In which I rant about Chinese trains

Our biggest challenge in Shanghai was trying to get out of Shanghai. We thought about taking the bus - it’s always cheaper than trains and you rarely need to book in advance - but by all reports Chinese buses are awful. Overcrowded and unsafe with karaoke videos blasting non-stop, windows that don’t open and full of chain-smokers. Since China seems to be a mass experiment in how much human beings can smoke, I had no trouble believing that. So hell, we thought, China is tough enough without inflicting that on ourselves. We’ll take the train.

Easier said than done, it turns out. The Chinese rail system is immensely confusing and difficult. We’ve been spoiled by the excellent train networks in India and in Japan. For one thing, it’s impossible to book tickets online. For another, there’s no way to book tickets from one city to another if you’re not actually in the first city. We’d planned to travel from Shanghai to Beijing and then on to Xi’an, but it’s impossible to book Beijing to Xi’an from Shanghai. In fact, believe it or not, it’s impossible to book Beijing to Shanghai from Shanghai. I’m not joking. The rail network is computerized but it’s not integrated at all. Each station (with a few exceptions) only has access to the trains leaving from that station. The ticket agents can see every train in the system but they can’t book them. I write this with the hindsight benefit of weeks of dealing with Chinese trains at the time it was a horribly baffling and mysterious exercise in frustration.

At first we tried to book tickets at a satellite booking office instead of the hectic main station. It was quieter, but the only woman working had only a couple of words of English - and the language barrier in China is a steep one. We were to become intimately familiar with her two words not have over the next two days. I have a fairly deft hand and quickly learned the simplified Chinese characters for the various cities and classes. So I’d look at the schedule on the wall for possible trains and then write out a note that looked something like this:

D306 上海 → 北京

8月 12日 21:18

2 硬卧

To explain that I wanted 2 hard sleeper berths on train D306 from Shanghai to Beijing on August 12th at 21:18. I’d then fight my way through the small screeching mob to pass it across the desk. It could have been a workable system except that Chinese trains seem to book up instantly the second they become available. No matter what train I tried, the woman behind the counter would scowl, shake her head and push my note back across the counter and snap “not have!“. Seems to me that she’d have realized that the annoying foreigners would be out of her life sooner if she found them a train rather than making them guess over and over, but Chinese bureaucrats are an unhelpful bunch - and train ticket agents definitely qualify. We wanted sleeper berths on an overnight train, but there clearly wasn’t a chance in hell that was going to happen. There weren’t any of the soft-seat class available either, on any day or night train. There were hard-seats available, we gathered. I’d heard so many horrible things about hard-seat class that I wasn’t going near it, though - it sounded just like the buses except with people spitting on the floor.

I was so ready to just chuck Beijing completely and go somewhere else instead. Why am I even in China, anyway? I never wanted to come here, but it just seemed stupid to go around the world and not visit China. I didn’t have any particular interest in Beijing, and here we were trying so hard to get there. If it hadn’t been for the Great Wall and the fact that Beijing was where the Vietnamese embassy was and we needed Vietnamese visas, I’d have been happy to head south as fast as possible.

We finally had to give up on the note-passing at the booking office and go to the main station. It was insanely crowded but at least people were queuing… more or less. We found the unobtrusively labelled English-speaking ticket counter, but the line wasn’t any shorter and it took ages to get to the front. That gave us time to study the station’s best feature - a gigantic screen showing all the trains until the end of the week and how many seats were available in each class. All my writing practice paid off here, and I dared to hope that I’d see our escape from Shanghai glowing up there in bright green LEDs., but there wasn’t anything but hard-seat for any Beijing train.

We finally got to the front and deployed ourselves to block the queue-bargers. The ticket agent’s English was fine but the speaker set into the glass window of her counter was blown out and drowned her voice in hissing, crackling feedback. I could hardly understand a word. A lot of confused screeching back and forth and then we had soft-seat tickets in our hands for the 15th. Five days away and we’d already spent too long in Shanghai, but I was happy to have any escape at all. We were also 840 yuan poorer. That’s about CAD$140 and another huge shock. Our rail passes in Japan had insulated us from the ticket prices there, and Indian trains are so cheap we’d never worried about it. CNY840 is about 5000 Indian rupees, and we could have travelled from one end of India to the other in an air-conditioned upper-class sleeper berth for that kind of money. I thought to myself then how much I missed Indian trains, little realizing that I’d have that thought at least daily from that moment on. But we had our tickets at last, and I had to be satisfied with that tiny victory.

Settling for the satisfaction of tiny victories was to become the theme our China experiences, but I didn’t realize that at the time. The whole experience of trying to get train tickets was immensely frustrating and confusing, and it left me very apprehensive about how - realistically - we were going to get around China. If we can’t book a way out of a city before we get there, and if the trains go on sale ten days before and book up almost immediately, then we’re always going to be arriving somewhere and then having to wait ten days to get a train out. I’m really not sure how this is going to work. Maybe it’s going to be hard-seat all the way.

But hey, we had our ticket out, right? All was well. We could relax and enjoy Shanghai until the morning of the 15th. We did enjoy it, actually, after the horrible business of the tickets was over. And come the 15th we packed up, checked out of the hostel and got a taxi to the train station. Only in the taxi, on the way to the station, did I look at the tickets to double-check them and realize that they were for the 14th. The day before. For a train that left yesterday. Fuck we are so stupid. For fuck’s sake, we’re experienced travellers. We’ve taken more than a hundred trains on this world tour of ours, by my count. I can’t believe we didn’t check the tickets when we bought them. I think that’s the first time ever that I’ve failed to check everything on a train ticket. We were just so happy to have them that I stuffed them into my notebook for safekeeping right away. It’s probably the most expensive single train ticket of the whole trip, too, I bet. $140 lost. I felt sick. Our nice soft-seat tickets that we’d gone through hell to get, and now there wouldn’t be any alternative except the horrible hard-seat class for a ten-hour journey.

Things only went downhill from there. The taxi dropped us off a few hundred meters from the station and refused to go any further, which apparently is common practice in Shanghai. Fine, but Sheryl’s having back trouble and I have to carry both big packs and my small pack for ten blocks and a couple of huge flights of stairs. God knows how many awkward kilograms. Sheryl took off to the ticket office and tried to get the useless tickets exchanged, which worked exactly as well as you’d expect. Hard-seat tickets on the next train out cost us another 690 yuan - now we’d spent 1530 yuan - more than CAD$250 - to get to Beijing. The real irony is that it would have cost us 1220 yuan to fly there. Fuck.

The next train out left in half an hour - but from where? The ticket office had no platforms or signs. The actual train station was down the street a couple hundred meters. We threw our packs on - Sheryl pulling hers out of my hands - and ran off down the street. This was our first Chinese train and we don’t know the procedure. There was a huge bottleneck in front of the station when we arrived, where people were jammed up trying to force their luggage through an x-ray machine. We fought our way through to where the conveyor belt was groaning under a mountain of luggage and shoved the packs onto it, showed our tickets to the guard and then scrambled to pull the packs out of the mounting pile of wheeled suitcases on the other side of the scanner. The big screen hanging above the hall had our train on it, but… no track number? Only a waiting room number?

We struggled through a hallway packed with an appalling number of people. I have real trouble moving in a Chinese crowd. Either I’m perpetually out of sync with the syntax of their body language, or they just walk like idiots. No one ever looks where they’re going or walks in straight lines. They stop erratically and unpredictably. They cut you off, dodge in front of you, and then stop. They can’t walk through a doorway without stopping in the middle and then veering off randomly to one side. I think each of them is convinced they’re the only real person there, and everyone else is some sort of … tangible ghost. The hallway was crammed with a viciously elbowing, shoving human analogue of Brownian molecular motion. All I could see was coarse black hair in every direction but up, where there was a tiled ceiling, and down, where there were a thousand wheeled suitcases. Chinese people seem to be unwilling to travel without at least two huge, awkward wheeled suitcases each. One in either hand, they careen uncontrollably left and right, smashing ankles and crushing toes, overturning and being dragged along on their sides as their owners slam frenzied elbows into the torrent of people.

Finally we reached the right waiting room, with another signboard telling us which gate to wait at. An enormous screaming horde waited in front of the closed gate, baying its impatience. We’d barely had a chance to catch our breath when the gate opened and the crowd went insane. I’d thought it was bad before but that had been nothing. People were using their elbows viciously and shoving their way through with all their strength. I’ve been in calmer and less frightening riots. We were pushed in every direction. The packs made it very hard to shove back and hold our own. I was terrified that Sheryl was going to get her back hurt and focused most of my effort on trying to keep people from body-checking her, but it was futile - the pressure of the crowd soon separated us. We battled our separate ways down a stairway littered with smashed suitcase wheels and onto the platform, where it became an outright race to the right car. Everyone has a seat number, but everyone also has three huge bags and the first one into the carriage wins all the luggage racks. We were in the farthest car, naturally, and it was a long, limping run to the end of the platform. We found enough space to wedge our packs into a luggage rack, though it cost us dirty looks from the family behind us with their ten wheeled suitcases.

I’d heard many horror stories about hard-seat class. All the hell we’d gone through trying to get train tickets was predicated on the idea that hard seat was too awful to countenance. Here we were in hard seat class, though, and the joke was on me. While hard seat in the rest of the country might well be an overcrowded phlegm-soaked hell, the Shanghai-Beijing run has all the new luxury trains and hard-seat is more like soft-seat class on every other route - more or less like any other modern train, that is. Getting on the train had been brutal, but once on and settled it was comfortable. I’ve been in many worse trains in Europe, certainly (Romania, I’m looking at you). Despite the name, hard-seat doesn’t even actually have hard seats on the D-class trains (though it certainly does on the slower, cheaper ones). The best feature by far - and one which appears on every Chinese train, no matter how humble - was the hot-water dispenser. Boiling hot water on demand! Tea whenever we want it! That made up for a lot of shortcomings, I can tell you. Our scalded fingers quickly taught us to fill our bottles only halfway, though.

I still wouldn’t call it an enjoyable trip, by any means. It was long and it was boring. There wasn’t much scenery to speak of - one drab, grey, used-up industrial town after another. It was very noisy and a constant stream of people filed up and down the aisle. The train had started out clean but was soon littered with trash and discarded food. It was a travelling pig-sty, in fact, with everyone eating boisterously, messily and loudly in their seats. The car was full of chewing noises and belching. For the ten-millionth time on this world tour, my earphones saved my sanity (or whatever shreds remain, anyway). No one was smoking in their seats, at least - and I was profoundly grateful for that - but the smokers (i.e. every male older than twelve) were stinking up giant clouds at each end of the car and the reek was inescapable.

By the time the train arrived in Beijing we were desperate to get off it. We’d arrived at Beijing’s south railway station, which isn’t connected to the subway system. Neither of us had enough patience left even to pretend to figure out buses, so we decided to take a taxi - thinking, too, that this might spare Sheryl’s back any additional torment. After fighting our way through the disembarking crowd and collecting a whole new set of interesting bruises we followed the overhead signs to the queue for taxis. Did I say queue? I was joking. It was the same vicious battering riot scene as Shanghai station, made worse by a confined space. The fight for the taxis was horrible. The mob behind us was pushing us forward violently, making us nearly fall over the wheeled suitcases the people ahead dragged behind them like deadly stumbling blocks. Sheryl got badly wrenched and knocked around in every directions, with her big pack and her bad back. I was in real fear of one of us falling over a suitcase and being trampled, and I lost my temper and started brutally shoving people out of our way and kicking the wheeled suitcases away from our feet - just like everyone else was doing, I noticed. By the time we’d found a taxi and defended it long enough to get ourselves and our packs inside we were thoroughly battered and shell-shocked.

Our ears rang in the blessed silence of the taxi as it drove us through the misty night along Beijing’s vast, luminous traffic arteries, streaked with trails of red tail-lights. Under a cloud ceiling reflecting sodium-vapour orange, huge white neon-outlined buildings loomed out of the bright haze ahead, and then fell behind. Our first experience with the Chinese train system had left us feeling brutalized and numb. On autopilot, we checked into our room at the run-down hostel

A Korean couple of about our age had the other two beds in our room, and when they asked why we looked so tired, the whole story spilled out of us. They burst out laughing when I told them we’d missed our train by a whole day. I felt stupid enough about the episode already and was piqued enough to ask why they thought it was so funny. Because, they told us, they’d done exactly the same thing on the same day, but in the opposite direction. Their train to Shanghai had left the day before.

So there you have it, gentle readers. We may be stupid on occasion, but I can always take comfort in knowing that we’re not the only stupid ones. At least we got a laugh out of it in the end.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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