I’ve taken lots of overnight transportation. Sleeper buses and sleeper trains galore. There’s typically a bed involved, and I’m typically surrounded by at least a few other backpackers doing the same thing.
Coming to China has proven a bit more difficult to travel than SE Asia. Evidently the BILLION people in China means you need to plan a bit more in advance than I have been doing the past 2.5 months.
Trains book up quickly, and sleeper buses aren’t nearly as common. And China is huge. So if you’re not flying – it takes FOREVER to get from place to place.
All of the above is how I ended up on a 17.5 hour local train from Chengdu to Xi’an, with a ‘hard seat’ ticket for the entire journey. The only ticket worse than that one is the ‘standing room only’ tickets. They actually sell those. For 17.5 hour train rides. And people buy them. Which also means the aisles are lined with people during your entire trip..
Shanna and I thought positive thoughts, chalked it up to ‘a good experience’, and bought a bottle of ‘Great Wall’ red wine in case all else failed.
We boarded the train in Chengdu around 9:00pm to find a family of 4 sitting in the 3 seats across from us. The seats were set up in rows of 3 – facing each other, with 2 feet long tables in between each group of ‘hard seats’. Included in the family was a baby wearing a shirt and pants (sort of). Really just legs of pants that connected to a waistband. Diapers are a luxury reserved for the wealthy, so it’s pretty common to see crotchless, bum-less ‘pants’ for squatting whenever (& wherever) they’ve got to go. Having a baby across from us really got me excited. A train in China obviously wouldn’t be complete without a screaming baby boy who can pee anytime he wants to – and is facing directly at me…
To my left, was a cross-legged sitting monk. Shanna was seated to my right. I was smack in the middle.
By around hour 3 – I stopped caring that he was a monk, and made it clear that sitting on an airplane size seat with your legs crossed indian style and your toes exposed – rubbing on your neighbors leg, is unacceptable and imposes on others’ right to the comfort of their full seat size. Monk man spoke 0 English and did not care.
By around hour 4 – we resorted to the wine. Monk man dissaproved. At one point, he literally ripped the cork screw from my hand to examine it (without a word), and then handed it back a minute later.
By around hour 5 – we were completely surrounded. Word was out – WHITE GIRLS ON THE TRAIN!! People were peering over their seats, walking over, some tried to speak English to us – others just silently watched. We were a hot commodity. Someone would speak Mandarin, they’d all laugh. We’d pretend to laugh. Then we’d make hand gestures. Maybe they understood? Maybe not. But we spent some time hanging out, answering their questions, and trying to communicate as much as possible. We were told later that Americans have a ‘rich’ stereotype in China, which is possibly why Monk man was very interested in ‘How much did it cost you to come to China? How much was your plane ticket? How much money did you bring with you?’ (all this pieced together from someone who spoke a few words of English, of course). I did not answer truthfully. I also found out later that talk of money is not at all rude here, which helped explain his persistent interest..
By around hour 6 – Some people had left the train at one of the million stops along the way, so people around us got to spread out a bit (we were not so lucky). The group of chairs to my left had a boy sleeping on the ground, underneath the seats. A woman with her leg up on the table and her body laying down across the seats (hey, get comfortable..), and a man asleep with his head on the same table.
By around hour 7 – the fan club was getting very old..
By around hour 8 – I finally tried to sleep. Our across the seat neighbors (baby included) had lucked out and upgraded to sleeper seats, and they were replaced by a young Chinese couple and a 20-something boy who ate chicken out of bag with his mouth wide open. Just smackin away. This, coupled with the fact that Chinese people will talk about anything to anyone for hours (really – perfect strangers will have 5 hour long conversations on the train!) made sleeping extremely difficult..but we made made a valiant effort.
By around hour 11 – I pretty much gave up on the sleep. It was 8:00am by this point, and the lights were never turned off. Monk man had only uncrossed his legs and given me my fair share to the seat a couple times, and EVERYONE was heating up noodles and eating chicken out of a bag at extremely odd times of the night. Evidently Chinese people need very little sleep. They just want to talk, talk, talk to strangers, and slurp as many Ramen noodles down as humanly possible.
(A rare moment of silence. That’s chicken smacker featured on the left, monk man’s uncrossed legs in the middle, and then my feet – dangerously close to chicken smacker’s face.)
By around hour 15 – We should have been arriving. PRAISE THE LORD. The girl of the couple across from me politely informed me we still had 2.5 hours left. Oh right, why would a train be on time?
By exactly hour 17.5 – we made it to Xi’an. With some really funny pictures in tow, very little sleep, and a much better idea of ‘China’.
Then we promptly bought a plane ticket to our next stop – Beijing..