On Train Travel in China

Some day I might create a list of all the things I like and dislike about life in China. Both lists would be lengthy – cheap beer on one side, the lack of size 11 shoes on the other; lots of cool night-time neon lights in cities versus the unfriendly demeanour of cashiers, and so on. I’m not yet decided on which half of the list train travel would be on.

China is a big country. Really big. X Britains would fit comfortably inside it. This means that, unlike in Britain which is rather compact, going to other cities or places usually involves large distances and journey times. As I write this I’m on a train rumbling steadily from Ganzhou to Jiujiang, Mingxing’s hometown. We’re in a cabin of two comfortable bunkbeds. The carriage is air-conditioned, offering blessed respite from the searing Summer Sun that dogs southern China.

It is, it must be said, a pleasant way to travel the X miles between the two cities. I like to stand by the doors inbetween carriages, where smoking is allowed, and watch the countryside pass by. The majority of our province, Jiangxi, is given over to arable agriculture. Fallow pasture and patches of scrubby woodland are punctuated by lotus ponds and especially by watery rice paddies. You can often see a solitary figure working the fields, usually wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. These farmers and their farmland belong to the identical-looking villages of shabby, multi-storey concrete or brick homes you pass by periodically, usually occupied by a single, extended family.

It’s not a fast train by any means – we left at 1440, and we won’t reach Jiujiang until 2140. Express trains exist here, but not many of them pass through relatively cut-off Ganzhou. But when you’re comfortable long journey times don’t really matter.

Long journey times really do matter when every second is spent in increasing discomfort and irritation though. Last month we went to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong (Canton in English). It was a great trip bookended by two horrible train journeys. We booked too late to get beds, and instead had to endure eight hours each way of economy class hell.

I certainly have nothing in principle against seated carriages on long journeys. Back in Britain I frequently get the overnight train up to Scotland and rarely book a bed. But a journey in the seated carriage of the Caledonian Sleeper is a night in paradise compared to the battery chicken overcrowding of the cheaper trains here. After boarding the train and fighting your way along the aisle packed with unsmiling men who barely move an inch when you say “bu hao yisi” (“sorry/excuse me”), the first thing you usually have to do is clear your designated seat of whoever is sitting in it. If you’re boarding the train at night, this person is likely asleep. After sizing up the overhead luggage racks you realise that whoever designed them apparently thought that nothing people might want to take on long-distance trips would be any bigger than a tube of pringles. So you hastily and noisily stuff your overpacked rucksack beneath your seat, aware of the stares of the twelve people nearest you, then hastily and noisily drag it back out again to retrieve your book, which you didn’t have the foresight to place near the top of the bag’s contents.

You then carefully place your book on the little table shared by you and three other passengers, amongst their drink bottles, bowls of empty sunflower seed husks, phones and portable chargers. You try to get comfortable but the seat has been precision-engineered to be just too vertically-aligned to allow you to sit back, forcing you to maintain an unnaturally upright posture that precludes any possibility of sleep. You quickly realise that any notion of sleep was fanciful anyway because this is China, and to the Chinese “courtesy” is what someone wearing a skirt does. All conversations are carried out at above-average volume, especially phone conversations.People may have heard of earphones, but why use earphones and thus deprive the rest of the carriage of enjoying the tinny audio of whatever TV series or film you’re watching? (On our way to Guangzhou a man across the aisle from me was watching something on his phone at full volume at 1 o’ clock in the morning. When I could contain myself no longer I angrily exclaimed “Hey!” and gesticulated at his phone. With an unconcerned expression he turned the volume down a couple of notches and went back to watching it.) Any trip to the toilet or the smoking area must be urgent enough to warrant wading through and over the seatless passengers asleep on the aisle floor (one of whom was basically sleeping against your leg before you stood up) and then pushing your way through the crowd congregated in the corridor, most of whom have no inclination whatsoever to make life easy for you.

The food is good on Chinese trains. Trolley-pushing vendors sell instant noodles and trays of meat, rice and vegetables. Hot water is available to make tea. The toilets are not so good. A metal basin in the ground with an aperture the size of a coin for whatever is deposited to be flushed through. I’ve seen a blocked train toilet before. It isn’t pretty.

Some train journeys here are really long. Our seven-hour trip is only a fraction of the distance this train will cover on its route from Guangzhou in China’s south to Beijing in its northeast. Some day I’d like to make that journey myself, to watch as the landscape gradually changes as the miles roll away and the climate shifts from subtropical to near-subarctic. But I’ll be doing it with a bed reservation.

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Planes, Trains and Rollercoasters

The first time I stepped out of an airport in China it was below zero degrees, but the dry Beijing air meant it seemed quite a bit warmer than this compared to Britain. Later that day I stepped out of an airport in southern China and the air was almost unbearably thick, wet and hot.

So it was this time. Even standing in the queue for visa checks at Xiamen airport, I was uncomfortably warm in my t-shirt and shorts. It was even warmer as I sucked down a cigarette near the taxi rank outside. My back felt sticky and my forehead was damp within seconds. I never would have imagined myself, a fan of cold places, moving to a subtropical place. But here I was.

We got a cab to the train station and enjoyed the cooler air inside as we ate youtiao – kind of a long doughnut – and baozi – doughy dumplings filled with pork and bamboo.

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Mingxing was in good form on the train. She shifted a young man from our seat, then got him to put his seat back up after he occupied the one right in front of us and reclined it to its fullest extent. Later, she got one of the staff to tell someone to turn the volume down on their tablet. The journey north was a pleasant one through a landscape of pointy, forested hills, watery fields of rice and buffalo, and tired-looking industrial towns.

We got to Nanchang in the early afternoon. Mingxing was taking part in a teaching competition here this weekend, so I had to stay here for a few days before I could finally go to Ganzhou, my new home. Nanchang is the capital of Jiangxi province, a city of a few million, I should imagine. However, its metropolitan credentials were called into question when the hotel we’d booked into turned us away because I’m foreign. We soon found another place up the road though.

That night we found a little Sichuan restaurant and I happily wolfed down boiled fish in spicy oil with chillies, beef with celery and chillies, and cabbage with chillies. Advantage of moving to China #1 – when you want spicy food, you get spicy food. It cost 77 yuan – nine British pounds – and we couldn’t eat more than half of what they gave us.

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Friday was a free day for us, so we got a taxi across the city to go to Wanda theme park. I regularly feel the urge to ride rollercoasters, but I hadn’t been on one for years. Thankfully, the park had three good ones. The first was a steel rollercoaster with a big first drop (apparently it’s the tallest ‘coaster in China). The second was the longest wooden rollercoaster in China, a rough, wild ride with lots of drops. The third was an inverted rollercoaster with loops and corkscrews. Best of all, I don’t think we queued for longer than ten minutes for anything.

On Saturday Mingxing gave her presentation in front of students and judges. Considering she’d had little chance to prepare, what with having had to collect me from Xiamen, she did well to place seventh out of 36 competitors, meaning she was through to the second round the next day. That afternoon we headed downtown and rode what a taxi driver later told us is the second-biggest ferris wheel in Asia, and later that night we went to the riverside to watch the nightly light show – the skyscrapers on either side of the river come to life in a display of pinks, blues, greens, reds, yellows, as an animated story plays on the side of them. To be honest, I have no idea what the story was about but the display was great.

The next day Mingxing had 30 minutes in which to improvise a 10-minute analysis of a text and a teaching plan to go with it. Not so much a test of teaching ability as a test of speech writing under pressure. But anyway, her final placing of 8th, out of a province-wide competition of 36, was good. The 90-minute award ceremony afterwards, complete with bafflingly inappropriate songs and interminable speeches in Mandarin from university staff, was less so.

There was just time for us to have a quick dinner with some of her colleagues and other assorted university types before heading to the train station for the sleeper train down to Ganzhou. Finally I was going “home”.

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