A Train Journey in China, 2007
Getting around China is very easy these days. The Chinese have always had an excellent railway service and Western countries could improve their services by taking a look at how the Chinese run their national railway system. Buses, taxis and now new, modern aeroplanes are all readily available and relatively cheap.
But my tale is about my first rail trip from Jinhua to Yantai, - a journey time-tabled to take a mere 26 hours. I asked my Chinese companion what types of tickets were available and the corresponding prices.
“Standing, a seat or a bed”.
In an instant and without hesitation I said, “a bed, please!” But being a 52 year old, overweight traveller I was curious to know a little about the other types. Apparently, one can ‘stand’ in the seated carriages for the entire journey if one chooses to do so. Who would be crazy enough to stand for 26 hours? Is it possible? Well, no it isn’t. The standing passengers usually sit, or lay, anywhere they can on the floor where there is a space.
The ‘seats’ were not able to be reserved so they would be allocated on a first-come first-served basis. That means there would be a stampede to get on the train…hmm…I didn’t really fancy being part of that especially as I was towing all my worldly possessions in my suitcase and backpack. I inquired about the bed option next.
“You want bottom, middle or top bed?”, came the reply.
“Are the prices all the same?”, I inquired.
“No. Top ones cheap - bottom ones more money”, my Chinese friend uttered.
There was no way this lad was scaling the inside of any railway carriage! So, we bought two bottom bed tickets.
Trains depart at any hour of day. Ours left at 4pm – a civilised hour and would arrive at 6pm the next day – if they ran on time. Inside our compartment were: six beds, a small (dirty) table, a very large thermos flask containing hot water, and attached to the ceiling, a small fan. We hadn’t rushed to board so when we found our beds the compartment already had four occupants, two of which had made themselves at home on our beds! I was not impressed. I checked our tickets then looked at my companion.
“Ask them to move, please,” I said somewhat tersely.
The look on my face made them move a little quicker than I think than they would have for my companion. The floors were unclean, but after rearranging the other passengers’ items already under our beds, I reluctantly slid our luggage underneath with some difficulty.
The train left on time (not a common occurrence) and we settled down on a rather narrow, uncomfortable bed about 6 feet long by 2 feet wide. I am 6 foot tall and big but I coped.
The lights were due to go out at 10pm so I considered it to be prudent to pay a visit to the facilities. I wish I hadn’t but I knew I needed to. Smelly, unclean, cramped and no toilet paper. Lovely - not! Enough said. When the lights went out the compartment was very dark. The only lighting came from a few small lights on the floor running the length of the corridor.
I was awake before 6am after a restless sleep, but at the hour the train burst into life with several purveyors of food pushing noisy metal trolleys down the corridor. The trolley paused near me. I scanned the items on plastic trays and knew there was nothing there that I could stomach. I shook my head somewhat disappointed.
All was going well until we passed the half-way point then the train stopped in the middle of the countryside. After 15 minutes it recommenced the journey but for the next few hours it repeated this delay several times.
During the day I was entertained by a steady stream of peddlers visiting me. Their wares included: children’s novelties, torches (a little late I thought), socks and books. I flicked through the books, all written in Mandarin, and handed them back. But the seller was most persistent so I bought an A5 sized atlas of China for a modest amount. My purchases also included torches and rather small socks!
Eventually we arrived in Yantai, tired and sticky, at 10pm; some four hours late and thirty hours after we had left Jinhua.
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