In recent years, China has pumped a staggering amount of money into its railways (the controversial QuingHai–Tibet line alone cost $5 billion). Unfortunately precious little of it seems to have found its way into the class carriages. In the absence of any other choice, we bought the cheapest “hard seat” tickets for the twelve hour overnight journey to Pingyao. We can certainly confirm that they are not called hard seats for nothing!
Trying to find our seats in the already packed 150 seat carriage was a challenge, made none the easier by the fact that they were already occupied. After some persistent ticket pointing and gesturing, we managed to move the offenders on. Then came the next problem of actually getting into our seats – the rows of seats faced one another, and left only enough room for the passengers to sit with interlocking knees. In a situation like this, apart from the obvious discomfort of sitting upright for twelve hours, one’s fate is largely decided by the person sitting opposite. Judging by the panel of characters facing us, we were in for a long night.
Opposite John, an old man was propped lifelessly between two larger men, his slack jaw hanging open. Every few moments a pained look would come over his face and he would come to life just long enough to cough violently. Unfortunately, after 5,000 years of continuous civilization, the Chinese have still not learnt to put their hands over their mouths when coughing or sneezing. Spittle flew from his lips. On finally waking and hoiking his throat, he seemed visibly troubled at not being able to spit – a “No Spitting” sign was displayed at each end of the carriage. He looked undecided whether to spit anyway, but then thought better of it and swallowed reluctantly.
The bright fluorescent lighting is never dimed in 3rd class and at about midnight the trolley dolly from the canteen did her first run, peddling an assortment of wares ranging from pot noodles (the most popular choice) to fresh fruit and soft drinks. Nor does the noise ever diminish – loud card games, raucous conversations and snoring were all under way. At 1am a baby started to scream and only then did everyone else stop what they were doing - some people stood up in their seats to watch, and for some reason the baby became the centre of attention. As its cries abated, the rest of the carriage gradually came back to life. At this point the old man seized his opportunity and went to vent his hoiking on the only sink on the carriage.
Unable to sleep at all, John continued his observations late into the night. What began to dawn on him, was just how unbelievably tolerant these people are of one another. Food is shared, new acquaintances are made, and, despite the crammed conditions, tempers never flared. By 4am limbs dangled everywhere, hands rested on other people’s faces and heads lolled on the next persons shoulder. Ironically, in the stifling pre-dawn of this sardine tin on wheels, the Chinese seemed to be at their most serene. Back in England the emergency cord would have been pulled long ago.
As the first rays of sunlight slanted across the carriage, bodies slowly began to untangle. By this point only one final but unavoidable obstacle lay between us and Pingyao – a visit to the toilet. It is a well-known fact that a national past-time of the Chinese is the desecration of bathrooms and there is no finer example of this than a 3rd class overnight carriage. Shared by 150 people, the two squat toilets had taken on a unique patina during the night, the description on which is best left to the imagination. Needless to say it was a relief when the final station slid into view – Pingyao.