition to the ticket, we initially thought we had a sleeper but we would have to pay a supplement once on the train.

After our trip to the Terracotta Warriors, we returned to the train station. We reentered the same line and Sandy discussed the situation with the same woman who sold us the tickets. Sandy did this using hand gestures and pointing to our picture book. We came away with the conclusion that we didn’t have a sleeper but hard seats on a slow, regional train (frequented by the Chinese working class and students).

At the train station ninety minutes before our departure two days later, Sandy noticed that people started to queue. I left at this point to get some groceries for our journey. We already had water (we used the boiled water from our room). I bought some packaged rolls, pistachio nuts, bananas, chocolate (expensive and not very good), pineapple juice (terrible!) and a giant tub of ramen noodles (just add hot water). At the grocery store, a young girl followed me around. As I walked through the aisles, she made suggestions (such as the chocolate).

As we waited in line, both Sandy and I struck up conversations with students. Sandy’s was a young woman who had studied English for seven years but had never had a chance to practice it on foreigners. My student was a young chemist. His English was pretty good. He told me he was a Christian. His train was leaving so we said “good bye”.

Soon after, our train started to board. This gave us a new meaning to ‘chaos’. Once we were past the gates and had our tickets punched, we hiked up a long flight of stairs. After a while, we hiked down the other side onto the platform of a train. We showed our tickets to a rail official. She pointed the way to our car. After some walking, Sandy and I split up. I took the far end of the car and she took the near end (we didn’t know which side was closer to our seats). This is where the real pushing started. Our seats were closest to Sandy’s side. She quickly pushed her backpack into the luggage rack above our seats. I was stuck on the other side. It was like a salmon swimming up stream since most people were coming from the other direction.

I made little progress for the first 15 minutes. After a lot of work, I made it up to the middle of the car – about two rows from our seat. Sandy’s student friend ended up right between us (she was trying to swap seats with someone so she could sit with us). I passed my bags to her and she passed them to Sandy. She promptly pushed my bag into the rack. Unburdened, I was now able to push my way to my seat (The reason was all of the pushing was the limited luggage space – just like on planes at home).

The seats were 3-2 with seats paired like this:

xxx xx
xxx xx

The seats in each pair pointed towards each other. There were 118 seats in each car. All were taken. There were an additional 50 – 60 people standing or sitting in the aisle. Sandy has a picture of this if you are interested. Every 15 minutes or so, a push cart came through the car. When it did, everyone in the aisle needed to stand up and squeeze into the seating area (where we were) to let them pass. All of the windows were open. This makes it easy to purchase additional items at train stations. Traditional Chinese music continually played in the background.

Once we left Xian, we saw endless rows of corn in the process of being harvested. The corn is first bundled and transported by donkey or push carts to a central area for drying. The corn is dried on the cob and then the kernels are removed for final drying. This is done on any horizontal surface – the side of the road or the roof of a building works well.

The people seated around us consist of a family of three. The boy is four. A single woman in her late 20’s (or early 30’s – it’s hard to tell) sits next to them. A young rough sits next to me on the other seat. His friends sit or stand in the aisles.

The train has come to an abrupt stop in a town that’s not on the map. From somewhere in Central China, “Zaijian” (Good Bye) for now.

Darren and Sandy