Friday, October 1, 2010

Crazy Train to Xi'an, China

After having spent ten days traveling with my cousin, I was on my own again. It had been a long time, really, since I'd been on my own. Prior to my travels with my cousin I was in Pai, Thailand amongst a large comradeship of people who I'd met through Sandy and Otto's chai tea shop; in Phuket, Thailand with Josh; and in Singapore with Sheila. So really, the last time I'd been on my own was back when I was in Kuching, Malaysia on the island of Borneo.

I was leaving the following morning for Xi'an, one of China's most ancient cities and home of the Terracotta Warriors. The Silk Road is said to have started here as well. To save money, I opted out of paying for a hotel room in order to sleep for free at the train station. There, at the train station, I managed to find six vacant chairs in which I sprawled onto. Yes, I needed six of them. I'm quite tall, standing at 6 feet 4 inches (1.9304 meters) to be exact.

In the morning I bought a bag of snacks for the long journey that I was about to embark. Again, to save money, I chose to purchase a hard seat instead of the hard sleeper. A hard seat ticket is the basic fare and sort of the equivalent to the economy class on an airplane - except that an economy class seat on an airplane is much more comfortable and there isn't people sleeping on, below, and/or around you. Seriously, this happens.

You see, even though a hard seat ticket is the basic fare, there's a fare that's even more basic. It's called the 'no seat' ticket. This type of ticket is available for people who are typically too poor to purchase a hard seat ticket. However, depending how quickly tickets sell, this may be the ONLY option available unless you have the flexibility to wait for a later date.

And for the people who have these 'no seat' tickets - who, again, are assigned to stand in the passenger cars amongst the hard seat ticket holders, i.e., with me - it's an all-out war to find the perfect standing spot. So once the 'flood' gates open, sort of speak, what typically ensues is that a mob of people bum rush the train. And even if you don't have one of these 'no seat' tickets, you don't want the hassle of struggling your way through the crowds in the passenger car to reach your seat. So not only are the 'no seat' ticket holders rushing, so is everyone else who's sitting in the lower class, too! And you can throw civility out the window. There's none of that here. Like I said, it's an all-out war. Is there civility in war? I didn't think so.

I reached my seat relatively unscathed; however, shorty after, a man approached me and began shouting at me. I didn't have to speak Chinese to understand what he was trying to say. He made it quite clear that he THOUGHT I was sitting in his seat. I didn't appreciate how he approached me, and knowing that I was sitting in the correct seat I stood up to intimidate him with my size.

"Can't you read Chinese, hombre?" I told him, while pointing to my ticket, "This is MY seat!" He quickly came to his senses and realized that, in fact, I was indeed sitting in the proper seat. A couple people sitting around me chuckled as the man walked away.

Unlike the last train I took from Shenzhen to Shanghai, my stop was NOT the final destination. This meant, ultimately, that I would have to pay attention and not mistakenly miss my stop. No problem. Except for one thing: the signs at every stop - you know, the signs that notify you as to where you are - were all written in Chinese. Gulp. And as the only westerner and English speaking person in my passenger car, I found myself in a predicament.

I had to improvise a bit. This is what I did: I stood up and began showing everyone sitting (and standing) around me my ticket, pointing to the city of Xi'an, which, luckily, was written in Chinese characters as well. I did this hoping that someone would notify me once the train arrived in Xi'an. In the end, this technique proved to work, thanks in part to the gay guy next to me (I repeatedly had to remove his hand from my leg as he pretended to be asleep. I also had to pretend to be asleep to avoid him from staring at me and to keep him from attempting to feed me). That's another story in itself.

After 21 hours sitting in a hard seat, I finally reached my destination. I was so happy to finally arrive in Xi'an. My hard seat lived up to its name. It was "hard" to do anything. It was hard to sleep, hard to extend my legs, hard to reach the toilet (so many people standing and sitting in the aisle), and hard to breathe, as people continued to smoke despite the well posted 'no smoking' sign.

Having a hard seat instead of a hard sleeper was an uncomfortable experience albeit a memorable and unique one.



  1. yeah i took a hard seater from korla to xian once... left friday evening, arrived monday morning...i had no clue when i left, was thinking only 1 night :)

    but this was 2005 and is still vivid in my worth it :)
    btw, the ancient wall was built over the old city wall when i was there :)
    its fake


  2. indeed. it was so, so worth it.


    ps do u have a blog frank? when i click on your name it doesn't allow me to view your profile.