Train Travel in China: A Learning Curve

I want to start this post with a disclaimer: By the time I took my first train ride in China, I had already been travelling for a couple of months, had been lost, conned, exhausted and hungry more times than I had anticipated… basically what I want to say is that my nerves had worn pretty thin. Ok, I’ll put it more bluntly, I was a bit of a wreck.

Right, now you’ve got a bit of context, I’ll begin…

Beijing is crazy. Stepping off the Trans Siberian, we soon realised that we had made the mistake of arriving during Golden Week Celebrations. So it was extra busy, crowded, noisy and utterly chaotic. For some ridiculous reason (despite having lived in Hong Kong in my early childhood) I had expected China to be peaceful, tranquil and serene… I literally have no idea why I had that expectation. Needless to say I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was an assault on the senses – at times in a good way, more often than not in a bad way. Visceral is a word I like to use when describing it.

Two things surprised me more than any of this: How incredibly delicious the food was (especially the amazing buddhist vegetarian restaurants that made the most convincing “mock meat”), and how few Westerners were there. Whenever we left the sanctuary of our hostel we would be unrelentingly stared at by anyone who’s line of sight we were in. People stared as we ate, sat their children on our table so they could get a closer look at us, took photos of us, put us on the phone to their relatives, waved, and sometimes just stood there… gawping. What I soon realised was that 1. staring isn’t rude in Chinese culture, 2. seeing Westerners was so rare that even (after a month) when I saw one, I too stared.

Spitting was also something I wasn’t prepared for. Spitting on the street, on the underground, in carpeted restaurants, in washing up bowls, on each other! I don’t know which grated me more, the spitting, or the sound of hacking-up the spit. I had never seen spitting on this scale before, and haven’t since.

And don’t even get me started on queuing (or the lack there of)! I’ll admit one thing: It wasn’t until I went to China that I realised how British I am!

Now, don’t get the wrong end of the stick, I didn’t hate Beijing: The people were so warm and friendly, and it was full of charm and (obviously) history. A truly fascinating place. Of course, I may have my rose tinted glasses on, but I will always have fond memories of that city. However, I can’t pretend that my time in China so far hadn’t left me feeling a little… fragile… mentally.

This brings me to the the bit where I left Beijing.

At the train station I queued for a ticket… well, I queued until the 100th person had pushed in front of me, and I realised queuing wasn’t a thing here. After fighting my way to the ticket window, I asked for a one way ticket to Tai’an: A “small” town south of Beijing. I was going there to climb Mount Tai Shan, the mountain that (so legend says) if you reach the top, you will live to 100. The lady gave me the option of taking the fast train (2 hours), or the slow train (7 hours). The difference in price was about £2. I know this doesn’t sound like much… but I was on a budget and had lost all concept of how much things should cost. After all, a 3 course meal for two (including beer) in Beijing cost about £1. So I chose the slow train… in 3rd class. If my memory is correct, it cost about 20p (ok, my memory might not be correct, but it was cheap).

The train station was more like an airport than any train station I’d known. There was a security check before entering the building, where your bags had to be put through a bag x-ray machine. Once again, I mistakenly queued to put my bag on the belt, only to be shoved and jostled out of the way as other people piled their bags on top of each others in (what seemed to me like) a mad frenzy.

Once inside, a huge arrivals/departure board directed you to the appropriate waiting room/gate for your train. The waiting room for my train itself was bigger than most train stations I’d been to. Hundreds of people sat waiting as, bizarrely, “Mr Bean” played on the monitors hanging from the ceiling.

Luckily, when the train was ready for boarding we were amongst the first to find a seat. It seemed like a nice train, pretty standard, 2 seats on either side, separated by the aisle. The usual luggage storage overhead. Much like any UK train. We sat comfortably at a table seat, and a young couple sat opposite us. ‘This is going to be just fine.’ I told my self, ‘Thank goodness I saved that £2.’

Gradually more people started boarding the train. Then more people… then even more. But it wasn’t just the sheer amount of people trying to fit on this train that was incredible, but the fact that most of them seemed to be carrying huge plastic sacks filled with the contents of an entire market stall. They were pushing, and shoving, and yelling, and squeezing themselves and their wares in to whatever space they could find. Soon the overhead storage space was full, and someone gave me their huge sack of “stuff” to hold (I assumed whilst they cleared somewhere to put it)… and then just walked off. They literally wanted me to hold their stuff for the entire journey. So I gave it back to them. Our 2 person seats now held 4 as we were pushed closer and closer together. Someone actually tried to sit on my lap at one point. You know those videos you see where the train guard has to literally push the hoards on to the train so the doors will close? Well, yea, it was kinda like that. Suddenly I found myself dreading the 7 hour journey… wishing I’d spent that £2 after all.

Eventually everyone settled. I probably don’t need to point out to you by now that we were the only Westerners on the train. There must have been about a hundred people in our carriage, and they were all staring at us. Every. Single. Person. For the entire journey. We were the on board entertainment. It’s weird because, in the UK, if you catch someone staring at you they will immediately avert their gaze out of embarrassment. Not in China. When I looked at someone staring at me, they would just keep looking at me, dead in the eyes. As a British person, this made me feel very uncomfortable. I found it incredibly intrusive.

To top it all off, the train was stiflingly hot. It was almost unbearable. Throughout the journey people coughed relentlessly; cracked, chewed and nibbled noisily on seeds; spat the seed husks on to the floor; hacked up phlegm constantly; patted and rustled their plastic sacks like it was a sport. Then, to my utter disbelief, the girl sat opposite us PULLED A TERRAPIN OUT OF HER POCKET. A TERRAPIN!!! OUT OF HER POCKET!!! WTF?!

Needless to say, it wasn’t long in to the journey that I was desperate to get off this train. I felt like I was in hell. As time passed my tolerance wore thinner and thinner. I wanted to scream, “STOP STARING AT ME! STOP CHEWING! STOP SPITTING! BE QUIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET!!!!!” But I’m British. So I didn’t.

In the last hour of the journey I made my way to the door of the car. I wanted to be the first person off of this train. I looked out in to the night desperately hoping to see the city come in to view. To see the finish line. The light at the end of the tunnel.

Thankfully we survived the journey, and arrived in Tai’an having suffered only a minor mental breakdown.

We spent a week in Tai’an, not because we wanted to, but because I couldn’t walk for 5 days after climbing the mountain (13,320 steps total – 4 hours up, 3 hours down). But when it came time to leave for Shanghai, we made sure to book 1st class tickets on the bullet train (still extremely cheap at about £3). It was glorious! Air conditioned, spacious, quiet and fast!

We had learnt our lesson the hard way: Don’t go 3rd class on the slow train in China.

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