Living in a fishbowl

Friday, February 22, 2013

Overnight train on a Hard Seat

We have used the term 'an experience' a lot already on the blog but this really was an experience. Just under, 16 hours sitting in a hard seat wasn't what we were hoping for but after failing to get a soft sleeper, a seat was definitely better than the thought of having to stand and yes people do stand for the whole journey! For all you train buffs PIXIE obviously doesn't exist over here! For the uninitiated PIXIE is the UK measure for passengers in excess of capacity i.e. having to stand for over 20 minutes... not hours!!!

We arrived at the station over an hour before departure to find the departure hall crammed with people. There must have been well over 500 people already queuing for our train. We quickly noticed that we were the only western people to be seen in the station so we prepared to be stared at but this was ridiculous it was like being in a goldfish bowl. The young children were the funniest; looking with wide eyes and when they see you looking back they quickly look away but seconds later they are staring again. The older generation are no better and it's comical if you wave at them as they just don't know what to do. Normally there is a few seconds delay as panic sets in, you can see it in their faces thinking are they waving at me? Then they either quickly look away or even walk away but occasionally some smile or wave back. This you might think is the best result but wrong, if this happens you then have a friend for life who won't stop staring, smiling or waving back!

Boarding started and it was a mad rush but only when we got in the carriage we realised that luggage space is limited to just the space above your head unless you have a tiny bag that will fit under the seat. Even though we reduced our bags in Xi'an we are still not travelling light by any means! The train had 6 seats with a small corridor with another 4 seats on the other side. By the time we arrived nearly all of the luggage space had already gone, so we decided that when in Rome you should do what the Romans so when in China we should do what the Chinese do, push and shove! We managed to secure some space across the aisle for our two backpacks. The Mule was another problem with no other space available it had to be wedged under the seat and stuck out into the tiny corridor. During the journey it was tripped over, stood on and bashed by the trolley endless times. One thing we have noticed is it is first come first served and nobody questions you if you were the lucky one to get there first. Even though we took the majority of the luggage space above somebody else's seat nobody complained even when they arrived and were scratching their head wondering where to put their luggage.

Some of the more entrepreneurial 'conductors' don't do any work and spend their time selling, sorry pushing tack. We say pushing as they literally stand in the aisle and shout and holler until somebody shows an interest. We were offered belts, wallets, electrical power packs, toothbrushes, massagers, children's toys and even plastic seats for those who were standing! Essential must have's for a 16 hour train journey!

Come midnight just as everyone was settling down for the night train security appeared and proceeded to give everyone a 15 minute lecture about something. Afterwards he approached us and continued speaking in Chinese. A little confused we handed over our tickets and he continued ranting in Chinese at which point we noticed everybody was now watching us (even more than normal) thinking back we are guessing he must have said something along the lines of 'Do you understand Chinese' handing over our tickets confirmed we don't! Shortly afterwards a girl appeared and translated 'next stop 6:30 in morning, take care of your things' How the hell his 15 minute rant could have possibly only said that we will never know but never mind as everyone seemed happy and he left us alone.

The seats were rock hard and unless you routinely moved around a numb bum was the least of your worries. DVT is supposed to be an airline economy thing I suppose the Chinese haven't heard of it yet. Having said that we did manage to get a reasonable amount of sleep if only 15 minutes at a time between the woman selling fruit, the man selling hot meals and another man selling drinks and snacks shouting at the top of their voices as they pushed their way through the carriage and past the Mule.

At one point Sonya was desperate for the loo but changed her mind as soon as she saw that there was no toilet just a Chinese squat but the worst bit being you could see right down to the tracks! Who dare squat when the train is rocking from side to side? The toilets were worse than those at Glastonbury.

A great experience but hopefully something we only need to do once as you would never ever choose a seat through choice! Next time if at all possible we will be getting a soft sleeper.

After being at the hostel for a few hours the thought of spending two nights in a hard seat on our next journey did not appeal so we have changed our plans. We are now staying in Chengdu for another 3 nights so we can get some soft sleeper tickets direct to Guilin. This is a bonus as before we were going via Nanning (via being an 1800km trip!) to jump on a connecting train back to Guilin. The delay is nice as it gives us a few extra days in Chengdu which will give us a much needed chilling day. We can already hear the 'arrr's' from here but this is travelling which is massively different to a holiday. Occasionally you need a rest day to catch your thoughts, rest those weary feet and try and get some reception on the naff Chinese internet. The delay means we won't be able to take the tour we were planning on catching through Vietnam and Cambodia to Thailand. So our rest day was taken up with planning our own route.

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