Obviously, the train was packed. It was the autumn holidays, when the whole of China travels home to see family, and the only tickets available had been for the hard seat carriages – these carriages do have numbered individual seats (‘hard’ meaning non-reclining, because there are so many packed in), but they also serve as standing room carriages for those without seats. This train was originating from the enormous Beijing West station, where I was attempting to board, and would take a mere 27 hours to get from Beijing to Chengdu down in Sichuan province…
I’d been to Sichuan once before for pandas and hotpot, so this time I was just passing through en route to Yunnan; I didn’t fancy the 40-odd hour train ride all the way to Kunming though (in those Chinese pre-bullet train days), so Chengdu seemed a good place to break the journey and visit the Great Buddha while applying for a visa extension at the Leshan PSB. Arriving at Beijing West I was mentally prepared for a tough 27 hours in an uncomfortable seat on a packed train, but the first challenge was simply getting on the train in the first place! It was so completely, totally packed, just getting into the vestibule meant getting through a seething wall of people, luggage, and angry shouting.
Secure in the knowledge that I had a designated seat already reserved and that I’d be able to move the asshole I was certain to find already occupying it, I hung back and waited for the shoving and shouting to die down a little, for everyone to settle down sufficiently for me to at least somewhat calmly get on. However it quickly became apparent that the train would leave without me long before the passengers settled into any form of order, and I was going to have to roll my sleeves up and do this Chinese style i.e. batter my way through that wall of people. And batter my way I did, shoving through the dense crowd, not saying excuse me, not saying sorry; that’s how it’s done, and others in the way are treated as obstacles rather than people. Get yourself to your goal and to hell with everyone else.
And of course, some asshole was already there, sitting in my seat; I told him in Chinese it was my seat and showed him my ticket, and with a glare he vacated it, instead squeezing in with his mates on the seats on the on the other side of the small table. I claimed my spot and settled in, and I’d even amazingly managed to get my bag on the rack a short distance away (competition for luggage space was, if anything, even worse than for seats – migrant workers in China travel with huge amounts of stuff, I guess pretty much all their possessions in a couple of massive hold-alls, as they move between construction jobs in the cities and their rural villages back in the countryside).
The first hours of the journey were dull and uneventful, as the grey buildings of Beijing gave way to the grey air of the surrounding countryside; the riotous mass of the platform at Beijing West had finally settled into their seats and standing spots, and everyone just sat or stood quietly, snoozing or playing with their phones.
My fellow passengers were a mix of young and old, and I figured a lot of them were family groups due to the way they were sharing their seats; each little table had six seats around it, with 8 to 10 people taking turns to sit in the six seats.
It was when I went to the toilet that I realised I had this wrong; upon returning to my seat I found it occupied by an old lady. Now, I hadn’t minded making that other asshole move, but I wasn’t moving this old dear. And then, as I had more time to observe the behaviour around me, it dawned on me that seat reservations counted for nothing in this carriage; the way the overcrowded train was dealt with was that you occupied a seat only for as long as you physically sat in it, in most cases being until you needed the bathroom. Go to the toilet, and it’s someone else’s turn. That ‘other asshole’ who’d been in my seat wasn’t an asshole at all; rather, he was doing it the way it was done, and I was in fact the asshole for thinking my ticket gave me exclusive territorial rights to that specific seat. I saw now that things weren’t working that way with the train so packed – we were all in this together, and all seats were available to all passengers.
It also became apparent that people were often standing just to let others sit, even if they didn’t actually need the toilet, and I realised that with this train being so full, so uncomfortable, and taking so long, this really was the best way to deal with a pretty unpleasant journey.
The day dragged itself monotonously away, gloom in the carriage and gloom out the windows, but as night fell on the fields outside and the lights flickered on, things loosened up on board. The silence was broken and conversations struck, and bags of snacks and decks of cards were produced. I observed a few rounds of this one card game that everyone seemed to be playing, but couldn’t make out the rules other than that the objective was to get rid of all your cards and then loudly proclaim your victory. The mechanics for actually doing so were hard to make out.
And then, to my surprise, a young chap who’d been mostly sitting at the same table as me suddenly asked, in English, if I’d like to play. He explained the rules and then coached me through my first few heavy defeats until I got the hang of it and could fend for myself; a decent game called ‘two soldiers, one king’ or some such, involving one player (with the strongest hand) against a team of two, the cards thrown down on the table with a theatrical slapping motion.
He spoke great English and told me he was from Chengdu and a student at Peking University, heading home for the holidays. Then the girl across the aisle leaned over and explained she was also a Peking University student heading home from Beijing to Chengdu to see family… I told her I’d thought the people sitting around her were family and friends, which confused her no end. These people were all strangers who’d only met when they got on the train; the sharing of seats was just the obvious thing to do in the situation, and it was strange to them that I’d taken it to mean they all knew each other. This eminently sensible approach was a far cry from the chaotic scenes at Beijing West, and the contrast was yet another example of China’s tendency to infuriate and fascinate at the same time.
I’m not going to try and make out that the 27 hours I spent on that train from Beijing to Chengdu were some sort of life changing moment or mind-blowing travel experience, or even merely time well spent; fact is, it sucked. It was uncomfortable and (for the most part) extremely tedious, with hardly even any decent scenery to watch (mostly just smog-smothered fields, unbroken for hundreds of kilometres on end), and I arrived in Chengdu completely knackered (I’m sure we all did). You’d have been doing very well to snatch more than two hours sleep in that carriage – the only reason I even managed that was because one of my fellow passengers offered me her window seat in the middle of the night, and that was the only seat I found it possible to sleep in (some lucky people can sleep anywhere, but I’m not one of them); after grabbing a couple of hours I then offered the prime spot to one of the other standers near me. It was that camaraderie, the attitude that we were all in this crappy situation together and should split the discomfort as evenly as possible, that made it bearable; and it was that camaraderie, with the card games and the chit chat, that made it as memorable an experience as it was an uncomfortable one. Still, not one I’d want to repeat.
With the recent improvements to the rail network in China and high speed rail now reaching most corners of the country (and vastly increasing the overall capacity of the system), there’s no longer any need to endure such a 27-hour train journey across China. That was only 5 years ago, yet you can now get from Beijing to Chengdu in under 8 hours by HSR (though the slow trains do still operate, if you want to save money or just fancy it… still advisable to avoid travel in the peak holiday seasons – just look at this shit show). 8 hours remains a long time to sit on a train of course, and you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to make new friends – when taking the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing (8 hours) once I sat next to a footie fanatic, and we agreed to support one another’s teams. As I’m a Leeds United fan and he was a Guangzhou Evergrande fan, that worked out pretty well for me! (a short time later, Evergrande became Asian champions… meanwhile Leeds continue to languish in the English second division)
The breakneck pace of development in China is a remarkable thing to witness; visit just a couple of years apart and you seem to see a decade of progress. A price is paid in environmental issues of course, and some people benefit more while others are left behind, and China can still be a tough place to live and travel; but it is always fascinating, even on a boring 27-hour train ride.
Update: the journey described here was in 2012. Just 5 years later it seems that the card games and socialising are a thing of the past on China’s slow trains, with everyone absorbed in their smartphones. The bullet trains have pretty much been like that since they started, but obviously this is more to do with phone technology than the trains themselves.
If you’re travelling around by China by train, these days it’s easiest to book your train tickets online. You still have to line up to physically show your ID and pick up your tickets, but that’s better than it used to be; if you know your dates you can book multiple journeys in advance and pick all the tickets up at the same time. Unless you have a Chinese residency number you can’t use the official site, so I recommend using 12go Asia*
Make sure to sign up for a VPN service before arriving in China so you can use the internet as normal – see here
For more China posts, click here
See my China overland travel guide here
(*this is an affiliate link i.e. if you use it to book a train ticket, I’ll score a commission; this comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance should you choose to use this link!)