So I boarded the train at Beijing station at 11.50 on Monday morning, glad to be leaving the city after spending an extra night in a hotel because there were no tickets on Sunday.
As I pushed my way through the chaotic queue of people waiting to get down to the platform, I hoped that the bed I had reserved actually existed on this train; I was also preying that the train was air-conditioned. As I walked down the steps, winding my way through groups of people carrying everything- including the kitchen sink, my train came into view. There it was, the L25 from Beijing to Changchun sitting at platform 2. So I walked briskly along the platform to the 10th carriage, showed my ticket again and boarded.
I stepped up onto the train, no AC. Turned left past the toilets and into the carriage and to my surprise found my bed unoccupied and looking pretty good for the 120RMB ticket. Apart from the searing heat (one of the reasons I wanted out of Beijing ASAP) accompanied by humidity that made your clothes feel damp and sticky within 2 minutes of stepping outside, the train was fine – and at only 15% of the price of an aeroplane ticket.
I was in the section known as hard sleeper, it consists of six beds in a open cabin. I was in one at the top, mainly because it’s out of the way and i can put my bag behind me and it is safe from theft. The problem with the top is that you can’t sit up because of the low train ceiling and it’s a pain climbing up to.
I put my bag up onto my bed and realised just how much hotter it was up there, and quickly got down and sat at the fold-down window seat. The thermometer in the carriage read 37°C , the humidity at well over 90%. Sweat was dripping in my eyes – something that I have never experienced before – just by sitting down.
Finally the train left and the momentum of the train allowed a little breeze through the windows, which made little difference. It was at this time that I asked the guard when does the train arrive. The answer she gave me I understood, but I didn’t believe myself – it couldn’t take that long ? She answered with “ming tian, wu dian shi wu fen” which means tomorrow, 5.15 AM.
So I only had another 17 hours to go.
Hearing this seriously dampened my morale, I thought that the train took 8 hours or so, like the train on the way out. No wonder the ticket was so cheap, I’m on the train that stops at every damn station for the next 700 miles. Some 20 minutes into the journey the train stopped at the first of many stations.
At this moment I was counting my blessings that I spent a small fortune at the Beijing Book City, knowing that in Changchun the only English books that are available are abridged versions written by Chinese authors or Uri Gellar (this is true, if you would like any of Uri Gellar’s books – probably long out of print on the UK – I can get them for you!! ).
The bed was okay if rather narrow, had nice pillows and duvets – not that I would be needing them. I was told to take off my shoes by the guard when on the bed – but there was nowhere safe to put them, and these trains have somewhat of a reputation for theft, so i put them on top of my bag next to my head. I managed to finish one of my books during the journey: A Year In The Merde a very funny read, took my mind of the travelling.
At 9.50 the guard said something that I didn’t understand and 30 seconds later all of the lights in the carriage were cut. No more reading I thought. The only option left for me was to try and get some shut-eye, even if the top of the carriage was now infested with mosquitoes and other disturbingly large biting insects.
Now I was wishing i was somewhere else. The sticky sweat, the bugs, the uncomfortable bed – and the boredom. Eventually I got to sleep, I finally dozed off sometime after 1am.
I must have woken up at least ten times during the night, usually when the train stopped at a station. At 3.30am and much to my disgust, they turned the lights back on. I have never felt sick from just fatigue, but now I was starting to.
I was told to get down from my top-bunk because they were replacing the old sheets on the beds with new ones, “Why now!!!???” I asked, all that attracted was that look one sometimes gets from Chinese people; a look of confusion crossed with that “you must be mad foreigner, this is how we always do it ” look. I was now perched on a fold down seat in the aisle of the train, knowing that the train didn’t arrive for another 2½ hours and it was still the dead-of-night.
Of course I was probably the only one on the train thinking why did they wake us up with still 2½ hours to go. Anyway, people were eating breakfast, talking as if they’d had one of the best nights sleep in the life, playing cards or even Mah Jong.
I was in pain, the tiredness and back-ache combined with sleep deprivation was taking its toll – I rested my head against the window and drifted into a quasi slumber.
I thought I was having a particularly bad dream when I heard music being played, bagpipes – folk music.
I woke up.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, out of the PA system came music at an annoyingly loud volume. I immediately recognised the song as ‘Mull of Kintyre’ by Wings – In my opinion one of the most annoying tunes ever recorded – anyway, I drifted in and out of sleep hoping that this wasn’t the last song I would ever here.
The train finally arrived at 5.15am as promised. I don’t remember much more, apart from hailing a cab at the station and getting back home, where I went straight to sleep.
I’m now back teaching again, and almost all of my students are from the very south of China. The have to travel for anything up to 60 HOURS!!! just to get home. They go to university over 2000 miles away from their home town. I now have a new level of respect for my student’s, I for one, know that I could not do that sort of travelling at every holiday 🙂