A night train moving across China is perhaps travel at its best.
One of my first loves of travel is waking up early in the morning on the tail end of an overnight train or bus journey. You open your eyes, transition from the dreamland of sleep to the dreamland of travel, remind yourself what you are doing cramped into a moving vehicle with a gaggle of other uncomfortably contorted strangers, look out the window and remember where it is that you are going, re-calibrate for your new position on the map, and take in the full effect of having been transported to another world as you slept. This momentary discombobulating feeling of vertigo makes travel seem like a mystery again, as though you are on the verge of a surprise. You are. Ride a train or a bus overnight just about anywhere in the world and it is almost a guarantee that the landscape you wake up to will be vastly different than the one you last looked out at before falling off to sleep.
I was traveling from Taizhou in Jiangsu province to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei. It was slated to be an eleven hour ride, and the train left at just the right time to make the jaunt a true over-nighter: I boarded around 7:30 PM and would arrive a little before 7 AM. Perfect: this train is a moving hotel.
The last thing I looked out upon the night before was the train station at Fuyang. We were sitting idle in a station for far longer than what is warranted to drop off and pick up passengers, and I got annoyed that the steady beat of chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk that had rocked me to sleep had come to an extended halt. I got curious that something interested may have been outside, and I am extremely poor at putting down this feeling — even if it means waking up from a comfortable sleep and stumbling through a train of snoring Chinese. I jumped down from my bunk and rushed for a window.
Outside was one of the most forlorn places this country has to offer. If any place in the deserves to be called forsaken it is this Fuyang. Over a three year period at the end of the 1950s two million people reportedly starved to death here. It was the height of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the worst famine in modern history was in full effect. The death rate during this time in this city was higher than in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Then, in the 1990s, widespread blood selling programs lead to entire villages here being infected with HIV. In 2003, the contaminated milk scandal — where 189 babies grew abnormally large heads and suffered malnutrition, of which 12 perished — had its epicenter in the place I was looking out upon. In 2008, an outbreak of hand, foot, and mouth disease infected 3,000 children, killing 20. Add to this a string of major government corruption cases thrown into the mix (some resulting in executions) and Fuyang has perhaps earned its reputation as a “wounded city.”
Lets get out of here.
It was now morning on this train and everybody was getting out of their bunks, putting clothes on over their long underwear, opening packages of dehydrated noodles, and heading to the bathrooms. I avoided the later for as long as possible, as I know what is done to these places at this time. I will put it this way: if missed marks are frequent during the best of times on Chinese trains, mornings seem to be when the collective aim is at its worse. But no missed-mark on this train was perhaps as bad for me as the one that occurred on my bunk before I got to it.
When I boarded this train the night before the conductor hesitated and got really nervous when I handed her my ticket. On long train journeys, the conductors also serve as babysitters for the passengers in their car. It is usually a standard procedure when getting on a sleeper car to give the conductor your ticket and receive a plastic card with your bunk number on it in return. This is so you don’t lose your ticket and so the conductor can make sure you get off the train at your stop. Yes, they actually wake you up when you’re close to arriving. This may seem at first like a kind service, but actually there is a good chance that another passenger is hop into your berth soon after you leave it.
But this time I handed the lady my ticket and she just stood there nervously repeating my bunk number over and over again as though she was trying to think of a solution for something. I thought that there may have been a straggler left over in my bunk, but she eventually called her meditation to a halt and just handed me my card.
I found what may have been the problem the moment I climbed up into my berth. There was a giant puddle in the middle of it, as though a baby pissed through its split back pants or someone spilled their tea. I wasn’t inclined to stick my nose in it to find out, so I just hoped for the later and covered the mess with the quilt that accompanied my bunk.
You see, though the train attendants usually fold the blankets and make up the berths between passengers, the sheets and blankets are only changed once every time the train travels down and then back up its line. As rail lines in China are often 1,000 plus kilometers long, this means that many passengers share the same linens. One gets out of a bunk and another jumps in without a change of sheets, blankets, or pillow cases. So unless you are the first passenger in your bunk at the start of the first run down the line you are more than likely going to crash out in a bed someone else was just chilling’ in.
No problem, this is travel. The worse that I have ever found before in these pre-enjoyed berths were food smears, errant soda bottles, crumbs, and maybe a newspaper or some garbage. This time though it could have been a piss puddle. Oh well, it did not absorb through the blanket. Peace.
Regardless of where my place is on a train though, I can most often be found in the dining car. Riding here is pure travel luxury — well, if you think talking with the train’s crew, greasy cooks, under-worked waitresses, and the occasional train cop as they hang out together smoking cigarettes in a closed compartment is fun.
Besides these companions, who often just sit around talking about me or throw thousand yard stares into the distance, the real reason why I like riding in the dining car — other than the over-priced, ill-prepared, and occasionally gut wrenching food of course — is that I can sit right next to a big window before a table, watch the scenery pass and write. A train can easily be transformed into a moving office, and I spread out my notebooks, my tablet, and my mobile over the table, and dig into some work. Moving and working at the same time is perhaps the quintessential action of the digital nomad, so much so that it is almost lamely typical — kind of like a businessman in an airport talking shop loudly into his phone as though it impresses the lay passengers within earshot.
Often, the dining car is also not really a very popular place between meal times — mostly because it is expensive to eat there — and I can recline in comfort with my legs stretched out and enjoy the ride. In point, being able to look out a window at the passing terrain, having a locked-in group of people (the staff) to shoot questions at, and being able to write up at a table makes the dining car experience almost worth the bloated price of the food I sometimes need to buy to sit there.
On this train though I did not want to buy any food. I tried to get away with just ordering a beer, but immediately I knew it wasn’t going to work. Oftentimes, the dining car staff doesn’t give a shit that I am just hanging out; other times they make me pay 10 RMB for a “cup of tea;” once in a while they tell me to buy food or hit the road.
On this train, the dining car was full of hard seat passengers who were trying to escape an overnight ride in stellar discomfort. The hard seat cars on this train were overflowing with seat-less passengers, and those with a few coins in their pockets and a few brains in their heads were filing into the dining car. It was a buy some food or get out type of scenario. I weighed my options, and as I was already being crowded out of my table by a fat couple with a baby and a mass of luggage coupled with the fact that it was dark outside so there wouldn’t be much to look at I decided to retreat to my berth, feeling grateful that I wasn’t taking this trip as a seat-less refugee.
I clamored up into my bunk, which was the top one — the most undesirable by Chinese standards, the one preferred by me. There are six bunks per berth in hard sleeper class on a Chinese train. They are stacked three high, one across from another. I don’t aim to ride in the top bunk because it is a little cheaper, but because it lends for a more comfortable ride — well, once you have climbed up to it, which requires the agility of a monkey and a short prayer. Up in the top bunk, there is only one person on the train that can see you, and that is the person in the top bunk directly across from you. So you have a good deal more privacy and far less distractions. There is nobody walking by you, nobody clambering over you, nobody sitting down on your feet or hanging out on your bunk, no crowds gawking at and talking about you because you look a little different than them. You are pretty much up at the level of the luggage rack when in the top bunk, and can ride across the country just as inconspicuously.
This ride, the first trip I’ve taken in three weeks, was pure travel perfection. There is perhaps nothing that I know that is more enjoyable than riding through the night across a massive country in a train. The chunk-chunk, chunk chunk of the wheels on the rails becomes the same rhythm as your pulse and the churning of your thoughts. Everything calibrates and soon you are dreaming.
I switched worlds by morning. I was no longer in the eastern plains of China but in the foothills of the central highlands. The same small rice paddies and mini-farms still abounded, but they were interspersed with uncultivated hills that sprouted patches of woods and green space. In fact, green was everywhere. It was as spring should be. The varying and contending shades of green created a luminescence effect in the dewy morning light. The frog-hued fields seemed to glow, the serpentine hills radiated. Whoever travels across central China and calls it barren either took their trip in winter or spent all their time peering into their personal electronic devices, missing the colorful magnificence of the agricultural spring.
Chinese people do not seem to be overtly inclined to look out the windows on train journeys. Unless passing something magnificent or some kind of catastrophe — like an accident or the after effects of a factory explosion or something — they tend to look at me like I am cracked when I glue myself to the window, locked on to the scenery passing by. Maybe they are wondering what I think is so interesting out there, more than likely they are probably wondering why I am not playing Angry Birds on my mobile.
The passengers on these trains seen to be on their smartphones and tablets whenever they are not eating chicken feet, in the John, or in between the cars smoking cigarettes. From time to time, I look over their shoulders at what it is they are so intently focused on, and find that it is more often than not a game or a movie. Seriously, just about everybody on these trains have their own personal entertainment centers. Woe be the passenger who runs out of battery life mid-trip. Games and movies, this is truly the reason we advanced communications technology this far.
I can remember a time in the early to mid 2000s when I used to talk with the people that I bunked with on these trains across China. Not anymore. Now whenever we feel socially awkward we no longer have the impulse to make small talk; no, we just crunch up over our devices, unfurl our social palisades, and go into the private worlds of our own personal entertainment devices. Me too, I guess.
I am not sure if I really wanted to speak with the bunch I bunked with last night anyway. After listening to the one across from me snore and fart all night the inclination to start up a conversation was at an all time low. After being robbed of sleep by suctiony, gurgly snores and whip-cracking wind breaks I ready to get off that train ride.