China in recall 1 - 26 July 2006 - A long train ride

It had been a week since I arrived in the bustling, smoggy metropolis of Shanghai to hide amongst the 26.5 million other yellow people and still I was getting nothing remotely looking like the relaxing holiday I had made the break to freedom for. The monotone grey sky was broken erratically by tower blocks and ignited in places by neon candles reaching for the heavens. I remember seeing smog clouds drifting overhead, thick, cloying and black and thinking they looked like chariots of death.

After 4 days spent trying to find a cup of tea in Shanghai, (“All the tea in China? Someone’s obviously already given it all away!”) I decided that the Bund and Nanjing Donglu had seen quite enough of me. Panda Jen was leaving to go to Vietnam and I decided I needed to get to somewhere else and find a bit of peace so I asked at the hostel desk if they could book a train ticket to Chengdu for the next day regardless of class as long as I just got out of Shanghai. The pretty air hostess in my room came from Chengdu so I decided it seemed a bloody idea to go there. I’m not shallow or anything.

There are 4 different classes of train ride in China. At the top end of the scale is what is known as the soft sleeper. Just cheaper than a plane ticket this form of transport is favoured by rich Americans who want to stay as far away as possible from the riff-raff and still convince themselves they are roughing it by travelling by train at all. A step below that is the hard sleeper. Much akin to sleeping of a plank of wood, this class is slightly cheaper and favoured by most backpackers and the Chinese middle classes so is the hardest class of seat to book.

On the lower end of the scale comes firstly the soft seat. Not an altogether bad option for relatively short journeys, the passenger sits upright and breathes in the smoke and airborne bacteria of the locals, for whom phlegm seems to be a thing not to be hoarded and kept up ones nose but instead shared around with the community at large, usually with a loud and proud *HOCK* followed by a *SPLAT* on the floor of the train aisle, then spread around the floor with the sole of ones shoe.

One step lower than that is what is known as the hard seat, a seat with the padding of my shoulder blade (yes only my ex-girlfriends will get THAT reference) sat at an angle of about half a degree from the vertical. This type of class, probably known in Chinese as “The Sardine Express” is only bettered in value by something called “Standing class”, a fate so horrific given the distances in China that it’s usually reserved for people in the advanced stages of rigor mortis and those with individuals with masochistic streaks. Like me. One guy at my hostel came from Karachi to Shanghai on standing class, a journey of 5 days. The mind boggles…

When me and the Panda got back from Bund it seems the train had run out of the class of my choice (I’ll leave that to your imagination) so the guys on the hostel desk had had to book me onto the next best thing. Ironically as the Panda headed towards Vietnam, I headed towards Chengdu, home of the Panda by hard seat.

At about 6am on the 25th, we said our goodbyes and hugged, and I realised that was the first time I’ve had actual bodily contact with a female for months. I could have cried.

The train left Shanghai South station at 0851 headed for Chengdu in the Sichuan province, the last stop on the line, a distance of about 2500km as the crow flies. Spanning 4 provinces in a straight line, with access to a population of 25 million on the Shanghai end, 11.8 million on the Chengdu end and God only knows how many in between, the rail operators had decided in their wisdom that this route wasn’t nearly profitable enough and should include an arc to the tourist trap of Xi’an to pick up more passengers. Taking the total distance to maybe around 4000km, this trip took a nice round 37 hours or, to put it in perspective, three times longer than going from London to Edinburgh by train. With Shanghai straddling the east coast and Chengdu nearly slap bang in the centre of the country I started to realise just how big this country actually was and how futile it would be to plan to go to any more than one province with my remaining month.

The train ride started off easily enough from Shanghai. Being the first stop I got a seat without a problem and was pleased to find it was not just made out of wood but also included a flimsy piece of fabric too, which had become discoloured from the ubiquitous cigarette smoke and mottled with unidentifiable stains of dubious origin. As the carriage started to fill up I couldn’t help thinking it was a bit like taking up residence in the bastard lovechild of a forensics lab and a zoo.

With my confidence at a low ebb from the events of last month I found the thought of interacting with Chinese families with hand gestures and my phrasebook for 37 hours daunting rather than quite funny as i usually would so I managed to avoid that for the first 2 hours before my natural urge to fall asleep on transportation kicked in. Andy here’s one for you mate - I never told you that the last time I took up driving lessons I feel asleep at the wheel did I? Well I did. I always fall asleep in moving vehicles. That may explain why I failed my driving test earlier that month then…

With an uneasy 3 hours of sleep in the bag, I awoke as stiff as the chair I was sat on and thought to myself “Hell that’s 5 hours down, I haven’t spoken to anyone and I’m not TOO uncomfortable. It’s just like having sex really. I can keep this up for another 32 hours” - how wrong I was.

First contact with the Chinese was made about 5 hours and 3 minutes into the trip, me feeling as groggy as hell, still trying to blend in to the yellow background and hoping that no-one would suss me out. But they just wouldn’t let it lie would they. Hand gestures and no progress for 32 hours wiped me out.

Looking back through my journal, which I picked up in hour 16 to begin to catalogue my despair I pick out the following words of great wisdom, penned at 13:22pm on the 26th of July

We’ve been winding through the verdant mountainscapes of the Sichuan province for about an hour. Some of the peaks and valleys are breathtaking. The scenery is accompanied by a soundtrack of Chinese language muzak which just alters volume randomly which is really distracting because you can’t tune your ears to filter it out and the Chinese in my carriage are pretty similar in their approach. After 2 weeks of being hereI still can’t pick out a single word of this language. Maybe I’m a spastic.

The funniest thing I saw was that the inspectors and guards on the train would, in between their duties of selling tickets and mopping the floor every 30 minutes of spit and noodle boxes, would supplement their income in the most hilarious manner.

Every hour or so, a different member of the staff team would go into the storeroom and get out a box of completely random objects then would suddenly transform from mild mannered ticket inspector into the worlds loudest salesman, touting his or her wares the length of the train, making very sure to stop at every single bay to give the full spiel at about 120 decibels.

Goods on offer during my ride initially included what I’d imagine to be standard train sales stuff like socks and quiz books. As the ride drew on and peoples minds started to become a little more detached from their sanity, the items for sale became stranger and stranger, and the lengths to which ticketers/sales gurus would go to became more absurd, until finally one guy comes down the aisle with a gyroscope and a piece of string and proceeds to demonstrate for no less than 15 minutes a show in which a tightrope walking gyroscope with flashing lights sang a bloody annoying ringtone version of Happy Birthday. Now I’d seen it all.

With this guy at the helm, the Chinese bought enough gyroscopes to make me never want another birthday again in my life. As the carriage filled with smoke and the sound of good tidings to the aging I knew I would not get another minutes sleep on that god-forsaken trip.
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