The Midnight Train to Guilin


For us, China will have been traversed by either bus or train. Other than the one sleeper bus to Shenzen, buses have been thankfully, fortunately mundane in nature. Trains though, have been the marathon in the rain…have been Mao’s Long March…have been like an elephant’s pregnancy. In other words, they have felt, um, rich in analogies.

There are four main categories of train—hard seater, soft seater, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. Hard seaters are what they are—plain seats, usually in groups of six sitting across from each other and separated by a small table. People overflow (overselling of tickets?) and have to stand in the aisles for the entire journey. Vendors move up and down the same skinny aisle selling spinning tops, packaged cucumbers, and herbal remedies. This is the mode in which China’s 1.3 billion people move around the country. It feels cramped and crowded with both luggage and people.
Soft seaters are the Arnold Schwarzeneggar to the hard seaters Danny Devito, or so we’ve been told since we haven’t actually ridden one. The chairs are supposed to be cushy, roomy, and recline. There is no overcrowding. I imagine there is a bottle of Chinese Grey Poupon next to each chair.

Soft sleepers we’ve been told are also the reloaded 2.0 version of the hard sleeper. Elegant and roomy, it’s like a hotel room on tracks. I hear it even comes with slippers and people change into pajamas in it.
The hard sleeper, by contrast has two rows of bunks, each three bunks high. Each set of six bunks has a small table on the floor level. And this set up is repeated over and over down the length of the car. There are no walls or doors separating you from everyone else’s snoring, ringtones, etc. Each bunk comes with a pillow and blanket, which are not washed after each use, but maybe after some usage…
A typical hard sleeper experience starts with us picking up our bags from the hostel luggage check, and going to the train station at 11:30 pm. Outside the train station are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people; touts working on new arrivals, some groups of people talking on benches and others with mats pulled out on the sidewalk sleeping next to their luggage.

We enter the train station, pass the metal detector, and scan the signs to see which waiting room in the building we will be in. We find our boarding area and sit down, trying to glimpse other people’s tickets to make sure we are in the right area. People spit in the rows next to us and shirtless, shoeless men lay out on chairs trying to catch some sleep before they have to board and probably before they have to appear more presentable.

A child pees between two seats, which surprisingly causes no reaction from the strangers in the two seats. 2-3 minutes before our train is scheduled to arrive, people seem to know to queue up. We wrestle into position. Women, teenagers, old men randomly, periodically push past us and everyone else in the queue in order to cut to the front. It is tolerated and accepted by all.

Then, at some seemingly designated time, we all push forward together. We’re caught up in a wave of elbows pushing out, shoulders maneuvering bodies forward until we get to the bottleneck that is the station attendant who hole punches each ticket. Then it’s off to the races. We, and everyone else, run down the hallway towards our platform number.

People with small children or big luggage fall behind the able-bodied. As we are taking the steps two at a time, a woman loses her plastic jug of pickled something or other. It rolls ahead of her, then us as people are giggling. Then it explodes on the man at the bottom of the stairs in a burst of violet. The laughter stops, but people’s feet never do. The man looks back, shakes his head, and we all move on. I hope he doesn’t have to sit/sleep in those clothes, but I hope even more that he’s not in my cabin.

Eventually we arrive, slightly out of breath, to our platform and have to quickly scan in which direction our car is. When we figure it out, we run towards it and see a minimob already fighting to get on. We enter into the group queue, which is no queue at all and push our way on. Once on the train, everyone is trying to find their bunk and find precious space for their luggage. I put mine on the rack, then go about the business of moving the bags near mine to make room for Mari’s. And once our bags are up, we can finally breathe.

People usually talk and sit on the bottom bunk till about 10 o’clock, when it’s lights out. No one changes their clothing, I hardly ever see a toothbrush make an appearance. But there is a lot of eating. From the moment the train lunges forward till it makes it’s last hissing stop, people are eating. I watched one grandma go through 2 drinks, a large pack of sunflower seeds, a bowl of noodles, 3 hard-boiled eggs, and some pastries in a 3 hour period. It’s like a picnic here.

After the lights go out, people generally settle in for the night. You just hope no one in your near vicinity is a bad snorer. My bunkmate turns out not to be, though he does decide to turn his cell phone/mp3 player on high and hold it out while he closes his eyes. Apparently he needs music to fall asleep and thinks I do also. Considerate of him, but he’s also put it on repeat, so the same song blares over and over. I pray he has a short battery life. People in the bunks above me move up and down throughout the night, readily using me to help prop them up to their bunk. I kick them off and they move on, neither of us caring.

The following day is usually filled with Mari and I moving between reading, taking naps, and staring out the window. People continue to eat. One man with dress shoes, dress socks, slacks, but no shirt paces by me continuously. His rhythm is only interrupted when he covers one nostril and blows snot out of the other onto the train floor. Over the next half hour I observe him spitting 3 times on the floor (and once out the window), cleaning his bellybutton and making those dirt worms roll off his body. I say, “disgusting” at him, knowing he can’t understand me, but feeling well within boundaries if he does. Mari comes back from the toilet to tell me it doesn’t work.

Eventually, the train thins out from the stops along the way and we grab seats along the windows, staring out to the constantly moving landscape. China’s rice terraces and crowded cities zoom past, as do the hills by Yangshuo, the Li river and mud-brick villages.

Jeff Lee
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