Human rights abuses, environmental catastrophes, political repression, global trade malfeasance, and funny accents may be the touchy subjects that spring to mind, or at least pop up when you Google “China + controversy”, but the one thing nobody will ever disagree on when it comes to The Middle Kingdom (as pretentious asses and the Chinese refer to it) is its size. To sum it up, China is… pretty big. Thankfully, due to limitless supplies of concrete and disdain for private property and rural environments, navigating its variegated landscapes has been greatly simplified for those with the time, interest, and Ramen reserves. We sort of found ourselves in such a category, and experienced the majority of our China Trip from the glamorous inside of a train carriage.
Chinese trains, like any good People’s Rail-Based-Or-Otherwise Movement Devices, aren’t carved into such inhumane, capitalist differentions as “classes”. That said, if you have more money than the Chang next door, you can access a different type of seat, probably more comfortable and private, than the hard, spit-stained, curried chicken foot-littered bench he’s riding. We didn’t know much about the seat system in China upon arriving in Urumqi, but we quickly and painfully learned to tell them apart. In terms of descending price, they are:
Sleepers – Divided into Soft and Hard, the soft gives you your own cabin and only three cabin-mates, with the possibility of a nicer (at least for an hour or so) toilet than the less-expensive hard, which slops you somewhere in a two-row-by-three-tier bunk that’s open to the entire carriage, usually within earshot of old men expelling the contents of their respiratory system (or worse) into the sink areas that separate the train cars.
Seats – Divided into Soft, which we never rode in and assume are softer versions of Hard, a car lined by two rows of thinly vinyled benches that face each other, with small, usually useless tables interrupting the already minimal legspace of the passengers. Oftentimes, more tickets than seats will be sold, and the aisles of the Hard class will be filled with both enormous bags full of produce or clothing and shifty-eyed squatters hoping to snag a seat, or at least cram onto (or under) any iota of bench that reveals itself.
Ultimately, what these designations have in common is that no matter where you find yourself, you will be assailed every hour of daylight, and most of those of night-lack-of-light by train employees pushing carts full of packaged food and jewelry, announcing their presence in ear-piercing, monotonous shrieks. Also, overwhelming wafts of pee-smell will pass by you at any given moment. Also-also, music like this will rain down upon you from hidden speakers:
And now, on with the list of occurrences!
Almaty – Urumqi – 33 Hours, Soft Sleeper
Our two day ride into China ultimately betrayed us, instilling a false sense of security regarding any future travel in China. The train was Soft Sleeper only, which cost $118 and thereby weeded out the riff raff (i.e. locals who weren’t involved in some kind of high-profit smuggling). In any case, the ride was pleasant, punctuated by stark desert vistas, our train being lifted into the air and put onto axles of a new gauge, Chinese border guards expressing their admiration of Obama (presumably because he’s a communist), and dull conversations with our bunkmate Alvira, a Kazakh university student in Beijing.
During the ride, we made friends with an eight-year-old Kazakh boy with limited English skills, who dragged Steve into his bunk to watch old Wrestlemania videos on a laptop alongside his mother and violent five year old sister. When his sister’s assaults on Steve became too noisy, all three were kicked out by Mom. The WWE party moved into our bunk, where Devon and Alvira’s chat was abruptly stopped by Steve’s announcement, “Alright, wrestling time!”
After fifteen minutes of watching The Undertaker pound Rey Mysterio, Steve absconded for a brief few hours. Meanwhile, Devon learned more about our new companion – more specifically, he learned the entire list of black men the boy was conscious of: “Obama!” “Mark Henry (the wrestler)!” all both were paid their dues, and the former was correctly identified, for the fifth or sixth time since our entering Central Asia, as a “musulman”. The list ended on a high note:
“Michael Jordon! He is… uhh… he is great…”
“Yeah,” Devon filled in. “Greatest basketball player of all ti–”
“Black man! He is greatest black man!”
Steve found himself in the company of a three Australians who were members of a large tour group that had crossed Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan by train. The most interesting part of their incredible journey, Steve found, was that they had nothing interesting to say about any of these places. Instead, they mercilessly enthralled him with the wonders of train mechanics in the various Australian railway systems. Then they gave him beer and bread, and fell asleep while he was still in their carriage. So he left. And suddenly, twenty odd hours later, this wonderful little jaunt came to an end.
Urumqi – Xian – 36 Hours, Hard Seat
Jeez. Fucking. Louise. This was a ride that would make a masochistic Bosnian war criminal weep. We purchased our tickets not knowing what riding in a hard seat entailed, let alone a hard seat for a full day and a half. We soon figured it out. At 11PM we entered our train car to find that by some miracle of physics we’d been blasted through time and space onto the holding deck of the Amistad. Three-person benches had been converted into Caligula-esque compost heaps of limbs and laps by the multitude of standing-only ticketholders. The sudden realization of what we had gotten ourselves into was absolutely devastating, but we leapt into action. After deftly kicking a pair of squatters out of our seats (with an arc of the thumb and an “I don’t think so!”) we brought out a Coke and a brand new bottle of Baijiu, the 56% ABV national form of vodka that would be a mainstay of all our future train rides — much to the chagrin of our muslim Uygher benchmates. Godlessly, we cracked into the Baijiu, and our moods and sense of well-being immediately worsened.
At this point — that is, before the train had even left Urumqi, we were already monopolizing the attention of the entire train simply by our very existence. Not once, for the following thirty six hours, was someone not staring at us. One offender in particular, officially deemed “Capuchin Face” due to his proclivity to looking like a monkey, must’ve been working a double shift, because neither of us saw him shift his gaze from us for more than a minute. As we later found out, we were probably the only white people to take this train (and be stupid enough to take seats in this section) in a long time, and were thus a source of wonder for the locals. Unfortunately after being a source of open ridicule for the Central Asian locals for two months, we really weren’t in the mood to switch gears and allow ourselves to be ceaselessly stared at, so instead we made snippy comments that only we could understand, and gave everyone on the train a mean nickname.
The first night’s sleep was nonexistent. Or at the very least, as we had to share a 3 square foot table/makeshift-pillow with two other people’s heads, came in fifteen minute bursts, each ending with our heads falling off of the table and onto our legs, which by now lay cramped and lacking blood flow. Try as we might, any chance of attaining rest was summarily ended at 5:30 in the morning when all the nearby Chinese men commenced a spirited, enigmatic discussion at the top of their fucking lungs.
With the view outside largely a vast, dead grey landscape, we couldn’t even turn to the windows for moments of respite from the carriage’s ambiance. This included, without pause:
Mass spitting of all manner of saliva, mucus, and sunflower seeds directly onto the floor, which was hastily swished around every 40 minutes or so with a mop that had been used to clean the toilets
- Passengers laying down newspapers and sleeping upon the aforementioned floor
- “Shoutie McWongwong”, an exceptionally loud passenger, engaging almost every single surrounding individual in a screaming match at some point on the ride
- Smooth jazz blasting sporadically from the train’s distorted, buzzing speakers
- A howling, morbidly obese infant being constantly breastfed by a mother whose t-shirt milkstains served only to draw attention away from her face, which looked like a beetle larva with Down Syndrome
- Of course, the legendary “Nutkin Family” sitting in front of us
Needless to say, we immediately instituted two new rules for Chinese trains: (1) No hard seats over 10 hours. (2) More booze.
A welcome return to semi-comfort, the only thing notable on this ride was that Steve clipped his toenails in the car.
Also, we got a glimpse of the fairly horrid factory-filled landscapes of northern China, and arrived in Datong in time for an impromptu amateur firework display in the middle of the day that terrified everyone. [AUDIO http://www.archive.org/download/DatongFireworks/DatongFireworks.mp3%5D
Datong – Beijing – 8 Hours, Hard Seat, Night Train
The Baijiu flowed freely this night, and with good reason, since we were back on a bench. This new development in turn initiated the first of several unprecedented, late-night-train-ride-based Steve Kaye Feelings Revealment sessions, the contents of which have thankfully been largely lost to time. Once again, we overestimated our abilities to sleep on a hard seat — though Steve did attempt to sleep while slumped over Devon’s back, as Devon too slumped, perpendicular, on the small table in front of us.
At our destination, we still had several hours before we were supposed to call our intended CouchSurfing host, thus from 5 to 8 in the morning, we lay passed out on the floor of Beijing’s Western train station, providing many a local with their daily dose of shameful Westerner behavior.
Beijing – Shanghai – 14 Hours, Standing Room Ticket, Night Train
When the Book of Revelations becomes fact and everyone is thrust into a Heironymous Bosch painting, torn limb from limb by six-headed wolves in the morning, reassembled, dumped in acid, then raped by fork-phallused Flamingo-Demons in the evening, Devon and Steve won’t bat an eyelid. Not after this train ride.
That gut-churning trepidation with which we’d bought these tickets was immediately justified upon entering our traincar. In the entire train, there was no more than seven inches of free space to be had, so we quickly set about scrounging up enough carpet to huddle and try to sleep. Among the several hundred people cramming us into our physiologically-unsound positions were an otherwise shapely girl with the facial features of a chimpanzee, a white guy who spoke English but didn’t talk to us the entire time, and a woman in her thirties who shamelessly spread out across the floor and would kick anyone who invaded her ample legroom (although Steve did kick her backside a few times).
While Devon was busy neither sleeping nor going to the bathroom for fourteen hours, Steve had through sheer will attained a contortionist’s flexibility and shoved his upper torso underneath the seat behind him, his legs in the opposing benches, with his stomach spanning the aisle. With other people’s jackets and food cushioning his back, he was able to relax to the point that he could sleep. However, after forty-five minutes of this, his legs would cramp up and he’d awake to find himself underneath a seat on a Chinese train, of all places, unable to breath. Much flailing and general freaking out would follow, and he’d have to force Devon aside, wriggle out of his cave to shake the blood back into his limbs. Then repeat.
The final three hours of the train ride, a new influx of old people rendered our sitting room unsustainable, and we were forced to read in order to distract ourselves from our surroundings while standing up, leaning against the neighboring seats. Our elderly companions would have none of this, and in the final hour and a half our area on which to lean upon was colonized in true Han fashion. We thus entered Shanghai in one of the worst moods of the trip, yelling at about six locals in the space of an hour for either cutting us in line, charging us an exorbitant amount for leaving our luggage, or honking at us when we jaywalked. There was no Baijiu on this trip. There should’ve been.
Shanghai – Kunming – 36 hours, Hard Sleeper
We started this one off with a defeat, by going to the wrong train station in Shanghai. That resulted in a high-speed taxi across the city in a misguided attempt to catch our train, screaming obscenities at our driver as he refused to start driving, demanding payment up front so, when we inevitably missed our train, he’d have already bilked us out of a whopping $20, which he ultimately did. We managed to get seats on the next day’s train, but this entailed us being separated into different carriages. Bereft and exposed to the hard sleeper car elements, we both struggled mightily against the loneliness with the aid of Jon Krakauer, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and Tsingtao beer. Both nights ended in highly animated, Baijiu-induced bullshit sessions that greatly-to-not-at-all amused the nearby Chinese men.
But all was not peachy and drunk on this ride, as both of us had strange encounters with the train’s younger passengers. In car 13, Devon found himself cast into the lair of a nine-year-old who had been rendered incapable of both speaking at a decibel level below “Jet Engine” and not speaking for more than four seconds by some tragic genetic mishap. That mishap of course being that his parents were lazy and stupid, neither giving him any form of entertainment for the ride, nor telling him to shut the hell up. Thankfully Devon took up that post, and with the boy produced a call-and-response game in which the boy would shout something indecipherable, and Devon would playfully respond with, “OHHHHHGODDDSHUTTTTUPPPP!!!” It wasn’t pretty. Or successful.
In car 12, Steve was busy being bombarded with baby butthole. By some sick act of providence, five separate times during the journey, when he was in the sink area between cars, his field of vision was suddenly invaded by a mother — the same mother every time — carrying her infant son facing her, his pants down and ass cheeks spread brazenly, exposing every possible surface of skin that nobody needed to see. She’d then daintily hover him over the drain in the floor and allow him to blast the entire area with sweet, precious liters of babypee. The fourth time this incident repeated itself, Steve graciously suggested, “Christ! Why don’t you just have him piss in the fucking sink?” to which the mother made a loud nasally sound and sneered at him. He wrote a letter to her explaining how she had erred as a mother, and left it on her seat that night. Thus we ended the ride on a victorious note.
Lijiang – Kunming – 10 Hours, Hard Seat, Day Train
The ride started off pleasantly enough, with the Chinese couple opposite us dishing out dried soybeans, peanuts, and curried chicken feet just because they liked our facial hair, and we liked their cowboy hats. As soon as they left us, three hours in, our attention shifted to the young couple and their irritable toddler sitting across the aisle from us. For the next seven hours we were mesmerized by this public, highly stylized interpretation of the meaning of misery. A nonstop display of bawling, slapping, shouting, cooing, grunting, shaking, shaming, threatening, snapping, pinching, self-absorbed primping, and overall lack of empathy, this was the consummate parental performance that we saw in China. It combined every element of the paternal instincts we’d observed on all previous train rides:
-expecting children to handle boredom the same way as adults
-expecting children not to wander about or misbehave because they’re bored
-expecting children not to cry because they’re sitting on an uncomfortable bench for hours at a time
-expecting children to not scream louder in confusion when their sources of food and shelter and love slap them for crying because they’re bored and uncomfortable
It unlocked a soul-dredging sense of horror we hadn’t felt in a long time. Thank God we had Baijiu to take the edge off.
Kunming – Guangzhou/Hong Kong – 25 Hours, Hard Sleeper
Brandishing new haircuts, a greater appreciation of China, and a bag full of dumplings, we were ready to move onto greater, Hong Kongese pastures as new, bolder men who had experienced tremendous personal growth through their experiences over the past month.
Instead, we got stinking drunk on Baijiu, spilled beer all over an old woman, and woke up tremendously hungover and embarrased.
But at least there was some nice scenery.