Usually, I love travelling by train or bus when abroad, particularly if I can nab a forwards-facing window seat, plug in some music, and watch the world go by outside. There’s something more satisfying about getting from A to B while still seeing everything between the two out the window, not just disappearing underground or into a plane and then popping out somewhere different with no conception of where you have actually travelled to or from. Often, too, you get a glimpse from the window of everyday life in a country that you wouldn’t otherwise see as a tourist – I especially remember setting out from Beijing on the Trans-Siberian railway with my family many years ago and watching with great curiosity groups of old men practising tai chi at dawn in deserted patches of ground in various grey suburbs, and indeed many of my favourite travel memories involve the trains (or, less frequently, the buses) I took along the way, even if it’s just watching the fields speeding past under an afternoon sun. I used to find travelling by plane pretty exciting as well as a child, but alas no more – the spate of recent air accidents in the news has me feeling terrified rather than thrilled everytime I step through those strange curved oblong doors, and I tend to spend most of the flight trying not to think about how ludicrous it is to travel up in what is essentially a tin box high in the sky…
However, travelling by train in China has posed its own unique frustrations that I have not encountered before. To start with, there is the fact that tickets sell out weeks in advance, particularly for sleeper trains – so planning a trip round China becomes infinitely more tricky when you can’t take half of the transport links you want to take, because they are all fully booked, or only have hard seats available for a 17 hour journey – not my idea of fun. So we ended up booking almost all out trains in our first week here – simpler, perhaps, but definitely gives us much less room for changing our plans along the way. I hope in the other countries I’m visiting later in this trip it will be easier to plan routes as I go along!
And then we had this especially nightmarish journey a few days ago, where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong:
- Wanted to go from Xi’an to Chengdu by sleeper. It was fully booked so we booked a sleeper train to Chongqing (looked like it was vaguely in the right direction) and then a connecting train onto Chengdu the following morning. So far so good.
- On the morning of our departure, noticed our train left from Xi’an South. Assumed this was a station in the south of Xi’an, turns out this is a station a 3 hour drive south of Xi’an, basically in the middle of nowhere. So we have to get a different train to get from Xi’an to Xi’an South. Hmmm…
- On the way to Xi’an main station, get on a bus. Check with bus driver it is going to train station – he grunts and pushes us onto bus, we assume this means yes.
- Turns out this means “no” in bus driver speak. But we only realise this after heading a while in opposite direction to station for a while.
- We hop off the bus and try and hail a taxi. About 30 taxis go past full and we despair of ever catching the FIRST train let alone the second and third.
- Finally get in one and get to station with barely enough time to buy ticket and find train. A lot of confusion when we try to say we want to go to “Xi’an Nan” (Xi’an South) which people hear as just “Xi’an”, and try to explain to us that we are already in Xi’an.
- On train we turn into the curiosities of the carriage with rows of people trying to ask us questions or tell us things through the one girl in the carriage who speaks both Mandarin and English.
- Arrive in Xi’an South which is certainly not in Xi’an and also does not really sell food for dinner, as most stations do, especially not food without gluten for Katy.
- Our bunks in the train are right next to the toilets so we have a delightfully fragrant night
- We arrive in Chongqing at 6am to find that the connecting train we had so cleverly selected was running late, though nobody knew how late, so no idea if we could leave the waiting area or if so, for how long.
- Finally it arrives, 2.5 hours late. While getting on we are repeatedly shouted at by an old man with a stick in heavily accented Chinese who does not seem to comprehend that we don’t speak Chinese so just shouts louder. He continues to accost Katy on the train; someone else explains he is a palm-reader.
- We arrive at our hostel in Chengdu at 2.30, having set out at 5pm the day before. Not a disaster by any measure, as we did at least reach our destination in the end, but not one of the more enjoyable ways to travel…
The other thing I have yet to understand about Chinese trains is that on several of them a train attendant has walked up and down the carriage aisle waving a plastic flashing red fish on a rod. What the hell is this for?!