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.