The Night Train to Shanghai

As is the case with so many adventures, my trip to Shanghai began with little notice and a hustle to pack a bag quickly enough to get to the station before the last train left.  I was confident in my plans, as I was quite sure that there was no chance that I would be able to buy a ticket an hour before the train left.  It can be particularly difficult to buy train tickets in China, as there is great demand for cheap, long distance transportation.  It is over 800 miles from Beijing to Shanghai.  My friends paid just over $30 for their tickets.  They were also without a good seat for 13 hours.  I have no pictures from the ride itself (I felt too crappy to even pull the camera out), but our train looked just like this one.

There was a tremendous storm growing as we left our hostel, and by the time we arrived at the main station it appeared that the world would soon come to an end.  Massive claps of thunder and ethereal pink lightning turned Beijing into a movie set.  As far as I can tell, the typical Chinese urbanite does not enjoy getting rained on, and on first sign of precipitation they flock to the closest awning.  I had to push my way through crowds blocking the entrance to the station, only to be told that I would have to go back outside and to a different building to buy my tickets.  At this point it was raining like Saving Private Ryan, and I was quickly saturated.  This is probably where my cold started.

Luck would have it so that I managed to score a bed for the long ride to Shanghai, and though this would seem to be of great fortune, it proved to be quite the opposite in the long run, but we will get to that soon enough.  I have never ridden a Chinese train before, and it was a bit of an experience figuring out what car and room I was meant to be staying in.  I stopped at each car, asked the attendant where I should go, and all of them made a sign with their hand looking like they were imitating a gun, a momentary dip into childhood that I took to signal an invitation into the car.  I was confused that every attendant I asked did the same thing, but would quickly thereafter tell me to keep walking.  Finally arriving at car number eight, I remembered that the Chinese are fond of using a series of hand gestures to represent the numbers one through ten, with eight being portrayed with the thumb skyward and the pointer finger straight out.  The youthful weapon.

I got my bunk, a thin, lightly padded board suspended about six feet off of the ground.  A more expensive ticket would have garnered me a ground level bunk, a less expensive would have put me four feet higher above mine.  The middle seemed just fine to me;  I had a bed, and my friends did not, and being in the middle meant that there wouldn’t be a crowd of Chinese men playing cards on my sleeping space.  I dropped my stuff on the bed, and sat next to the window in the adjacent corridor, assuring that no one would try to get savvy and switch my spot.  I was only carrying a small backpack, and it would not have been difficult for someone to toss it to the side and drop their own flag.  Space is scarce on such rides, and it is important to carve out your territory as early as possible.  Somewhere at the far front of the train, my friends were doing the same thing, only they had elected to use camping chairs in place of the seats they had failed to obtain.

And soon enough, the train began to inch forward with the distinct clank of old style rail cars, a chorus of clinks as each car begins to pull the weight of the carriage behind.  My throat had the dangerous tingle that often indicates the onset of sinus trouble, but this was of little matter;  I was on an impromptu departure for a place I had never been, the most populous city within China.  Trains are a great place to get a sense of the greater China, with the large collection of classes and backgrounds aggregated into one mob, a high speed community  of 13 hours life.  I quickly got into a conversation with one of the men sharing a berth with me.  He had an entire arm bandaged up, the kind of bandaging that usual follows significant surgery.  It was a bit comical, as he was also staying in a middle bunk, the climb up to which can be quite challenging when using both arms, let alone just one, or better yet, one good one and one that is incredible susceptible to injury.  It did not seem to hinder his spirit, but I worried that there would be blood.

We sat by the window for a while, and talked about China, what I was doing and about government in the United States.  It seems that people always want me to contrast the United States and China.  I have never been able to decide if they are expecting me to say something in particular, or if they are actually truly interested.  I often end up feeling as though I have justified some belief that they already held.  In reality, I find more an more that Americans are quite predictable.  In many ways, so are the Chinese.  Our conversation came to an end, and as he got up and moved away, he was quickly replaced by a younger man.  This gentleman was very eager to speak in English, and I was tired enough that it was probably for the better.  We spoke for a long time about all manner of things, but once again, government and life in our two different nations was the trend.  Once again, I left feeling as though each of us already knew what they other was going to say.

I ended up going to bed not very late, as I wasn’t feeling great and didn’t want to be exhausted once we arrived the next morning.  This is where things got a bit interested.  Chinese men have any number of habits that vary from the unpleasant to the strange and hard to understand.  The most common of these, and (for me, at least) the most unpleasant, is the massive number of cigarettes that a Chinese male can smoke while killing time.  As I understand it, you are supposed to go into the carriage gap between cars if you want to smoke, but this is China and such things tend to be more of a suggestion.  Smoke away, my bunk mates, smoke away.  We also happened to be sharing a bunk with a man who had some of the most profound flatulence that I have ever encountered.  I’m talking Elephant after a cabbage binge.  This was entertaining at first, but in conjunction with the smoke just became more sick than anything else.  And because we happened to be traveling on an old and slow train, the cars banged more than usual.  Each time we made for a stop, there would be a tremendous jolt as the eight cars behind us tried to outrun the seven cars in front.  The result was a quick hit into the side of the bunk.  I would have found this quite enjoyable, save that it kept me very much awake to experience the other events in their full glory.  Clank, Flatulate, Smoke, Repeat.

And so it was that I arrived in Shanghai with a fantastic head cold, to the point where my teeth hurt.  It was close to 100 degrees and the last thing that I wanted to do was go out, but I had made it all the way here and didn’t want to spend the day in bed.  A short nap and a shower did wonders, and with some encouragement from my friends (who had a far less traumatic experience riding in the standing section) managed to head out into the new financial center of the world.

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2 Responses to The Night Train to Shanghai

  1. Ann Vull says:

    ..and with this post, you have become my favorite travel writer!
    Well, OK you were already my favorite, but this is a model for a book I would find hard to put down.

  2. Megan says:

    As hard as it is sometimes, I am so proud of you and all of your adventures!

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