There’s a certain romance attached to train travel, an elegance associated with sleeper and dining cars. Think Some Like it Hot, or Murder on the Orient Express, or any of a dozen screwball comedies starring Cary Grant or Kathryn Hepburn. Though I’ve travelled extensively in Europe, the US and Asia, I’d never had the chance to experience it myself.
Until my trip to China. As part of the pre-arranged tour, we were to travel from Beijing to Xian on an overnight train – going ‘soft’ class all the way. I envisioned rich oriental furnishings, sumptuous delicacies served in the dining car and impeccable service from well-trained porters. I couldn’t wait!
We had a hectic final day in Beijing – the Great Wall, a rickshaw ride through a hutong (traditional high-density housing), followed by a visit to a local home and finally dinner. Our train was scheduled to leave at eight in the evening. During dinner our guide, Eric, told us there was going to be a change. As it was the start of the Golden Week (May 1st), one of two weeks a year, when most of the Chinese go on holiday. Over half a billion people on the move – and some official had forgotten to book something. Our train had been requisitioned by the government. The whole train. Eric had known this might happen the day before, but forgot to tell us since he had let the other passengers know during dinner, but we had gone out with a friend of a friend. We had packed the minimum we had previously been instructed – pyjamas and toiletries for overnight. Oh well, things happen. Our bags were already gone, so it was too late to grab a change of clothes.
After whiling the evening away in a hotel bar, the group headed for the Beijing train station. On the bus, we were each given a plastic grocery bag. Inside we found several packets of Chinese noodles, candy bars, tea bags, crackers and assorted other junk food. Eric advised that the food available on the train wasn’t very nice and probably not safe for us to eat. Uh oh.
The bus dropped us off about a kilometre from the station. I did not take this photo, as we arrived about 11 at night. But it looked like half the city was in flight, refugees in a makeshift camp. The entire grounds were densely packed with people camping out, hoping to get a train out of town. We picked our way through thousands of families in sleeping bags, a week’s worth of travel gear stacked up around them, huddled together to keep safe and warm. We struggled to keep up, trying not to get separated from the group. Once inside, our guides navigated us through the teeming hordes (yes, hordes, and you have never seen such teeming!) With our tickets finally guaranteed, we made our way to the soft class lounge – standing room only – where we waited another hour. Our guide then informed us that the train we would be taking was not an express like the original train, so instead of a 12 hour trip, it would take 17 hours to reach Xian. Uh oh.
As we approached the platform, my visions of rich upholstery and polished porters vanished. ‘Soft’ class meant we had inch-thick mattresses and would be joined in our compartment by only 2 other people. Fortunately, it was an Australian couple from our group. A French woman travelling solo with another group refused to bunk with three Chinese women and shrieked and wailed for what seemed like hours and finally slept on the floor in the narrow filthy corridor.
Our compartment was too small to call a cabin. The berths were barely two feet wide. The lowers were at a fine level, suitable for sitting. But the uppers were about six feet up and there was no ladder. You had to use rock-climbing techniques and scale the wall, fitting your feet into little ledges about 2 inches deep to get leverage. Since my husband has a bit of arthritis, he couldn’t climb up there, leaving it to me. I am not a small, spry woman – you would never take me for the rock climbing type. I couldn’t manage it on my own, not even with my husband pushing from behind. Alas, it required two men, profound humiliation and vows to never eat again to get me up there. No chance of a quick whizz in the middle of the night.
Once up I realised I had to lie flat. If I curled onto my side and the train came to a sudden stop, the tiny railing would surely break loose and I would roll off. Thank goodness I’m not taller. At 5’6″ my head and feet touched the walls. Surely I could get to sleep. I was deeply exhausted… And tomorrow would bring more adventures – I was sure…
Stay tuned for part deux…