A peek at Wuhan as I connect to another train and head into the heart of China.
Until the next time I visit, Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, will remain in my mind as the place I yelled at a bum who was trying to steal my coffee in a McDonalds and I realized how truly awesome the Chinese language is for reprimanding people. I almost frighten myself each time I raise my voice in this language, as it is spoken from the back of the mouth and can be given gruff aspirations and guttural growls with ease. By comparison, English is a Nancy tongue: flabby, weak, and spat out from the front of the mouth with the momentum of a spit ball.
Well, this will be my memory of Wuhan coupled with the fact that I found out the hard way that it is another car-choked, old Chinese city that is currently giving urban designers headaches as to how to adapt it to the automobile age.
Many cities in China are solving this problem by building massive new urban districts adjacent to, rather than on the ruins of, the old. More than likely, Wuhan has similar plans in the works, as there is a reason why China is awash with new cities being build from scratch that goes beyond inflating GDP, boosting employment, and making officials look good. Many of China’s older cities are simply not built for a society where large numbers of people are driving personal automobiles, and the result is all too often gridlock. The new cities are built for tons of traffic and are meant to act as pressure release valves, freeing the old cities from the surge of cars that they cannot comfortably contain.
I had to transfer from Hankou station to Wuchang, a move that would pretty much take me across the city. Wuhan is historically three different cities separated by the Yangtze and Han rivers that grew together. I took the metro for most of the way and then emerged roughly two or three kilometers from the station. The line that goes all the way to the station is still in the process of being constructed, so I initially endeavored to just walk this span. I was not really in a hurry, my only preference was to make Changsha by nightfall, and it was still early in the day.
I began walking, but the jam packed highway-landia coupled with road-side construction demanded that I trod in the road. Not a good place to be, not only for safety reasons but because of sensual ones as well: it’s just not enjoyable walking down a crowded highway where cars are roaring past you on one side and the jackhammers are going full tilt on the other. A taxi would cost about a buck, and I am not so tight-fisted as to not not pay this small amount to be out of that situation.
That was until I got in a cab and we started moving — or, I should say, started sitting.
I became convinced that the pace of traffic was slower than that of my natural gait, and I momentarily considered jumping out of the taxi to complete the short journey on foot. But I held my rashness in check, as much out of curiosity of how truly long it would take to go the few blocks to the station as anything else. In the big cities of this world is has become a prevailing myth that cars can always get you to your destination faster. I kicked myself in the ass for not bringing my folding bicycle on this trip.
The taxi inch-wormed through the street and, eventually, I made it to the station.
Getting a ticket to Changsha was standard: wait in line, fight off bumpkins and meatheads who think they have the right away to cut in front of me. I got the ticket for the train I wanted, and a handful of moments later I was rearing to go, sitting in a hard seat bound car bound for Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.
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Riding hard seat — which could rightfully be called steerage — is a different game than hard sleeper. I had just gotten off a train where I comfortably slept in a bunk through the nightt. Travel paradise. In hard seat, which is just a normal seat — it’s really not that hard — the level of comfort is drastically altered.
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First of all, you have to get to your seat and establish yourself as quick as you can. Establishing yourself means getting your luggage in the overhead rack in a place that is above your seat, claiming as much legroom and elbow room for yourself as possible, and stacking out a position on the little table that sticks out from the wall under the window.
There are two ways that the seats in this class can be arranged. The first, which is far more comfortable and less common, is where all the seats face one direction, and you ride looking at the back of the seat in front of you, bus style. The second way, which is horrendous though the most common, is where the seating is arranged in four or six seat blocks, and you face passengers who are facing you. The second way means that your legs are going to be interlocked with those of the passengers in front of you and your elbows and shoulders will vie for space with the passenger next to you.
What is worse about this latter set-up is that your seat shares a back with the passenger behind you (who is facing the opposite direction) so they are solidified in a completely upright position. Basically, sitting in these seats is like sitting in the crotch of the letter L. To put it bluntly, sitting inside of a 90 degree angle for hours and hours on can fatigue even the most hardened traveler. If you get a window seat, you can at least lean up against the wall; if you don’t there is pretty much nothing to rest your body against. Falling asleep in these L seats means toppling forward or to the side. A real shit show.
But, ultimately, hard seat class is not that uncomfortable for daytime journeys. Seriously, if you are conditioned to taking long train journeys these rides are truly nothing to complain about. It is pretty much the standard class that people take for all trips under five hours. It is only on night trains that the hard seat class becomes rather difficult, as it is incredibly challenging to get into a good sleeping position — which is made worse by the glaring lights that don’t dim and train employees loudly hawking junk the entire time.
I entered my car on the Changsha bound train, sat down and roughly knocked the legs of the guy next to me into their rightful position in front of him. I then nudged him over, as his shoulder was crossing the brink between his seat and mine. This is important: it is much easier and sociable to establish your position when you first take your seat rather than at a later point in the trip. The first way is simply seen as taking your seat, the latter way is seen as fighting someone for space.
I then noticed that the two guys in my seating block were nervously glancing at the incoming passengers, and it was clear that they did not have tickets that permitted them to have a seat. One young girl got on and booted the guy next to me out. Then a tried and true dragon lady kicked out his buddy.
“If you don’t have a ticket then why are you sitting in a seat?” the dragon lady snarled at the seatless drifter as he got up and scampered off to another part of the train.
The dragon lady had eyebrows that were intentionally plucked and shaped to come together in a sharp V formation, like an evil cartoon character. Luckily, nobody else her a reason to bite.
Another young woman sat in the seat that was directly in front of me, completing our four passenger seating block. This would be an easy ride, my companions were all apparently urbanized women, so the chance that they were going to smoke cigarettes and get drunk off baijiu and talk about how funny I look the entire trip was drastically reduced. Peace.
Location of this article: Wuhan, Hubei province, China
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