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Livin' with the locals

By Alexandra Thompson | | Updated: 2012-04-05 12:20
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After a spur-of-the-moment decision in the train ticket office in Beijing, we booked our return from Harbin to a place called Nanchang on the basis that it must be further south and therefore warmer. As always, there was a complication with buying the tickets. This time there weren't any sleeper beds available, just hard seats. Even so, we decided to go ahead with it, after all, this would add to the adventure. Little did we know that we'd just let ourselves in for an epic thirty-eight-hour cross-country train ride across China that I am only beginning to recover from now. On the day of departure, Google gave us the very unwelcome news that the journey we were about to embark on wasn't quite the nine and a bit hours we were expecting. Luckily there was time to buy enough snacks to keep us going before heading on to the station.

The author on the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan province. [Photo provided to]

The layout of the seated carriages was not at all like what I was expecting. They were clearly of Chinese design as there is no way any other nation could have produced a train with such a cramped and uncomfortable configuration. There was an aisle running down the middle of the carriage, however its width was about half that of UK trains, and once on board the train, reaching our seat was a challenge in itself. We first had to fight through the wall of people standing in the aisle (because believe it or not, they even sell 'no seat' tickets for this journey) intent on blocking our path. On one side of this, there were several clusters of six seats around a table so small it was only capable of holding a few packets of cigarettes and some cartons of milk substitute. On the other side, there was a similar situation but with four seats. The seats themselves were excruciatingly uncomfortable, and in order to find a painless position in which to sit I would have needed to either detach my legs from my body or in some way temporarily shrink to about four feet tall. The next obstacle was finding somewhere to stow our luggage. The designated luggage racks above us were jammed full of bags from the carriage's couple of hundred occupants so the only option was to squeeze my large rucksack under my seat, therefore diminishing what little legroom I had to start with, and have my smaller rucksack perched on my lap.

I was immediately subjected to a feast of coughing, sneezing, sniffing, burping, farting, spitting and scratching. This made the thirty-eight hours seem like a very, very long time indeed. Oh the joys of being in an environment with over 118 Chinese people in close proximity! On top of this, I was conveniently located at the end of the carriage next to the boiling water dispenser. The aisle beside me therefore acted as a motorway of people pushing, climbing and jumping to fill up their jam jars and instant noodles, which people don't sip by the way, they slurp. Slurp, slurp, slurp… As well as this, the area behind me served as the smoking area, so whenever the door was opened as yet another person made a dive for the hot water machine, a waft of smoke entered the carriage and filled the air. Perhaps it was to make up for the minus temperatures outside, but the carriage was also terribly overheated. Whilst queuing for the loo I had to tolerate pushing in, shoving and grabbing. Once inside, I'll leave the details of the ordeal to your imagination.

Every cluster of seats had its own small television screen, but these didn't show television programmes or films. No no no. Just the cheesy, far-too-upbeat-for-their-own-good adverts that I can already recite the words to from memory because they are also played on every bus in China. After a marathon six hours or so of listening to these my sanity was in question. I sat wedged in between my luggage and the radiator, sweating in the sauna-like heat (at one point my right leg was almost on fire), passive smoking and knowing that I still had another thirty two hours of this hell left. During the night no attempt was made to cut the noise or dim the lights but I was able to hide behind my rucksack and surprisingly I managed to sleep for a few hours.

The following day was spent sitting in exactly the same position in the same seat on the same train. At Tianjin we were graced by the presence of a new neighbour who proceeded to eat vacuum packed meat which looked and smelt like dog food but I don't think it was. However, it was unmistakably chicken feet that the friendly girl opposite us was nibbling on, and it was a particularly messy operation getting the meat off the bone. In between sipping and slurping baijiu (wine) and beer the new arrival did a lot of earwax removal using a toothpick, and a lot of staring and grinning at us. It turned out it was the first time he'd met a foreigner who wasn't Russian. We were the subjects of intense speculation throughout the journey, and when we purchased some proper food from the dining car we gathered quite an impressive crowd eager to watch (and photograph) us using chopsticks.

After another mostly sleepless night spent worrying about my laptop becoming too hot on the floor or too wet from the melting ice, we arrived in Nanchang. Looking like death, feeling like death and with no hotel to go to, we staggered from the train. We were dehydrated after almost forty hours on board avoiding the loo and our ankles had swollen to twice their normal size. Swaying with dizziness in the fresh air, I didn't know whether I was hallucinating the open space of the platform. I wasn't. We'd arrived!

The author is a nineteen-year-old student currently studying Chinese at Capital Normal University in Beijing on her year abroad from the University of Leeds, UK.

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