BootsnAll Travel Network

My Very Own…Train Ride From Hell Story?

It is a common practice among travelers that you try to read a book about the country you are currently traveling in. Almost everyone I met was reading “First They Killed My Father,” a story about the Khmer Rouge regime, while traveling in Cambodia. For China, I found a book by one of my favorite authors Paul Theroux called “Riding the Iron Rooster: Traveling by Train Through China.” Though it was written in the late 1980’s and a bit outdated as China has changed quite a lot in those years, it was still a fascinating read about his trip through many of the same places we were going. It is also an unscientifically agreed upon fact with travelers, that train travel is always a better option than bus travel, and most people are willing to pay more money to travel by train whenever possible. You can get up and walk around, there is a bar car or restaurant, it’s more social, there are bathrooms (however disgusting) and numerous other pluses. The minuses are few, except for maybe this key phrase: hard seat on overnight train in China.

My friend Chris and I boarded our car, knowing but not yet understanding the implications, that we hadn’t been upgraded to a sleeper for our overnight journey to Lanzhou from Xi’an. Since we had spent a long time trying for the upgrade, when we finally arrived at our assigned seats, they were not only occupied but there were masses of people in the aisles and doorways, and not one inch of spare space on the overhead luggage racks for our backpacks. Now we understood the mad rush of the locals to get on the train, as they secured space for their belongings, and sat in what would hopefully turn out to be unclaimed seats. For what we also didn’t know, was that people were able to buy standing room only tickets for the train. Overnight. So we showed our tickets and the two men sheepishly got up and let us sit, and we nodded at the couple that would be sharing our four inches of leg room for 12 hours. We spent the next 15 minutes moving luggage around and finding space for our bags, a move that the entire train car watched with amusement, curiousity and some disdain. The aisles were full of people, standing or sitting on boxes and bags, holding children and talking on cell phones. The lights were bright and flourescent, and as the train slowly started to move, we sighed and tried to sit back and make ourselves as comfortable as possible, which was not really at all.

All was fairly well and good,when suddenly I heard a sound which makes me cringe, similar to nails on a chalkboard for most people; someone was clipping their nails. That teeth chattering sound filled my ears and I could hear nothing else. With one eye, I peered out and saw a middle-aged man clipping his toenails. Not just his nails, but his toenails. Obviously, since a very crowded train was the perfect place for one’s grooming habits. I tried to block it out, but even Chris finally said blankly, “That’s digusting.” It was just this moment when it happened, one of my worst nightmares, and aside from that terrible clicking sound, the sole reason I hate nail clippers. Chris and I watched in horror as a maverick toenail flew across the aisle in our direction, and nestled comfortably in the crook of his arm. We quickly stood up, and tried to shake off the small offender, but couldn’t see it any longer. “That is just gross, it landed on me,” Chris said. I silently agreed, but couldn’t acknowledge what had just happened. A true fear of mine had just come true, but, I didn’t actually die of disgust. Just proved why I hate nail clippers and their errant flyaways. I think Chris finally understood why I reached for his MP3 player, and tried to block out any memory of the last few minutes as the man finally, after what seemed like far too many toes, finished his task.

Crammed together, we shared Chris’s headphones on his Mp3 player, and tried to stay calm. Around midnight, my eyes started drooping and I had trouble keeping them open, but sitting upright for hours had made me antsy as well, and my butt started to get numb, so we tried to stretch and move around a bit, as much as possible. I nodded off slightly, but only for minutes at a time, and these minutes, they dragged on as slowly as ever. My watch seemed to be malfunctioning, as what I thought was eternity was only about 36 minutes of time passed. I also realized that I was suddenly even more cramped against Chris, this time uncomfortably so, with my left arm flat to my side and my right one up on the little window ledge. I glanced over and discovered why; we suddenly we now sharing our two little seats with some random guy’s right butt cheek. He had cheekily perched himself on the edge of Chris’s seat, and now what little room we had to move was gone. Any movement from us, and we lost precious inches of space. Since the aisles were cramped with people and gear, the drink cart barely made it through, which was not a big deal as we rationed our water drinking to avoid trying to use the bathroom, a journey that not only would be difficult but would probably be gross and then make us lose even more seat space. So there we sat, nodding on and off in sleep, waking up to men hawking up lugies (more on this later) and cell phones ringing, whatever noise was louder than the roar of the train.


As Chris drooled on my shoulder and bursts of sleep came in minutes, not hours, my legs began to ache from sitting in the same position too long. My own hypochondria took over my sleepless mind, and I began to have paranoid thoughts of having surgery in China to remove a blood clot. When I could stand it no longer, I finally nudged Chris awake and made a move to stand. Since there wasn’t an inch to stand on in front of us or in the aisles, my only option was to stand on my seat, where Chris joined me to stretch his legs, and again, we were the object of everyone’s attention who happened to be awake. The standing helped a little, but we both knew we needed to walk around, something that would not be accomplished very easily. So we succumbed and sat down again, trying to find a comfortable spot and reclaim the part of Chris’s seat that we lost as we stood up. My body finally had enough, and I woke up with a start at 6am, after finding an hour or so of uninterrupted sleep with my head resting on the little table in front of me. The train was due to arrive in Lanzhou in about half an hour, and already people were stirring, gathering bags and trying to get an inch closer to the door. Normally I don’t understand this urgency to be the first on or off the train, but this time, I couldn’t wait to get off that hell on rails either. I felt nauseous, due to lack of sleep, dehydration and sitting upright for 12 hours. Equally groggy and ill, Chris managed to get our backpacks down and get us off the train. I knew I needed to wake up, as, horror of horrors, we needed to find our way to the bus station and board a bus that would take us to our next destination, Xiahe, 6 hours away. As we looked for a taxi, my blurred thoughts rested on just one; what would Chinese public buses be like?

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