What with the flurry of adventures and discoveries that came with my China trip, I never got around to telling you about one of the items I managed to cross off my 101 Things List. It was number 72: go on an overnight train journey.
I love trains. I’m not the biggest fan of flying, mainly because of the hassle that comes with airports and security and baggage restrictions and having to be there ages before your flight. I don’t like buses because I’m terrible at working out where I’m supposed to get out. I don’t like travelling by car unless I’m driving. But I do love trains. And train stations, for some reason. I can’t quite explain it – being in a train station just gives me a wonderful traveller buzz of excitement. Plus, you always know where you’re meant to get out, and you know that the train will stop, eliminating the whole “should I press the stop button, or do they not do that here?” dilemma.
China’s railway stations are like none I’ve ever seen before. Trains are the most popular mode of transport in the country, with Chinese people crowding into the stations every night to get on to the overnight services to various cities. Like pretty much every place I encountered during my stay, the stations are jam-packed with people and all the noise and shoving that goes along with that.
Getting a ticket can be tricky. The station in Beijing had a window with a sign saying “Ticket sales for foreign people”, but I soon discovered that that just meant that the person behind the window was able to understand and respond “no” to the question “Do you speak English?”. Never mind. Not being able to speak the same language ceased to cause me panic a very long time ago, you know. With some miming and plenty of pointing to Chinese translations of various words in my guide book, I got myself a ticket for the sleeper train to Xi’an the next night.
Riding on an overnight train is something I’ve always wanted to do. I was prepared for cockroaches and overflowing toilets and dirty sheets. I was not, however, prepared for the madness that was the train station when I arrived for my journey. For a start, security is very strict in China. You have to go through a baggage check just to get into the subway, for crying out loud! Which I must admit became very irritating after about the fourth or fifth journey in one day. And as for the train station… you can’t even get in unless you’ve bought a ticket in the separate ticket building (which you have to do a few days in advance because all the trains are usually fully booked), and you have to go through a security checkpoint no different from an airport one. Bags, metal detectors, pat-downs, the works.
Once in, you have to keep moving or you’ll just be trampled or glared at. A little frustrating when you haven’t a clue where you’re going, can’t read the signs, and just want to stop and get your bearings. But rather than being annoyed, I was thrilled by the hustle and bustle all around me. I ducked into the first space I could find, which happened to be a huge indoor market. This was a little strange to me, having never seen a market in a train station before, but it was fun to look around and stand at a cart having a quick and heavenly noodle snack before my trip.
I worked out that rather than just going to the platform as in any other train station I’ve been in, you have to instead go to a departure gate – again, just like at an airport. They even have VIP lounges and soft seat lounges and lounges for mothers with babies. Each lounge contains vast numbers of people waiting for up to 6 different trains, and you don’t get to go to your platform (via yet another ticket check and security checkpoint) until it’s announced that your train has arrived. Not that I heard any such announcement, of course, since it was all gobbledegook to me – I just wandered hopefully up to the turnstile man every five minutes until finally he nodded and let me through.
I was a little confused about where to go once on the train, as the only things I could read on my ticket were the numbers. I identified the departure time, and was assuming the other figures were the arrival time, but they turned out to be my carriage and bed numbers. No one spoke English, and the stewardess at the door just motioned me onwards, ignoring or not understanding my “where?” gesture. Not to be daunted, I just wandered cluelessly up and down the train passage until another passenger took pity on me, looked at my ticket, and showed me where I was meant to go.
I found myself in a snug little room with an electric heater, four bunks, crisp white bed linen, heavy blankets, flasks of hot and cold water, and a cute little vase of flowers on a tiny bedside table. Where were my cockroaches and stains?! I decided not to protest, and settled into my bunk to watch with interest the goings-on prior to departure.
There were whistles and Chinese announcements and clinking beverage carts and also some kind of operatic music being piped through the tannoy system. I had roommates, all strangers to each other, although they made a little small talk before the train set off. I did feel a bit awkward and out of the loop, as I could only sit there and smile politely – one guy tried to include me in the conversation, but quickly and understandably gave up and ignored me when he realised that I didn’t speak the language.
When we departed, all there was to do was read or sleep. I slept. Not particularly well, right enough, but I slept. It was a strange experience, being tucked up in my bed in a room smaller than my bathroom, with three complete strangers surrounding me. The train clack-a-clacked its way through the dark countryside, and I woke up to find myself in Xi’an.
I enjoyed the experience, but I couldn’t help feeling that this was one situation where having travelling companions would have made it a lot better. Usually, I’m pretty well suited to solo travelling. I like having the freedom to go where I want, when I want – to stop and take it all in when I feel like it, or get sidetracked by something that my companions would probably hurry past, or go somewhere different at the last minute. I like not having to talk, for the most part – and when I do need company, I know that I can generally rely upon hooking up with some other solo travellers at the hostel. But being cooped up in that little room with complete strangers with whom I didn’t share a single word in common was a bit of a downer. I couldn’t help but think that it would be a whole lot of fun to have McBouncy and The Sister and Becs in there with me – sort of like a novelty sleepover. We’d play travel Scrabble or Jack Change It, talk into the night, have a few drinks, embarrass ourselves by trying to order snacks in Chinese and ending up with 10 extra pillows, throw things at the snorers. Being in there with other solo travellers who were simply making their regular familiar commute just made it seem a bit… ordinary, if you know what I mean.
Sometimes, I do wish one of my close friends would discover a love for travel, and join me on my adventures. Otherwise I’m going to have to seriously consider getting Kat the Cat shipped over here, you know. I suppose that that would at least give me an interesting gimmick for my book…