(The writing group I belong to assigned the topic “trains” and I decided to share it with you. The photo is a nicer train than the one we slept in where the shelves were wood and it was very dark.)
When I lived in China, I had the opportunity to travel almost the full length of the country by various forms of transportation, plane, train, bus, rickshaw, but never on a boat. In January, February, and March of that year’s spring break, we would travel by train for the first time in China.
I had a foreign affairs officer who became good friend, and whose primary job was to answer questions and make our transition of living in China an easier one. So who did I turn to for lessons on how to travel? Zhou Wei. Help, how do we make a train reservation? What are the options? How can I tell them the destination? And a hundred others.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to keep to a schedule on the trip, so if we missed a conveyance or took one to the wrong place, we could just continue on anywhere we wanted. We did, however, have a bit of a plan.
I had tried to think of all the things I might need to ask someone while we travelled, soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat, where is a hotel and more. I wrote all the questions on flash cards and had one of my students write the phrase in Chinese characters on the other side, that way I could ask and hopefully understand and get the right answer.
Zhou Wei took us to the train ticket office near the university where we taught and showed us how to purchase a ticket, something that cannot happen more than three days ahead of your travel date. Spring break, millions and millions travel in China. Students have more time off, but business people and workers only have a short window of a week for vacation, thus transportation would be packed and overloaded during that time. We would try to stay in one place when this was the most difficult.
When it came time to leave for Xi’an, our fist stop, Zhou Wei went with us to the train station to show us how to find our train. All the schedules have the names of the destinations in Chinese characters. This meant I would have to memorize all the city names on our route in Chinese. Fortunately the times were written in western numbers.
When we were getting on the train, we had to surrender our ticket. I was a little worried that I didn’t have proof of the stop where I was supposed to exit and might be asked to leave earlier, but I was given a metal, dog tag type device to keep until my time to get off.
We had reserved a soft sleeper for the first leg of our journey. This was even more comfortable than the bed in our apartment with four bunks. Our roommates were two men who did not speak any English. They immediately stripped to their long johns so as to not wrinkle their suits. Luckily there was no smoking in the room so they needed to go between cars to do that. Toilets were at each end of the car, one western and one Chinese. There was a washroom adjacent to the conductor’s cubbyhole.
Everyone was wandering around the train partially dressed. They would sleep in their long johns.
A large thermos of boiling water was provided and the conductor kept it full for us. I had brought teabags and our dinner. We sat at a small pop-up table below the window and watched the world go by through lace curtains until dark. This train was the most luxurious of all in our travels.
People were polite and tried to engage us in conversation. On another leg of the journey, they watched us play canasta and tried to figure out the game as they are big card players who always want to gamble on them.
On one leg of the journey, I made a serious mistake while reserving our accommodations. I chose beds #3 and 4, wrongly making the assumption that they would be above and below each other in the same compartment. Wrong. They were in two different compartments. I went to mine and with charades, asked the man above my bunk would trade with my husband who had a lower bunk. He agreed in a minute as the lower are the more desirable.
On one leg of the journey we could only get hard sleeper. Hard sleeper is a little fancier than a cattle car. Wooden bunks are stacked four high. I didn’t see any chickens, but some livestock are allowed to be carried in this compartment. We slept on a board with the ¼” thick pad like we originally had for a mattress in Beijing. We didn’t sleep much due to discomfort and the general hubbub in the car. The people were very kind and gracious to us but someone was up the whole night talking or eating or calming crying infants. I could have throttled the two young me in the two top bunks playing video games with companion sounds (read noise), the whole night long. One man wanted to talk with us, but he didn’t speak English. He left for about two hours and came back with someone he found in soft seat who spoke English and could act as a translator. We spent quite a while answering his questions. It was fun and he was sooooo happy.
When you are nearing a town and it seems like about the time that you should arrive at your destination, start watching for the signs for the name of the station, only a few had their names in pinyin (western characters). Here is where I really had to read fast and had needed memorize the name in characters. I wouldn’t have much of a glimpse and I needed to see if it was our stop. We travelled for two and a half months and we didn’t get off wrong anywhere. We carried our baggage with us so there was no need to locate it when we arrived at our destination. I suspect that there was no baggage check as everyone carried their piles of bags, luggage, animals and more and dumped them in aisles, under seats on the foot of beds.
Now China has high speed trains that can travel from one end of the country to the other in just a couple of days. It used to take five. The trains from Beijing to Xi’an, Shanghai, TianJin are more luxurious than the ones that deal with other Provinces. A professor friend of mine said he slept on a board stretched between two seats for his bed on the train. He kept falling off. We traveled in comfort, even in the hard sleeper section.
Though some were crowded, it was very festive and the people were kind and helpful. The conductors/conductresses were attentive, maybe more so to us as we were foreigners. All in all, trains in China are the way to go and my preferred means of travel.