Night Train from Hell

Chengdu Travel Blog

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Oh dear god.  Where do I start?  I suppose a warning is in order.

WARNING: For those of you who prefer "ladylike language," it's probably best you skip this little tirade I'm about to throw.  And for those of you "real" travelers out there, you should probably skip this too.  I'm about to forfeit any and all street cred I may have had.

Yesterday was a wash.  Rained all day, the dreary crappy chilly rain that meant the day got progressively colder.  The boys slept in, I caught up on my blog, and we ventured out around the corner for lunch.  It was a terrific little place, jam-packed with locals (puffing away on their cigarettes as per ush -- nothing better to go with a delicious meal than a giant suffocating cloud of smoke), and probably the best food I've had in China yet.  Handmade noodles, literally rolled out right there in the room adjoining.  Served in a piping hot bowl of soup with bok choy and as many spicy chilies and whole cloves of raw garlic as you can handle.  Delicious.  From lunch we called the day as shot, and sat around the lobby alternating between snoozing and watching the paint fade.  Finally around 4pm we headed back to the Muslim Quarter for an early dinner, snagged some dried fruit, and made our way back to the hostel to catch the bus to the train.

We make it to the station ok, walk up to our gate, follow the half a dozen or so locals in front of us to the ticket guy, watch them enter, and are told no.  What do you mean no?  That's our train.  We gotta go.  No.  So we stand there and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And a Scottish couple comes up and we're all you should go ahead and try, because they're not letting us on.  See the dozens of Chinese shoving past us (rather than just walking around us like civilized beings) and being allowed on?  We can't get past the ticket guy.  So then there's seven of us, waiting and waiting and waiting.  The train was at 8:07, we got there at 7pm.  8 o'clock finally strikes and we're thinking any minute now.  Nope.  So then some sort of heavenly decree must have been whispered hither and yon, because the cattle pen waiting room full of Chinese people staring at us like we're eight-headed aliens become visibly tense, and a bunch of them start shoving and standing really close to us, like reeeeeeally close, like somehow wedged between us, and we're all talking over their heads going "well this just got a lot more pleasant."  And who knows what was signaled or why, but finally at like 8:20 we were allowed down on to the platform.  So much for an on-time departure.

So we get down to the platform, and I'm looking at the train going um, this thing looks like one of the first steamers from the nineteenth century, something you'd see in an old western film.  Don't we think it belongs in say, a museum, as opposed to actually carrying cargo across a massive country?  Particularly when the cargo is darling little moi?  To be clear, the trains I've ridden on so far have been sleek and modern, and while they were nowhere near as sleek and modern as Eurorail or Amtrak and certainly not the Shinkansen, they didn't look like antique museum pieces either.  Those of you "experienced travelers" who didn't heed my warning and are reading this are probably starting to put two and two together: guess who got a taste of the "hard sleeper" train for the first time?

In my defense, I was with the boys, the past couple days had been great, I was learning to really "embrace" and enjoy China, I wanted to hang with the big dog "real" travelers and gloat about how big my balls were too.  And everything I've heard is along the lines of a bed is a bed is a bed, it's really quite nice once people quiet down and you don't know the difference and you're soundly asleep and saving money and did we mention REAL travelers don't pussyfoot around with that pansy soft sleeper business?

So for whatever reasons the boys are in car 10 and I'm in car 3, even though we purchased all the tickets together, and even though my ENTIRE motivation for "roughing it" was knowing that I'd have four guardian angels ready to beat the shit out of anyone who fucked with me.  I managed to snag them for a minute on the platform to try to coordinate a meeting spot at the train station in Chengdu, so we could reunite and find the hostel together.  I then turned around and walked down toward my car, peering into the windows as I go and going OH. MY. GOD.  If there was ever a time for valium, last night was it.  Too bad I subscribe to the hippie nature-beats-all viewpoint; I don't have so much as ibuprofen on me.

I would like to say, perhaps a bit belatedly, I'm not a racist.  Really, I'm not.  I know all too many racists, and they make my blood boil.  Ask Pun.  She can vouch for how riled up I get.  I'm sure these people are very nice, but I'm accustomed to a different standard of living, different customs and manners and ways of going about things.  The whole "slumming it" thing and "really embracing the culture" or whatever the standard bullshit line is, let's just say I can only embrace so much.  When I say these people are fucking animals, I say it with the full understanding that we come from completely different backgrounds and experiences and standards and so on, and that does not make them any less human or deserving of respect.  But these people are FUCKING ANIMALS.

For those of you blissfully ignorant as to what a "hard sleeper" is, allow me: It's your standard train car, long as hell, with beds in it.  Lots and lots and lots of beds.  Stacked three high, and about one meter apart.  If that.  For those of you who have slept in a twin bed in a dorm and felt it was a tight squeeze, that is luxurious and roomy beyond compare.  I'm not a big girl.  The mattress was about my size.  My feet poked out at the end, my shoulders touched either side.  TINY.  Unpleasantly so.  There were well over a hundred people in my car, so who knows how many rows and beds there were.  Way, way, WAY too many.  That's how many.  So you board your train, all the while being shoved and screamed at, and instantly choke and gag by A, how stifling hot it is and B, how much cigarette smoke there is.  Have I mentioned China is not fond of ventilation?  Not a cracked window to be had.  So you get to your bed and continue to be shoved as people climb over and around you; why wait for someone to put down their bag and scramble up to their bed?  You then thank your lucky stars for that Scottish couple, who are a few rows down, who offer to help you lug your massive hippopotamus up to the luggage rack that is on level with the third tier of bunks.  You then heave yourself up to the top bunk, smack the shit out of your head (I can't BEGIN to tell you how many people have told me the hard sleepers aren't that bad and "at least you're able to sit up" -- yeah fucking right, sit up. If I had had enough space to sit up I would have been light years better off than I was.), and realize, with panic and disgust and the immense urge to run for the nearest exit, that the bed is unmade.  We're not talking unmade like in the soft sleeper, where the bottom sheet and the pillowcase are crisply in place and the duvet is folded at the end, waiting for you to spread it out yourself.  We're talking unmade and slept in and who knows what in and hasn't been cleaned in I don't want to think how long.  GROSS.  And those bathrooms that look so disgusting the morning after?  HA!  I would laugh at myself if I didn't want to cry so hard.  The bathrooms in the soft sleeper the morning after look downright APPETIZING in comparison to what the bathrooms look like in the hard sleeper BEFORE THE TRAIN HAS PULLED OUT OF THE STATION.  I repeat: FUCKING ANIMALS.  So you wrench the "duvet" over the mattress to cover as much as possible, spread your pashmina over the pillow, give yourself a SERIOUS pat on the back for charging the ipod to the fullest, plug in, crank up, cover your face with your fleece to provide some sort of barrier from the thick, disgusting, choking smoke, and hug your daypack to your body because everything that will get you out of this wretched country is in it, and you better believe at this point you're protecting that with your life.  You then lie there trying to think good thoughts -- ANY THOUGHTS -- to distract you from the screaming mayhem, the wailing baby who's mother is screaming right back at it, and the old woman not one arm's length away from you coughing emphysema and swine flu and who knows what else all over your face.

All I have to say is this: If I'm faced with having to board another hard sleeper, I will happily walk, lugging the hippopotamus, to the nearest airport and board the first flight out of here.  No fucking way.  Not happening.  I don't care that my dad wagered I wouldn't last long and that it means I'll have to eat my pride and come home with my tail between my legs.  There is NO WAY I'm getting on another one of those trains.

I don't sleep well on the soft sleepers.  I'm fully aware I'm on a train and feel myself being bumbled along the whole night.  That's partially why I figured the hard sleeper would be ok.  If I wasn't getting a good night's sleep on one, what's the difference?  The difference is that a soft sleeper, in addition to being hygienic, is an express train.  Curious.  Would have loved to have known that beforehand.  The hard sleeper makes stops.  LOTS of stops.  Like, I couldn't tell you how many we made.  Two dozen?  Three?  It was up there.  And the hard sleeper, being a train that was built in the age of the dinosaurs, lurches as it changes gears.  I shit you not.  LURCHES.  As in, I had to relinquish my hold on my bag so that I could HOLD ON TO THE BED lest I be flung ten feet to the ground.  Even if you were standing upright you'd be flung to the ground.  It felt like a crash, like something else slamming into the train.  Which is what I thought it was the first time.  (Not scary at all.)  And it physically hurt.  My muscles and bones and joints and everything is in acute pain because of all the slamming and backlash back and forth.  ALL NIGHT LONG.  And all morning too.  Yeah, MORNING.  Those twelve hour babies that get you there in time for an early wake-up?  Sorry lady, what do you think this is?  We're on the slow route TO HELL.  You're NEVER GETTING OFF THIS TRAIN.  We finally pulled in some SIXTEEN HOURS later.  Sixteen!  Shoot me in the fucking head!

The lights all flip on at 6am, accompanied by an excruciatingly loud broadcast of the "news" (i.e. propaganda).  And it's CRAZY loud.  I waited a good thirty minutes (being shoved all the while) for the privilege to use the world's most foul toilet in existence, and then crawled back up to my coffin and cranked up the ipod and tried to summon the happy thoughts that refused to come.  Around 11:30 I poked my head out and noticed the Scots were finally up, and couldn't have been happier for people to commiserate with.  We got to know each other REAL well, seeing as we had a good two hours to go (unbeknown to us, which made it all the worse -- we were under the impression we'd be there shortly after 11. Do you have any idea how much harder it is to endure hell when your allotted time period is up and you're STILL not out??).  They were lovely, and helped me cling to my last shreds of sanity.

I never, EVER want to relive that.  It was AWFUL.  I need my back realigned and my muscles worked on a couple times over -- it's going to take HOURS to convince my clenched lower back to relax.  Any progress I made over the last few days with this little cold of mine is totally gone; I'm more congested than when I boarded.  That, and I'm pretty sure I have lung cancer.  I developed a smoker's hack to go along with my bloodshot and stinging eyes.  MISERABLE.  And dead sexy, too.

A wimp, a "flashpacker," a spoiled American, call me whatever you want.  I don't care.  When in Rome, I eat as the Romans do, even when their food is greasy and laden with MSG and fucks with my dreams.  But the being carted around like animals is where I draw the line.  No thank you.  Chinese 1, Meg 0.  I'll be in my soft sleeper if you need me.
sylviandavid says:
Well Meg.... David says your problem is you are too subtle..... and you are unable to express yourself...
this was so funny to read.... and a good warning! thanks sylvia
Posted on: Jan 22, 2010
lwatkins47 says:
some days just aren't worth getting out of bed for. But maybe these kind of days give us something to compare the rest of our days to...
Posted on: Dec 08, 2009
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