Three Trains

Written by Aug 25, 2005 11:08
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.


Locomotive Punishment on the Jishou Line

If you’ve never been on a midsummer Chinese train in hard seat class on an overnight trip in a crowded, unairconditioned carriage, get on your knees and thank your creator. If you have, you’ve already joined the ranks of those who have experienced a living nightmare. My first time was in Hunan, one of China’s most lush and densely populated provinces, and it bestowed upon me a continuing terror of China’s most hellish transport option – purgatory on the train.

I was headed for the little-known town of Jishou in Hunan’s Xiangxi, and was not confident that I’d get there, as I’d not yet met anyone who’d even heard of the town, be it foreigner or Chinese. I was in Changsha at the time, Hunan’s capital, and I had arrived at the train station very early in the morning, assuming I’d avoid the crowds. I was mistaken to think that I was capable of rising earlier than Chinese people, because when I got into the ticket office, each one of the twenty-something ticket booths had a queue of around fifty people already. I stood in the endless line, fanning myself in the hot air with scraps of paper from my wallet, rehearsing the Chinese sentences I’d need to produce to buy the ticket. By the time I got to the counter, I didn’t seem to be able to get anything else out other than: Jishou. Ticket. Today. The ticket vendor said a few things I didn’t understand, we exchanged nods, and I walked away with an overnight seat ticket leaving in the mid-afternoon on one of China’s slowest trains. I congratulated myself too early, thinking I’d probably be able to sit the night out listening to music on my walkman. This, I would discover, was something of a naïve dream.

The train was already crowded when we pulled out, and I was in high spirits despite the heat. I counted myself lucky to have a seat, as there were several people balancing themselves in the aisle chatting and I felt sorry that they’d be standing all night whilst I would be in what I assumed to be relative comfort. I was getting irritated before too long, however, by the smoking, as several people had already lit up, and I’ve never been able to stand the smell. I didn’t feel like listening to music, deciding instead to enjoy the views of the pure, green Hunan countryside.

Within a few hours and what seemed like seventy stops later, the carriage was packed, and stinking of smoke, and hot. My T-shirt was already damp with perspiration and my hair was itchy with sweat and dust. The people around me were chattering boisterously and shelling sunflower seeds at inhuman rates, and the piles of husks on the aisle floor rose swiftly. Many were drinking beer straight from warm bottles, playing poker games in small groups, slamming the cards down forcefully on the table and bellowing insults at each other when they were losing.

I couldn’t bring myself to stick in my headphones and turn on any extra noise. I fought my way to the bathroom and was displeased to find that the facilities had been somewhat abused by the other passengers. It was something of a struggle to reclaim my seat upon my return as well. The heat was increasing by degrees, and I took off my shirt like all the other male passengers and used it to mop my chest. By the time it had passed midnight I was already out of my mind, sore from the seat with nowhere to rest, the table between the seats only big enough to allow the window seat passengers to rest their heads on its edge, if it wasn’t too cluttered with mess and seed husks. The chatter was getting louder as the other passengers were becoming increasingly intoxicated; the cigarette smoke was thickening and the train kept shuffling ahead like a crawling insect without hope of reaching anywhere soon.

By half past three, the carriage was a frenzy, sleepless eyes goggled all around me and the crowds of closely packed men making broad, exaggerated movements seemed to close in and pull away at the same time. I wrapped my T-Shirt around my head and tried to sleep sitting upright, counting the minutes as if it would bring the following morning on faster.

Hell on the Rails: Changing Trains at Huaihua

Several weeks later, a friend and I headed out of Jishou on our way to Chongqing during the National Holiday. It’s not a convenient A to B – to get from one to the other, it’s necessary to take a detour of a few hour’s train ride to Hunan’s central railway exchange: Huaihua. It wasn’t until we got to Huaihua that we realized the only available ticket at the time was a no-seater on a train that would take 27 hours.

We were horrified. The night of terror from Changsha to Jishou had only taken 16 hours, and the prospect of doing an additional 11 hours of the same, but without even the luxury of a seat, was unthinkable. We waited on the station platform reluctantly for our ride to arrive. When it did, the platform sprung to life; merchants with carts full of shrink-wrapped animal parts rushed to the train windows, through which we could see an impossible crush of torsos and arms and close-cropped heads, pushing their way about the carriage. Sweaty arms were thrust out shutters in the window with wet two yuan notes, which the merchants exchanged for the meats, clipped onto the ends of long sticks to reach the window openings. In the disturbing half-light, the train was a zoo and the merchants their keepers.

Luck was impossibly on our side. The moment we stepped on board, an English student who had already been squatting in a corner for 20 hours, all the way from Guangzhou where the train had started its journey, asked us if we’d like to know how to upgrade for bed tickets. Selflessly, the girl led us to carriage nine, where on most trains it’s possible to upgrade a ticket when room becomes available, and assisted us in getting hard berth beds. Within ten minutes of having boarded, we were stretched out and relieved: we’d been spared. The only thing that did make us feel guilty was the realization that our saviour would be forced to suffer her nightmare for another 27 hours...

Redemption: The Beijing - Zhengzhou Line

A few weeks ago, I took the overnight train from Beijing to Zhengzhou, and had a different experience entirely. The Chinese rail authority are undergoing the slow process of upgrading their trains, one by one, and the line I took was one of the best I’ve seen in my life. I’d purchased a hard sleeper ticket, and noticed that the bunk seemed to be much more comfortable than usual – but even so, I was having trouble sleeping. The carriages purred along the rails like a hovercraft, the air conditioning in the interior pleasant and comfortable, and even the fellow passengers seemed to be respecting the rule of only smoking in the intercompartmental space. Try however as I might, I was totally incapable of getting myself any rest.

I got up and wandered through the darkened berth carriages. The rolling snores of those enjoying peaceful slumber were of little comfort. I walked into the bathroom and was amazed at the elegance of the facilities – quite simply the best toilet on any train I’ve seen in the whole country. A polite little liquid soap dispenser, towel unit and hot and cold purified water dispenser lined one wall, and in the cubicle itself, I couldn’t believe that they’d even provided toilet paper.

I couldn’t place why, but it all seemed a little pretentious. There I was, walking alone, long past two a.m. on a luxury train, and all these perks seemed cold and unreal. But then, all of a sudden, I reached the division between hard seat and sleeper and was surprised to see, through the window, the familiar crowds packed into the cheaper classes, jostling and joking in their discomfort. Those closest to the door looked back at me incredulously, a strange European staring at them through the glass from the posh carriages.

I did remember the night on the Jishou train, and all the other uncomfortable journeys I’ve taken since then. But for some reason, at that moment, the dizzy cheer and grapple of the scene before me seemed far preferable to the sterility of my choice sleeper carriage. So, I made up my mind to open the door and join them. I stepped into the smoke and the heat and sat next to the nearest group playing cards. They stopped playing immediately and stared at me, and I was suddenly embarrassed at my presumption: until one of them said a few words, laughed, and handed me a can of beer. Within a few minutes, I had a handful of cards, was shelling sunflower seeds with my front teeth like a parrot, and was in a far better mood.

Sometimes in China we forget that comfort isn’t the reason we were drawn here, and that there’s sometimes no more genuine China experience than in spending time with the people.

My mother always sends me messages, worrying that I’m not sleeping enough, telling me not to take any risks, telling me to take the best possible care of myself. I thought she wouldn’t understand when I told her about my recent experience on the train; when I did, I was stunned at her reply – that she was proud of me and that for the first time, she could really understand why I was here.

Mum: you’re right. This is what I’m here for. For your understanding, thank you.

 More Hunan Travel Reviews
Comments (3)


Aug 31, 2005 07:48 Reply


Great expereince. We all need at least one of these. I just passed through Jishou less than three weeks ago. We came in from Fenghuang by taxi and out by the slow coach north to Chongqing's Xiushan. Quite an expereince and incredible scenery all around.


Aug 30, 2005 21:34 Reply

XIEKUN09 said:

I like this article,I undstand more about three trains in your reviews.


Aug 30, 2005 20:23 Reply

RITA said:

I've never heard a foreigner penetrated so deeply into Chinese people's plain life like you.

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.