Sorry it took me so long to write this post. I’ve been busy repressing the memories of this horrible experience and trying to forget that it ever happened. It was that bad. In fact, this post has been rated Q for Queasy. The things I am about to describe are not for the faint of heart (or for anyone who just finished eating dinner). Now then…where should I begin?
Originally, I was going to write about our trip to the Longji Rice Terraces that took a few bad turns (as in, our bus driver dropped us off on the side of the road and vaguely pointed to the top of the mountain and said, “It’s up there somewhere. Good luck!” and took off, leaving us standing in the middle of nowhere in the rain). I thought that was bad, but little did I know that getting out of Guilin and back home would be the most traumatic experience in China that I’ve had to date.
The day before our departure, we went to the train station to get a ticket to Shanghai. A girl who was pretty fluent in English came to help us, and we discovered that the train to Shanghai was all sold out. For the next ten days. “What about Hangzhou…do you have a train there?” We asked in desperation. The train to Hangzhou was all sold out…for the next ten days. “It is because of the Chinese New Year,” the girl explained. “Everyone is trying to go back home now.” We’d thought Chinese New Year was all over! If we had any idea getting a ticket would be so difficult, we would have tried to buy one the day we arrived in Guilin!
Our only other options were bus and airplane. We checked some flight prices online, and again, because of the New Year, the tickets had quadrupled in price…we would have had to pay about $400 USD per person. Since we really didn’t care to empty out our entire Chinese bank account just to get back home, we considered taking a bus. We went to the bus station to buy a ticket and….you guessed it…buses to Shanghai and Hangzhou were all sold out for the next several days. An older lady with a very dirty coat who was hanging out in the bus parking lot (and who seemed to be up to no good) overheard us talking about our plight, and she told us she might be able to help. She simply said (in Chinese), “Follow me!” and she started walking. We followed her across the parking lot, down the street, across a four-lane highway, through a tunnel not meant for pedestrian traffic, and finally started to question, “Where are you taking us?” She just repeated, “Follow me,” and continued walking for another two miles. We finally arrived in a parking lot with some large travel buses, and she introduced us to some men inside of a little trailer who were selling bus tickets on the sly. The whole thing seemed very sketchy, with no official bus station or receipt of purchase or guarantee that these guys even owned the buses they were standing in front of. For all we knew, we could pay today (they were demanding 300 RMB from each of us on the spot…only $45 USD, but a pretty hefty price for a Chinese bus ticket), and when we showed up to this same parking lot in the morning, they might be nowhere to be found! Plus, I couldn’t imagine spending twenty hours overnight on a bus. So uncomfortable! There must be another way home!
We asked a man working at a nearby tourism agency for some advice. We had consulted him multiple times during our stay in Guilin, and he always seemed to have excellent tips (and he spoke excellent English, which is always helpful). He told us a secret: even though the train appears to be sold out on the giant electronic board in the ticket office, the truth is, there are always a few beds left unoccupied. He said the train companies do this just in case someone “important” arrives at the last minute—a government official, a celebrity, or “laowai” (foreigners) such as us who are willing to slip the conductor some extra cash to make an upgrade. “How do we speak to the conductor if we have no ticket?” Justin asked. The agent told him to purchase a ticket for a hard seat, and then upgrade once we get onto the train. “But the hard seats are also sold out!” Justin said. “You can purchase a standing ticket—those are always available,” the man said. And we returned to the train station with renewed hopes.
“Standing ticket” sounds something like “standby,” right? I’ve flown that way on planes before. However, we discovered when we boarded the train the following evening that a standing ticket on a Chinese train means that literally you’ll be standing for the duration of the trip. We thought maybe they would have some extra chairs (a footstool, even!) for the people who had purchased standing tickets, but as we looked around and scanned the tickets being held by nearby passengers, we saw that they had all been assigned seats on the train and we had not. But it’s no problem, right? I just had to somehow wedge my giant luggage through the twelve-inch-wide aisle (and around the people who had already chosen their prime standing positions and were not going to move out of the aisle, even if I struggled with my suitcase while trying to pass). The luggage racks seemed to already be completely full, and the hard benches already completely occupied by people. But it’s no problem, right? Because Justin just needed to go find the conductor and talk to him, and we’d be out of this sardine can in no time.
I felt a little bit uncomfortable when Justin left me to go find the conductor. You know that paranoid feeling you sometimes get when you have on a new outfit you’re unsure about or a bad haircut, and you feel as if everyone is staring at you? Well, literally, everyone was staring at me. In fact, the moment Justin and I stepped on board was similar to that moment you see in so many western films when the out-of-town cowboy swings open the doors to the saloon, and every patron in the establishment drops their beer mugs in unison and stares open-mouthed at his silhouette in the doorway. All conversation stopped for a moment, and as I started making my way through the crowded aisle, they started to whisper excitedly amongst themselves, “Laowai! Laowai!” As if anyone could have missed my entrance! Apparently, “laowai” do not often use this mode of transportation…
Justin returned to the train with a disappointed expression on his face. Apparently, the conductor was in no mood to bargain or see how much money Justin was about to pull out of his wallet; he simply said, “We don’t have any beds,” and dismissed Justin with an impatient wave of his hand. I looked around the train car at the people who were still staring at me, some quickly dropping their cell phones in hopes that I didn’t notice they were about to take a picture; I glanced at the man sitting only a few feet away, looking me up and down hard while he cleaned out his ear with his pinkie fingernail. I began to internally panic—there was no way I could spend twenty hours on this train! “Don’t cry, Rachel,” I heard Justin say. “Please don’t cry…You have that look on your face. We’ll figure something out,” he said. As if to confirm that he was wrong, the train lurched to a start.
One hour later, a lady sitting near me had offered to share the edge of her bench so that I could sit down. We had found a place for three pieces of our luggage in the racks, but the one giant suitcase would have to stay on the floor and serve as a makeshift chair for Justin. Justin had also made friends with a boy about our age sitting nearby, who didn’t speak much English, but he had a brother who was fluent, and he called up his brother and put Justin on the phone with him. The three of them worked together for a while to resolve the bed situation, and they found the conductor again and pleaded with him, but it was all no use. I tried to make myself as comfortable as I could on the bench seat, but there was only enough room for me to sit half on/half off, and I felt like my rear was going numb. I also had to brace myself with my legs to avoid falling off of the chair as we rumbled over the train tracks, which was difficult to do as there were so many people passing through the aisle. There was no way for me to sit still; each time a person had to get through the aisle, I had to rearrange myself to give them enough room to pass by. I started timing it, and we couldn’t get two minutes of peace before someone was bumping us trying to pass through the aisle. I saw the same man in a Hawaiian shirt pass through the aisle multiple times within the same hour. “What’s wrong with them?” I asked aloud. “Can’t anyone sit still?” Justin answered, “They’re all going to the kettle to get hot water.” And I saw that he was right. Everyone had something that required hot water: a bowl of noodles, a bottle of tea, a can of soup, etc. “Can’t anyone pack a sandwich?” Justin complained after someone stepped on his foot for the fifteenth time. In fact, Chinese people don’t seem to know the concept of “travel snacks.” Maybe we just enjoy our junk food, but when Americans travel, we bring food that comes in packages or bags; we like foods that can be eaten quickly and easily, with one hand remaining on the steering wheel of the car. However, Chinese people love messy foods like oranges, sunflower seeds, cherries with pits, chicken wings, noodles, and eggs. Healthier choices, to be sure, but the downside is that they’re also not fond of using trash cans. By the end of our long voyage, the floor was covered in a sea of orange peels, sunflower seeds, chicken bones, spit, and cigarette butts.
Later on that night, I saw a gaunt-faced boy say something to his father, and the father rummaged around in his suitcase until he found a plastic grocery bag. Oh man….that can’t be good. Moments later, as the train came to a stop (one of thirty stops it made during the duration of the trip), the boy started vomiting copious amounts of milk tea and ramen noodles into the bag. Ugh…nothing makes me feel sicker than watching someone else be sick. However, quite a lot of it managed to land on the floor instead of inside the bag, which was really poor timing as there were several passengers who had just started boarding the train. Either they didn’t see all the sick on the floor or they didn’t care, but in any case, they trampled through it and tracked it all down the aisle of the train. I think they even managed to get some on the suitcase Justin was using as a chair, though I would have to take a sample to the science lab to really ascertain the source of the disgusting mystery goo left behind on my wheels.
The only sanctuary that I could possibly find on this train would be sleep. I wanted to fall asleep, escape this horrible place for a few hours, and dream that I was somewhere else. However, the cart lady seemed determined to steal even that little bit of solace away from me. Every thirty minutes or so, the cart lady would squeeze her way through the twelve-inch aisle to sell her wares to the passengers aboard the train. Sometimes it was disgusting Chinese snacks like marinated chicken feet in a bag (ahhh…there’s the bagged snack I was waiting for!) or cans of slimy soup. Other times it was magazines and toothbrushes. I was always amazed that she was able to make it through the aisle, no matter how physically impossible it may seem. There were suitcases in the way and people in the way who oftentimes had no alternative space to stand in to get out of her path. However, she would just ram her cart over and over against whatever obstruction was lying in her path (“Oh, was that your foot I just smashed those last ten times? My mistake!”) until her cart found a clear path to move ahead another few inches. In case you didn’t realize that the cart lady was making her way through the train car, if you somehow missed the passengers crying out in pain or swearing under their breath in Chinese, she would also call out in a nasally, grating voice, “Lai la! Lai la!” which translates into “I’m coming! I’m coming!” At some point during the night, I think I fell into a dream about being on the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter. It’s a lovely train that has private compartments and I imagine it to smell of cinnamon, apples, and fresh parchment for the new school year. There is a sweet, plump old lady who pushes her cart through the aisles of the Hogwarts Express and sings out in her British accent, “Anything off the trolley, dears?” She has all kind of delicious cakes and candies for sale, and I was just remembering when Harry enthusiastically responds, “We’ll take the lot!” when the cart lady on the real train jolted me awake by ramming me in the ankle with her cart. I received no apology (or even a look of regret on her face)! She just continued making her way down the aisle, shouting, “Lai la! Lai la!” while I rubbed my ankle and looked at my watch, noting that it was 3:30 AM and this lady felt the urgent need to run over all of the sleeping passengers in case anyone was in the market for a pack of cigarettes or some playing cards.
The following morning, Justin and I hoped that some passengers would be getting off the train at some of the stops, and possibly, by the end of the trip, the compartment would be feeling a bit more empty and comfortable. However, the inverse was true; at every stop, many more passengers kept boarding the train, and no one was getting off. By the time we reached the final two hours of our trip, our train car was so full that people were trying to devise ways to sit on top of the luggage racks. I had also reached the horrible conclusion that even though I had successfully gone fourteen hours without using the restroom, my bladder wasn’t going to be able to hold out much longer, and I would have to use the restroom on the train. I was feeling very grumpy as I made my way to the back of the train car, which required all of my skills in contortionism and gymnastics to get around the passengers lumped in the aisle. I could smell the bathroom long before I could actually see it. I tried to hold my breath, but I had to wait a long time in line (and people kept jumping ahead of me in line before I finally got aggressive about it), so eventually I had to breathe. You probably don’t want to hear about it, but the train restroom was nothing more than a hole in the floor that led to the train tracks below. There was no sink, no soap, and no toilet paper. People also seemed to have a lot of difficulty aiming into the hole; whether from the constant motion of the train or from lack of manners, there were traces of urine and feces everywhere, making it impossible to find a clean place to step. When I left the restroom and made my way back to the seat, I finally took a big breath of fresh air, and a passenger standing nearby used that opportune moment to turn towards me and cough directly into my open mouth. I think that’s the point when I stopped feeling like a person and started feeling like I was nothing more than livestock in a stable car.
During the duration of the trip (which lasted six hours longer than we had expected it to—surprise!), I was spit on, snotted on and burped on. My head pounded from the passengers around me who smoked one cigarette after the next—towards the end of the trip, there was a layer of smoke near the ceiling so heavy that it obstructed the entire luggage rack from view. The cart lady rammed me a dozen more times with her cart, and the man with the Hawaiian shirt came bumbling through the aisle fifty more times to get hot water from the kettle. I got about two hours of sleep total, partly due to the multiple screaming babies aboard the train, and every time I woke up, it was to find someone intensely studying me. I felt completely violated—my privacy completely invaded, and could do nothing but count down the hours until we were to step off the train.
But I wasn’t too grumpy to take a moment to pray. Not just for patience (which I really REALLY needed!), but to thank God that I was raised in a country with so many comforts. So many times during this trip, I felt panicked and had to stop myself from crying. But none of the other passengers felt alarmed! Riding this way is normal and routine for them. Thank God that I come from a country where traveling this way is most definitely not the norm! In America, there would be lawsuits and huge settlements awarded over people being treated this way on public transportation. I don’t think PETA would even allow animals to be transported in such close quarters! But in America, I suppose we take a lot of things for granted. Thank God I come from a place where hot water is a given, right along with central heat and air. Everyone in China is used to going without these things—it’s just normal. And I can complain about my horrible train ride and any other uncomfortable experience I have while I’m in China, but the truth is, in just a few months I will be back in America, living in comfort once again, while the people in China will continue living this way for the rest of their lives.
But they don’t complain about their circumstances. It’s no big deal to them. They may be a bit unhygienic at times, but we have met some really kind people in this country. Who else would have shared a seat on the train (that they paid extra for) with a strange foreigner? Had the tables been turned, I certainly wouldn’t have. I would have spread out and gotten as comfortable as possible. Rather, the lady who shared her seat with me instructed her eight-year-old son to sit on her lap (for 15+ hours!) to give me some room to sit down. The guy who tried to help Justin find a bed earlier continued to help us after we got off of the train. He called up his English-speaking brother to come meet us and they both spent the next two hours paying for taxis and going all around town with us trying to help us find a hotel that wasn’t completely booked. Would I have been willing to go on a wild goose chase after getting off of a twenty-six-hour train ride? No way! I would have said, “It was nice to meet you, good luck to you,” and parted ways on the train platform and headed home for bed. Not him—he even insisted on carrying my luggage as we went from place to place around town. I can’t even remember his name.
Would I do a train ride like this ever again? No way. Am I considering spending any extra time in China after our year is up? Not a chance. There are too many luxuries that I love and miss about America. However, I still think that Chinese people are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never before seen such kindness shown to complete strangers. Even during the worst twenty-six hours of my life, on the longest and most stressful train ride I’ve ever taken, I couldn’t help but be touched by their compassion and selflessness. That, I will miss.