Not long ago, I wrote about the wonders of train travel and about the joy of taking a step back and just enjoying the scenery.
Since then, we’ve done quite a bit more journeying, and I can safely say that the guy who wrote that piece was a brainless twit.
I’ll like to preface everything else that follows by saying that China probably has one of the most extensive train networks in the world (again, I’d like to highlight the importance I place on fact-checking on this site) (none). And travelling by train is probably the cheapest, safest and fastest way to get from Point A to Point B here.
It’s all very effective and utilitarian. Comfort, however comes at a (very steep) price.
A quick introduction to train travel in China.
Tickets are roughly divided into four categories.
Soft Sleepers （软卧） , which are the most comfortable (and expensive) are the ones we travelled to Lhasa in. It consists of two double bunks in an air conditioned cabin and amazingly, it comes with a very modern invention – the door. You might think I’m deliberately being a smartass, but clearly, you’ve not used a standard Chinese restroom.
One grade below the soft sleepers are the hard sleepers （硬卧）. Prices are almost half that of the soft sleepers and comes in 2 triple bunk beds in an open air cabin (without doors)
Next come the soft seaters（软座）which are much like airline seats and arranged two to three abreast. They cost about half that of the hard sleepers and are reasonably comfortable.
Finally, the hard seaters （硬座）. They are, how you would say using professional train terms… kinda horrible. The seats are semi padded, arranged in two to three abreast with a small fold up desk in front of some of the seats. It’s the cheapest, and hence the most common form of transportation for the locals, so you’d see the Chinese people at their most candid.
Totally unrelated to the last statement, the hard seater carriages are almost always grimy, noisy and filled with the fragrance of BO and cigarette smoke (or worse).
Smoking is not allowed on the train (or so the signs say) and there are normally (very fierce) attendants on the various carriages to enforce that with a sound and pretty humiliating scolding. As there are less people in the higher end categories of the train, the attendants’ jobs are easy. In the hard seaters, it’s like watching someone playing Whack-a-Mole with 1,000 holes, using a teaspoon.
This situation was made worse by the secret train ticket category – the standing tickets （站座）or the “No Seater” （无座）. Standing tickets are normally sold to customers travelling over a short distance, but the ticketing office is willing to offer it to just about anyone (at a price), even if the trains are filled to capacity. Holders of the standing tickets get the privilege of sharing the breathing space of those stuck in the hard seater carriages.
This often creates hilarious situations involving armpits (and other savoury body parts) stuffed into the faces (and other more savoury body parts) of sleeping travellers. It’s also not uncommon for those fortunate enough to get an assigned seat to be woken up mid-sleep at the requests of standing passengers to share the seats “just for a little while”.
We’ve even heard stories of the holder of a “No Seater” ticket who was so exhausted from standing that she fell asleep on the aisle of the carriage. Her long, silky hair that was draped across the floor was subsequently trampled through, spitted on and rolled over by the (numerous) push carts peddling wares. (Spitting push carts, a new invention of China, look it up)
Free Hair styling!
And she could be considered one of the lucky ones.
Those unable to find any space in the hard seater carriages are exiled to the spaces between carriages where excess luggage (and what I suspect are random missile parts or judging by the smell, decomposing rat corpses) are illegally stored and where the more obedient smokers gather. Ironically, it’s also where those unable to stand the stench of the carriages go for a breath of… ermm… fresh air.
We actually know someone who stood for 20 hours in the toilet, holding his luggage over his head. I think it’s fair to say that there is no surface in the hard seater toilet that you would put anything you do not want to be decontaminated using acid. I’m talking about the kind of filth that would make eating out of a trash can seem like a meal in a five star restaurant. If the chest buster from “Aliens” is down with a disease, that virus can probably be found in a hard seater restroom.
At this point in our travel, we are supposed to take a 15 hour overnight train from Zhangye to Xi’an.
There were only standing tickets left for today, and hard seaters for the next day.
Talk about a rock and a hard place.