The long train ride in China – K651
It is virtually impossible to get a train ticket in July out of Guilin. We tried our luck in Yangshuo, unsuccessfully, after which we came back to the city to keep the battle going. One of the constantly changing reception girls at our inn made a few phone calls, only to find out tickets are not available at least for the next week, ten days. Here they dont deal with the railway station at all, instead each hotel has their favorite scalping mob, which have earlier bought all the available seats to resell at a premium to stuck travelers like us. Illegal, yes, wide spread, sounds very much like it.
We decide to go directly to the source, the train station, and attempt our luck there. Another fruitless loss of energy.
Almost defeated we ask to be kept in mind for some cancellations and hope something good comes our way. We have not felt so stuck the whole time we have traveled so far. We want to explore the country, but we cant even get out of this one spot. Yes, we can fly, but we cant afford to do that throughout, so we might as well go straight up to Beijing – missing the whole country. Yes, we can bus it, but this is one big place, and spending days on end stuck to a seat is really not our idea of a great time.
So we wait.
The next morning we are told we have tickets and we wait for the
scalper a guy from the agency to come and give us the details. Few hours later he whizzes by the reception and leaves the 4 pieces of paper, all of which are for the top bunks of a hard sleeper train (one of which is not even in the same car as the others). What does that mean? Hard sleepers are not really hard, they have pillows and pads, but are more cramped than the soft sleepers. Instead of four berths in a compartment that closes with a door, they have six berths facing each other and no compartments in the whole car. To fit all those ‘beds’ there is one down below, one at about shoulder level and one up in the clouds, kissing the ceiling.
My excitement vanishes quickly, because its one thing to be stuck up there on the narrow ledge by yourself and quite another to share it with a 2 year old and try to sleep while worrying about any of the kids falling down. I say “No way, lets wait for another option”.
Mr. Blabs comes back and informs me the receptionist is now crying, because the extortionist is going to charge her 20% of the cost and she has to pay it out of her own pocket. G-reat!
After spending another day to and froing, reading and running, we realize how truly stuck we are and eventually decide to take the tickets and get out of Guilin and get the girl out of her position.
And this is how we find ourselves waiting for the K651 train to Chengdu, Sichuan province.
There are indeed lovely trains in China, even bullet ones zipping through the land, we are not on one of those. We are desperate, bothered, tired, a bit sick and eager to get out out of Guilin family waiting for those darn gates to open and let us find our way to the train.
Finally we are carrying our heavy backpacks through the crowds, the heat of the day is by now squeezing the last juices out of our bodies and we reach the train that will take us to our next destination on our long awaited trip through China.
We enter the cart with vintage dirt stains adorning the old surfaces and seeing the wide opened windows I realize that it has NO air-conditioning. There is a 25 hour ride ahead of us, the kids are tired, one of them unwell, and the only tickets we could get have assured us the very top bunks in the hard-sleeper, steaming hot car I am standing in the middle of.
The bags felt that much heavier and I am sure my vision darkened for a moment. Shit-shittidy-SHIT! I am pretending to be looking at the numbers and where we should be settling in, while in reality I am just trying to keep it all together, while all I want to do is run. Breathe. Its just 25 hours. Breathe.
More people start to fill in the car and the air gets even hotter. A man in a loose train uniform comes around and we manage to get him to show us which lovely hole is ours and I position the kids down on the lower bunk and Mr.Blab and I attempt to put some order to the bag situation. Turns our we are right next to a group of western tourists who seem to be traveling on a tour. The English emitting from their short bursts of conversation feels so comforting, while their laughter loosens up my apprehension – see, people are having fun, we can survive. Its not horrible, its adventurous, my dear.
The train is moving now. The air not so much.
English fills our ‘cabin’ now and we realize that we will be sharing it with a couple from the States and a Canadian. Luck smiles at us finally and their guide – a Chinese from Xi’an – works out something with the family in the next compartment, then does a generous gesture to us and suddenly we have one lower and one middle bunk. The rest of our tickets means that we still have a top bunk next door and one in the next car.
The heat in the air is barely caressed by the breeze managing to pass through the wide opened windows all gaping for relief around us. My hopes to cool off in the blasting wind are crushed quickly. Instead we strike a conversation with our partners in adversity and sweat the hell out, literally.
All of them students for PhD’s, Masters and whatnot, smart kids on an 18 day tour of China, coming from the same areas we just explored ourselves. Unlike us, they knew what the conditions were going to be before stepping on this pressure cooker of a transport option. “Authentic experience” is what they were promised, and I guess they will not be disappointed.
Two minute noodle smells fill the air and card games help to pass the time.
Quickly, we realize the next horrible truth about traveling on a train in China. This one was truly hard to swallow – there are no, none, not any cold drinks. Like, no kidding! Not that this would have been a funny joke, but come oooon! There are no carts with refreshing drinks coming around, only warm fruit and could-very-well-be-pee liquids make an appearance from time to time. Train stations meet us with bare empty walls and stoic uniformed workers, instead of the familiar bustling of activity, food and oh-so-freezing bottles of water, which we are used to from the rest of Asia. Scrap that – we used to have dripping in cool freshness bottles poking from the windows there, no need to even step out of the air-conditioned train at all.
In disbelief we pass station after station, make various trips to the restaurant car in hope that someone would have thought that a fridge might be a good idea, especially in the middle of summer and even more so after you stick a bunch of people in a moving oven. Ha-ha-ha, ha!
The one station where we could supposedly find this illusive thing known as cold drink, as advised by the Chinese guide, George, came and passed without delivering even a drop.
So we sweat, stew and sip on warm water and laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, or probably we are slowly losing our minds. The only relief can be found in the corridor, right next to the windows and many spend their time there even as the night comes and refuses to take away the thick heat.
Dinner time and more 2 minute noodles, the food of choice for train travelers probably due to the abundant hot water on offer. 2 min noodles and tea. Mmmm, so refreshing.
I feel like a moldy cleaning cloth that has resided way too long at the sink – moist, musky and off color. There is little evidence of my morning shower or the fact that my clothes were carefully washed last night and were even slightly stiff this morning. I look at the Dod’s hands and they have the most wonderful black nails at their peak. Soap and water doesnt help, it will need some serious soaking to wash this train off him. Same goes for the girls, who are now attempting to sleep on the middle bunk on top so that daddy doesnt have to go spend the night in the next car.
Lights out, thankfully, because the fluorescent blue didnt help the ambiance at all. Most of the horrible details get lost in the darkness and I hope the night goes fast.
Suddenly, Mr.Blab shows up with a pile of frosty cold waters! Squealing and excitement overcomes us and I guzzle a whole bottle by my self. He, somewhat stupidly, ran into the station and managed to organize the drinks in the nick of time without missing the train. I dont scorn him, I am too busy enjoying the feeling of cool that he delivered.
After some comforting nursing, the Dod is asleep and I put him at my feet on a pillow and keep my leg next to him to prevent a fall. Pause. Most people are asleep and there is a strange calmness only interrupted by the frequent tunnels we keep on passing.
Mr.Blab keeps on being glued to the corridor seat either in search of cool air or because he is postponing the dreaded top bunk for as long as possible. I cant blame him.
I drift off for a bit.
Even when I find a comfortable spot, a bit to the side, a bit squished here and there, I just cannot fall asleep. The night is advancing and here I am, dozy but awake. I try again.
After awhile I realize that the sound that passing the tunnels brings through the open windows is filing slowly on my brain. Its becoming unbearable. The hilly landscape coupled with the availability of cheap forced labor has ensured that there is a tunnel every minute and some of them are looong. The sound is like, like…a very close encounter with a jet engine and goes straight inside my boiling tired head.
STOOOOP! I attempt to cover my ears with my arms and bury my head in the pillow, but its of no use. There is no escape.
I get an idea and start digging through the electronics bag and pull out the ear phones. After shoving them inside my aching ears there is a bit of a relief.
Even with them sleep is escaping me and I spend a lot of the night staring out the window and taking pictures, glancing longingly at my sleeping company.
The new day is here and brings with it a bit closer to the end of this journey, so I welcome it with open arms. The landscape passing outside is beautiful and horrible – a lot of construction, factories, big rivers with a multitude of bridges, endless greens with small houses – when the black ear piercing tunnels let me peak through. So this train ride took away even my pleasure of enjoying the view.
The kids slept, thankfully.
Our travel companions reach their destination 5 hours ahead of us and are on their way to the Yangtze river for another set of “basic” experiences. A fun group of people that made our ride bearable, for which I love them and wish them the best. I have to say though, that they took this better than I would have if I had paid the money they did. At least we saved some money by putting ourselves through this, what their trade off was, I am not sure.
George, thank you for your kind gesture and saving most of us from the top bunk (there on the far right).
For us, back to the train.
I am craving coffee, so whip out my filters and look for some kind of a cup and settle for a cut up plastic bottle, which actually fits in the whole atmosphere perfectly.
This part could have been quite enjoyable, had it not been for the jet engine, views destroying madness of the good ole tunnels, which keep on coming relentlessly.
We are somewhat delirious by now and the tracks keep on going and going.
The kids are passing the time on the iPad. We manage to invite the curious kids from next door around to play too.
And the girls are having fun again.
As we approach Chengdu, we become the subject of amateur papparatzi yet again and most people in the train pass around to take a snap. Well, nobody wants my picture and I am even asked to lend in a hand in taking them, but I can pretend that part of this is about me. I am half-deaf and delirious anyway.
And we make it!
The Chengdu station shows up in the distance and my heart skips a happy beat. It feels so good to be at the other end of this 25 hour journey and we cant get out of the train fast enough. We say our goodbyes with the Chinese family and their two girls and get out there in the free world.
There is no way to sugar coat this. It was dirty, smelly and positively hot with very little relief. The combination of no air-conditioning, no cold drinks and hundreds of tunnels killing not only the views, but the fine hairs in my ears, ensured that stepping out of the train was the best part of the whole experience.
Still, as Miss Fab said the other day, it was “fun in a horrible kind of way” and I can completely agree with that.