Sunday, August 5, 2012

Long train rides in China

Sitting on top of a minibus along the narrow track on the cliff edge of one of the most dangerous roads in the Himalayas in Nepal- Check! Standing in the back of a truck along the busiest and most dangerous road in Indonesia ducking to avoid low hanging power lines- Check! Surviving many crowded trains listening to three different Bollywood songs all being blasted at full volume from different mobile phones whilst having 20 faces all peering at you- Check! And now travelling on 2 trains and a bus over three days straight for over 30 hours in the local class on a hard seat. For those who have been to China you would understand the discomfort of this travel. Hard seat is a bench you share with three (or more) other people all arm to arm, no personal space.

People's adopted sleeping positions on the train rides...
My adopted sleeping position on the long train rides
The train is alive although the night with the sounds of babies crying, people spitting, ladies talking in high pitched angry sounding tones and a chorus of snoring. The only time when the train falls silent is when a tout performs his engaging 30 minute act in the carriage selling his product. They throw around props, wet their head and involve the crowd. It is so engaging that the whole train falls silent only to be interrupted by bursts of laughter prompted by the charismatic seller. (He was so good in fact, that I ended up buying one of his products, even though I didn’t understand anything he was saying.)

There is a man pretending to be the Karate kid and delicately using his fingers to pinch the flies accumulating round his head, which he thinks is amusing to the children sitting opposite him (they don’t share the same amusement). There are karts being pushed back and forth full of chicken feet, fruits, instant noodles and more unidentifiable snacks, sending bodies in the aisle falling into your lap. The metal tray in front of you has an ever-growing mountain of spit building up in it, mixing in with the pile of chicken bones and toe nails spat out from the popular chicken feet snack, yet you are thankful they use the tray and not the floor just by your feet.

The second hand smoke is hanging heavily above your head making sure you wake up with a sore throat in the morning. The kid behind you is throwing a tantrum and slapping her mum in the face.
China belly
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse one of the twins next to me vomited up last night’s noodle meal, which they evidently swallowed whole. Both twins look as guilty as the other making it hard to tell which one was responsible. Luckily the child behind has stopped throwing a tantrum, but his mum is now holding him by the legs and a fountain of pee is now being aimed delicately into the trash can, nearby.

Opposite I notice a man with no art of subtly reading a porn magazine, with one of the twins peering over the back of his seat looking very interested indeed. Next to him there is a man brewing his own tea in a special kettle enjoying his own tea ceremony, holding up the tea for inspection before sipping on it slowly enjoying the relaxing process.

The smell of sweat, smoke, durian, chicken feet and vomit now linger in the air. I want to stretch out my legs but am scared to loose my seat that I had to fight for, to the 20 people standing around you waiting for a seat to free up.

Yet despite all the chaos inside the train the view outside is immediately soothing with rolling mountains, corn and rice fields, stretches of greenery, duck filled lakes and families travelling the rural paths on motorcycles is truly impressive.

Sure if vomit, spit, snoring, crying babies and secondhand smoke aren’t your thing then you can opt for the hard sleeper. But with my budget I went for the cheapest option, a hard seat (half the price of a hard sleeper). But I love it. I love to watch the natural interactions between the locals, I love to watch them share food, share seats, games and stories amongst themselves. And if this isn’t a cultural experience then I don’t know what is!
The long queues for the ticket lines

In fact after looking at the figures at the end of my China trip I worked out that 1/3rd of my time in China was spent on some form of transport whether it be local bus, hard seat in a train or hitch hiking! But this total of 138 hours have some of my fondest memories of China. 

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