I considered myself a hero when I spent three days on a slow train, sitting on a “hard seat”. China’s railway system sells three types of tickets:
- The standing-ticket. In the rush times, especially during major holidays, the trains are so crowded that all the seats are sold out. Under such circumstances, the railway station invented the “standing-tickets” – the passengers buy a ticket with the same price as the “hard seat”, but have to stand in the aisle throughout their rides.
- The hard seat. Rows of seats with vertical seatbacks. It is called the “hard seat” because in the past, the seats on the old style green-colored trains were indeed not well-cushioned. Although they are more padded now, the name somehow retained. It is the cheapest seating on the train, good for short distance traveling, but extremely uncomfortable when traveling overnight and long distances, because its backs are vertical, making it very difficult to nod off the long night.
- The hard sleepers. Every six of these hard sleepers make up a cell section, and on each side of the cell, there are three beds stacking above each other: the low one, the middle one and the top one. People usually prefer the low one, and settle for the middle one, but the top one is less preferred – it is difficult to climb up and the air-conditioning on the roof is noisy and blows cold air directly on the top bed. The price of hard sleepers is usually the twice of the hard seat.
- The soft sleepers. Not so different from the hard sleepers, apart from the fact that the cell section has a sliding door, and each cell has four beds instead of six. Also, the soft sleepers are more padded as its name suggests. The compartment of the soft sleepers also sports western style toilet. I also noticed its compartment a good place for morning grooming, because it has water when water in other compartments runs out.
Now let me go back to my experiences (some are unpleasant) about riding a train in China:
- The design of the hard seat is ridiculous for the mere fact that its seatbacks are vertical. It is really a test of will and strength when one has to ride on it overnight: there is no possible posture you can find to nod off comfortably, and one has to change the posture frequently to relax the strained body.
- I have seen thieves groping for wallets of the sleeping passengers on hard seats, but I didn’t dare to speak up, fearing the almost certain retaliation from them. The pickpockets on the train seemed to be rampant when I was a student about ten years ago. At that time, the ticket check-in was slack and the criminals could get on and off more easily.
- I did see a caught thief on train. Apparently having received some beating, the young man was cuffed from the back, walking from compartment to compartment by a policeman, yelling loudly and repeatedly “I’m a thief, I am a thief”. It served him right.
- In rush times such as during the Spring Festival and other major holidays, it is almost impossible to buy a seating ticket, and the only choice left is getting a standing ticket – which means one has to stand all the time throughout the journey. The train can be so crowded and people consider themselves lucky if they can occupy a spot in the connecting area between two compartments, and even luckier if they are not on the the side of the exiting area. I have seen people sit on the washing basins and on the floor, and it is not rare to see people sleep on the floor or under the cramped area of the hard seat. In some cases, people occupy the toilet closet as a seating space. I admit I slipped under the bench of the hard seat once, and slept on some news papers.
- Speaking of the toilet, be prepared to see the unflushed toilet more than once on a single train ride. Sometimes the nuisance is not because of the lack of manners, but because the lack of water on the train. What can a gentleman or a well-educated citizen do under such circumstances? Hold your breath and use the toilet, such can be the life on a train.
- In the past, the conductors on the trains were rude, but it is no longer the case in my recent train experiences. In my train rides last week to Dunhuang, a world-famous reserve of ancient Buddhist caving paintings, my sister and I had a funny experience with a conductor. He thought my sister was a student, and he asked her to copy about dozen pages of meeting notes for him. It appeared he had to copy the briefings of a meeting and show it to his superior, but he was lazy and hated the boring notes, so he picked a student-looking girl to do that chore. I could bear it no more after seeing my sister finish two pages, and very “politely” yet resolutely discontinued further cooperation.
- There is no smoking and non-smoking compartments on trains in China. All cigarette addicts are required to smoke in the connecting area between two compartments. The problem is: the train is air-conditioned, and the fume can easily enter the compartments. Some sly smokers even smoke in the compartment when the conductors are not in sight.
- The foods on the train are lousy and expensive. I could never understand why they can’t make it expensive and edible, or make it cheap and tasty to sell more and gain more profits. You tell me.
Ok, so much about my accounts about the unpleasantness of train rides in China. However, like anything I said about China, this post does not mean to slight my motherland, but to point out the areas for future improvement. Foreigner traveling by train in China has to bear one thing in mind: one cannot claim to have seen seen China without riding a train on her vast land. On a train, you see the real Chinese people, see the most beautiful and the ugliest along the railway, eat what they eat and breathe what they breathe. If you speak Chinese, you will learn so much from your conversations with these ordinary Chinese people.