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Train Travel Chinese Style, with Pot Noodles.

Soft-sleeper car, early morning

It’s a long way from Shanghai to Harbin by train – two nights and a day, in fact. That’s two nights and half a day longer than flying there. 

Why on earth then would you do it? Well, because it’s a train, and train travel, even in China, is capable of being a romantic and memorable experience mirroring the great train journeys of old. As long as you can shut out the smokers, the squat toilets, the PA announcements and the toothbrush hawkers that is. More on them later.

Train journeys anywhere in China always begin in a cavernous, cold, poorly lit waiting room, a place that would feel like the antechamber to a mausoleum actually, were it not filled with so many thousands of people with luggage and bags of brightly-coloured pot noodles.

In the waiting room, you wait, and wait, and just when you think your train must be running late they call for boarding and the neon-yellow sign above your gate turns green, a signal to the entire crowd to leap out of their seats and run madly across the waiting room to assemble as a tightly-packed mosh-pit in front of the narrow gate. 

Some desperate buggers who have standing-only tickets cram their way to the front, shoving violently, and can later be seen sprinting across the platform to secure any spare seats so they don’t have to sleep standing up.

The whole mosh-pit then squeezes through the single gate and on to the platform where it’s just a matter of finding your car and berth number, more difficult than it should be because sometimes an entire Chinese family or very deaf grandmother has taken occupation of your seat. They know it’s yours, they’re just hoping you wouldn’t turn up. After some to-and-fro and the eventual intervention of the guard, they give in, take their pot noodles and leave.

After memorable past experiences such as these in hard seat and hard sleeper class, for long journeys there is only one way to go – soft sleeper. It’s as cheap as chips, and sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? And it is, in the same way riding a bicycle is luxurious if you’re accustomed to walking barefoot on icy ground with frostbite to all your toes.

In soft sleeper you’re the master of your own four-berth compartment, two up, two down, with your own window, lockable door, soft cotton-coverd quilts, lace antimacassars and a Ministry of Railways thermos, standard issue. 

This is perfect if you travel as a family of four, as we do. If you take a berth on your own you will have to contend with a degree of smoking, snoring, spitting, plus or minus unexpected extra passengers in the berth above you, snuck in after the guards have gone to bed to share a bunk with their mother/brother/girlfriend.

The downside of soft sleeper? Well there’s a few. There’s the PA message on loop with a hidden volume switch it takes hours to find. The incessant smoking. And the pot noodle and toothbrush vendors who trundle their long narrow steel trolleys through the carriage every half hour with the same sing-song sales cry – “Bee-er! Instant noooo-dellls! Tooooth-brsh-toooooth-pste! Beee-er!” and on it goes. 

But the worst by far is the single stainless steel squatter toilet you have to share with the whole carriage. Now if, for example, you have a supernatural ability to go to the bathroom at the start of a thirty-three hour train journey and never again, this won’t bother you one bit. On the other hand, if you need to use the toilet more than once and you have some ridiculous hang-up about flushing, or about ones and twos being confined to the receptacle of the squatter, or about used toilet paper thrown on the floor, or even about touching the same door handle as the person who left their large number two in the corner of the room, then thirty three hours in soft-sleeper is going to be tough for you. 

I prefer not to think about it. It’s just shit, after all. And it’s much worse in hard sleeper.

But it does then get you thinking about the troubling grimy carpet, and where all that grime has been tracked from. Better to just take your shoes off when you get back to your room. And try not to drink any water.

The first night on the train is noisy and busy. I hadn’t paid attention to the schedule when I booked our tickets, and our first 13 stops occurr in the first overnight stretch of 11 hours. Just frequently enough to drift off to sleep before the next load of passengers boards and wakes you with a jolt, in combination with the searchlight strength platform lights streaming in your window and the platform PA message. 

Even at three am Chinese train passengers have no sense of quiet awareness of a carriage full of sleeping bodies, and consider it perfectly natural to wander up and down the corridor yelling:
‘Where is number 33?’ 
‘What berth are you again?’
‘Are you sure we’re in the right car?’
‘Oh! There’s 33!’
‘I just passed it.’
‘There! Behind you! No! The other way!’ 

The same guys always need to get out of bed for a smoke once an hour. 

If nothing else, train travel is great for people watching. My favorites are the train guards – a special breed of slightly fierce-looking but actually really goofy individuals. They sport a navy blue uniform with a pilot’s hat, with degrees of red braid and gold buttons you can acquire depending on rank. 
The guards in my carriage. ‘No photos! My hat’s crooked!’
Soon after we get on the train I find one of them dragging a reluctant six year old down the corridor to the 130cm mark on the wall at the end of every carriage, to check he isn’t scamming an under-130cm ticket when he should be paying for a regular child’s ticket, the pint-sized 131cm rascal. I hear his dad pleading that his shoes have extra thick soles. The guards let him off, just this once. The dad smiles a lot, nervously, as the guards return his son but the kid knew all along it was one big funny joke at his father’s expense and the guards were in on it.

Of course, you’ll want to know about train food, that special variety of cuisine served up by the Ministry of Railways. It varies by route, and runs the gamut from unidentifiable slop (I’ve described my first train meal consisting of fingernails and gristle before) to really quite tasty in a retro, boarding school sort of way. 

The dining car is often empty, becuase the meals are expensive compared to a five yuan pot of instant noodles, but there are always one or two hardy souls sleeping with their heads on the table nursing a bottle of fiery bai jiu so they don’t have to return to the horror of the debris-strewn hard-seat carriages, and a couple of off-duty guards lounging around. The cook always wears the dirtiest white coat and has little hair. 

Faced with the look of some train food, it’s no wonder that at least fifty percent of our meals turn out to be pot noodles. Instant ramen, two-minute noodles, cup-a-noodles, whatever you know them by, the Chinese name for them is the best ever – fangbian main 方便面 -convenience noodles. My husband is always disappointed that the sachet of dehydrated green and brown flakes doesn’t transmogrify into a hearty beef and vegetable stew under the influence of hot water from our thermos, just like the picture on the pot. But they are only five yuan. 

Chinese train travel is still, in spite of the downsides, for me the most wonderful way to travel. You go to sleep in Shanghai, and wake up to a winter-scoured landscape in Shandong province, and through the day see frozen rivers, and village houses stacked with golden corn, and beautiful parts of the Chinese countryside out of view for the air traveller. 

Dinner over for the second time, just outside Tianjin I drift off to sleep to the comforting thought that it’s only ten hours until I can use a clean hotel toilet. And tomorrow I’ll be in Harbin.

Train fanatic? Other train journeys you might enjoy:

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

To Ancient Xian by Train

Train to Nanjing

To Ancient Xi’an By Train

Last night I went to sleep in Shanghai, and woke up this morning in far-off Shaanxi province, the ancient cradle of the Chinese dynasties and the capital Xi’an. I took the Z train, rocked to sleep all the way by the lull and roll of the wheels on the tracks. This is a trip I’ve been trying to do for a year, but at last I will see Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, and the home of the famed terracotta warriors. And just as famed, the street food. I’m not sure which I’m more excited about.

I seem to be doing a lot of train travel lately, and to be honest, for this trip the pressure was on to go by air – a mere two and a half hours. But planes in China are unreliable, persistently delayed, and they pick you up and put you down without any concept of the shift in the landsape between A and B. I’m all for speed when time is short, but if I have the time, I enjoy the hours on the train, watching the slow transitions in the houses, fields and crops. I feel like this kind of rail travel may just be dying out, as the old trains are gradually repleced with faster and faster machines, and I should enjoy it as often as I can.

We left Shanghai in darkness, with the neon brightness of the city gradually thinning out then fading altogether. I had a little paper cup of red wine, sitting on the lower berth of our four bunk compartment, then climbed into my narrow upper bunk, pulled the white cotton-covered silk quilt up to my chin, and fell instantly asleep. Hours later, as the dark night lifted into early dawn, we passed through a landscape completely new to my eyes, and such a stark contrast to the lush, green rice and lotus paddies of south-east China where I have travelled before. Dry, brown, and ancient-looking, the villages here lie under cliffs of red earth, the houses either carved into the cliff-face, or hidden behind tall, red-brick walls with imposing stone gateways, opening onto sunny courtyards and humble low-set buildings. Golden yellow corn is laid out to dry on each flat roof, and the last of the dark orange persimmons are hanging on the trees.

This feels like an altogether different China, and it is, part of the mid-west Loess Plateau formed by the dust of far-off Siberia and neighbouring Mongolia, blown through millennia of duststorms and deposited here in Shaanxi. The Silk Road began here too, from this ancient and important capital, heading westward through central asia to Europe.

As I step out of Xi’an’s crowded train station, battling through the crowds and the taxi touts, I see the old city walls rising impressively in front of me. I can feel the history.

Happy Under the Umbrellas in Shao Xing

The woman in the seat behind me on the train has taken off her mock-patent leather high heels and slipped into a much more comfortable pair of gigantic plush Minnie Mouse slippers for the two hour journey from Shanghai to Shao Xing, home to famous rice wine. She’s looking forward to having two days off to relax and enjoy herself, starting now with her slippers. I love leaving Shanghai for the weekend too, to see somewhere new. I love pulling up at Shanghai South Railway Station on a Friday afternoon, jostling through the weekend crowds to get to the waiting room, and then the mad pushing, shoving rush on to the train, despite all of us having pre-assigned seats.
When we arrive in Shao Xing, it’s raining. Hard. Typhoon Megi is off the coast far, far away and so we’re in for a wet, wet weekend. Shao Xing is an ancient trading town with a network of water canals and flagstone streets, and with the atmosphere of a big village despite its population being similar to Sydney. 
Today, as we wander the narrow canal-side lanes in the wet, I see a rainbow procession of dripping umbrellas everywhere I look, and below each umbrella is a happy red face. When Chinese people visit a new place they always try the local specialties, be it hairy crabs or ginger candies or mountain tea. In Shao Xing the local specialty is the rice wine, mellow, smooth and warming; so even tee-totallers may decide to have a glass at one of the many wineshops as they enjoy the local ambience. The wine shops are filled with enormous stone pitchers of aged wine, and shelf after shelf of small decorative bottles in fancy boxes, for gifts. When Chinese people drink wine it tends to turn their faces red, and so the town is filled with cheery, flushed tourists all having a great time. Even though it’s pouring and we’re all drenched, we’re happy. I like a town dedicated to enjoying yourself.

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

For the next two weeks we’re travelling to Guilin, in China’s South. Internet being what it is in rural China, my posts may be more sporadic than usual, so thank you ahead of time for your patience. We’ll be visiting the famous karst peaks of Guangxi Province, the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces and tiny farming villages. Enjoy the trip!

The journey begins at Shanghai South Railway Station, and heads south west, and back in time. Shanghai South is a beautiful modern architectural masterpiece compared with its North Shanghai counterpart. We drag our bags through perfunctory security checks, then marvel at the immense circular roof, fortressed like a giant star looking over the thousands of travellers below waiting for their trains. I spot a river a people surging towards a platform whose train has just arrived. There are thousands of people. Then I realize that it’s my train they are moving towards.

From the moment we step into our carriage I feel like I’m back in travel’s golden age. We have a soft sleeper compartment. I don’t know that the soft part refers specifically to the bed, but your journey will certainly be softer. Our compartment has two upper and two lower berths, all with cream satin damask coverlets and embroidered anti-macassars for our heads. There is a small white damask covered table, for eating, drinking tea, or playing mahjong, and a large thermos for hot water for tea or noodles. Each berth has its own little lamp with an old fashioned silver toggle switch, and I spend a while just switching it off and on, off and on, for the sheer enjoyment. Each bed is also equipped with a blue velvet covered coathanger hung at its foot, and a China Rail standard issue silk quilt. On the floor is an ornate red patterned carpet and four pairs of blue plastic slippers, for padding about in. This trip will take 23 hours, and has cost $85.

When I see the bathrooms, I understand why the slippers will come in handy. They are as industrial as the compartments are ornate. Two plates of stainless steel tread plate mark the position for squatting, over a hole which leads direct to the tracks below. Obviously $85 doesn’t get you everything.

We pull out of Shanghai and I make a cup of tea, sipping it as the outer suburbs of Shanghai make way for five minutes of farmland before the outer suburbs of our first stop, Jiaxing, appear. For the next three hours I come to understand more about the accelerated Industrial Revolution China is undergoing than I could have learned in three years in Shanghai. Everywhere I look are huge piles of slag, sand ready for concrete, tonnes of bricks, steel re-inforcing rods, welding, hammering and building, building, building. Apartment blocks, roads, pipelines, office towers, factories, factories, factories. Huge lights illuminate the night workers laying a new high speed rail line. Off duty workers lounge shirtless in the heat in makeshift tents by the edge of their worksite. Some wash from a small plastic bowl, some sleep out in the open. Activity is everywhere. It’s as if China is literally racing to catch up after years of much slower progress.

As darkness falls the frenetic activity starts to thin, then eventually the first prolonged tract of farmland – we have entered China’s rice bowl, and rice fields are interspersed with lotus fields. Rice, lotus, rice lotus. I nod off to sleep, only to be wakened by a bright light shining in my window – it’s actually just the moon, and I lie awake watching it reflected in the rice paddies and ponds. Through the night we make several stops, each one breaking the journey by just a few minutes. Few get on or off. I go back to sleep.

In the early light of dawn we stop for half an hour at Wulidun, along with three other long-distance trains. Everyone looks tired, and in the hard seat compartment of the train opposite I can see exhausted travellers asleep on their tables. They are going in the opposite direction, and have come from Nanning, near Vietnam’s border. We pull away through smaller and smaller villages and tiny farms. The farmers are already at work at six in the morning, tending to the rice, the corn and beans they are growing.

Around midday our packed food runs out, and we resort to eating the cardboard-boxed food from the train canteen. It doesn’t disappoint. A hideous mixture of knuckle, bone, gristle and cabbage, with a fried egg on top, with rice. I eat the egg and rice and give up on the gristle-knuckle mixture after picking up a piece that looks like a fingernail. Because most of our stops were during the night we hadn’t yet figured out the train’s food system – during the five minute stops you must leap out on to the platform and buy from the noodle vendors who waits there. There are no interesting food vendors plying the carriages like trains in other parts of Asia, and no snack trolley. Never mind. The first limestone karst peaks appear and I know we are close to Guilin. The entire landscape is a bright subtropical green and there are now banana palms and lychee trees between the rice fields. We pull into Guilin station mid-afternoon.

As we leave our carriage the heat hits us like a wall, dense and heavy. The sound of crickets and cicadas fills the air with a loud throng, almost as loud as the taxi touts at the exit gate looking for business. Welcome to Guilin.

Train to Nanjing

This weekend I’m off to Nanjing for the Lantern Festival, but first I have to brave Shanghai Railway Station in order to get there. All my trips so far have exited from Shanghai South Railway Station, an architect-designed masterpiece of a modern station,  more like a UFO than a transport hub. On the other hand, Shanghai Railway Station, I’d heard, is one place in Shanghai you need to carefully guard your belongings. And your children. And your chickens, if you have them.

 Thousands of people pass through this station every minute of every hour, most dragging bags and suitcases, a few looking shifty and dragging sacks and boxes, and an occasional downright dangerous looking character carrying nothing but three mobile phones. Hmmm……
Our waiting room was one of twelve massive caverns, each one seating 1000 people with standing room for another thousand. I love railway waiting rooms for the sheer diversity and colour of the travellers encountered there, and these were no exception.  We shared ours with grandmothers on mobile phones, a group of Buddhist monks and two really annoying  British businessmen loudly discussing what they disliked about their wives.