From the vault: Hell is Train Travel

This guy has the right idea. Ride tractors not trains.

I’ve been noticeably silent on this blog for the past year (OK, maybe it’s been a bit longer). After moving from Beijing back to Melbourne I found it surprisingly difficult to find my Melbourne “voice” — many a piece was written but nothing seemed quite right. In an effort to rekindle the writing bug I’ve been re-reading blogs that never saw the light of day. Most will stay hidden in the deep dark corners of my hard drive, but I was particularly fond of this one. Over-the-top and manic, it made me laugh and cringe in equal measures. Go on, re-live some China fun with me…

Hell is Train Travel

I like to think of myself as a sturdy type; hardy, made of the “good stuff.” I picture all of the heroic deeds I’ve done in my life: rescuing poisonous spiders from being squished by people who obviously don’t understand the laws of karma, saving girlfriends from suburban pot dealers’ homes, picking up dead birds from the backyard and throwing them in the rubbish.

While I entertain the idea of myself as a “can do” type of person who carries a first-aid kit and a whittling knife on their person at all times, I’m also a quitter. Which, I’m sure, gets in the way of my innate adventurer’s spirit.

When my husband, Qiao, and I decided one Chinese New Year to travel from one side of the Chinese province of Shandong to the other, I packed my whittling tools into my Hong Kong shopper and settled in to watch an Indiana Jones marathon. Whatever skills I was lacking for this epic journey, Indy would just the man to fill in the gaps.

Qiao, on the other hand, is a wimp. When I tried to get him to come camping with me he paused, asked if there were power points where I planned on taking him, and turned back to face his computer screen when I responded with a hearty laugh and a resounding “Ha! No. You think this trip is supposed to be enjoyable?”

So there we were, standing on the platform of one of China’s innumerable regional train platforms, waving goodbye as Qiao’s relatives tried to poke their hands above the throngs of farmers screaming and pushing their way to the train. While not of Indian proportions, China’s rail system is where backpackers arrive as adventurers and leave as shattered versions of their former selves.

Every single person on the train carried double their weight in luggage. Most of their booty comprised of food and electrical goods. At least there weren’t any farm animals. Wait, spoke too soon.

As Qiao settled into the 15cm wide wooden slat that was our seat, I shot him a look of pure fear.

“So how long did you say this trip was?”
“Around 12 hours.”

Noticing the pile of sunflower seed husks piling up in front me, threatening to overflow on to my lap from the tiny table that served as both barrier and pillow, I think felt tears forming.

My back hurt, the smell emanating from my fellow passengers was foul, and drinking anything was out of the question lest I needed to go to the toilet. China’s stationary toilets were bad enough, let alone the ones of the moving variety. No, this will not do.

Six hours in to our journey and I was contemplating sticking my whittling knife into my jugular vein. I looked over at the couple sitting opposite us; why weren’t they as uncomfortable as I was? Travelling in the world’s largest sardine can with no heating, watching as your toes slowly turn blue from lack of circulation is no one’s idea of a good time. But there they were: playing cards and having loud conversations on their Hello Kitty rhinestone encrusted mobile phones without a care in the world. Could it be that the hard working rural folk of China, who grew up on farms and made their livings by migrating thousands of miles away to work in sweatshops, are sturdier than I?

“I, I can’t take it anymore”
“Are you okay?”

Qiao looked into my wild-eyed face with an expression that said “Fight or flight. Now is the time to choose because this is going to get ugly.”

“I need to go to the loo. Just give it to me straight, how bad is it?”
“You’ll need to bring your own toilet paper,” Qiao said, eyes glancing down at my hands to check that I wasn’t holding a makeshift weapon.
“But aside from that?”
“There’s a door.”


I stepped over the bodies that littered the carriage floor, my feet scrunching on discarded peanut shells as I went. The broom closet sized toilet was located outside the carriage, its door hanging unevenly from its hinges. From this vantage point I could throw myself over the railing and onto the tracks below and no one would be any wiser — except perhaps the twenty or so middle-aged men chain smoking nearby.

Deciding that suicide was too messy and would certainly be a downer on Qiao’s Chinese New Year, I took a deep breath and ventured into the tiny lavatory. With one hand securely gripping the door closed and the other hand tugging at my pants, I attempted to squat over the hole in the floor. May I add that when I say “pants” I mean that in the plural sense of the word. Under my jeans I was wearing one pair of woollen leggings and one pair of armpit-high long johns, which combined made for a very difficult disrobing experience.

I felt a hard tug at the opposite side of door.

“Wait a minute, someone’s in here.”
“Wait a minute! Ai-ya!”

Often times, the only way you can get your point across in China is to add ai-ya, the Mandarin equivalent of jeeze, to the end of your sentences. And who was this guy, anyway? Couldn’t he see my fingers clutched around the edge of the door in a white-knuckled grip?

Positioning my bum so as to have as little contact with the bacteria-ridden environment around me, I peed. I was finally able to rid myself of the hours of bladder filling liquids that I ingested out of a combination of masochism and boredom. Sure, I got some pee on each of my three pairs of pants, but judging by the floor below me, accuracy was not the aim of game here.

Another six hours later and we were at our stop. “We’re here!” Qiao exclaimed with a little too much pep. I lifted my head from the tabletop, picking the seeds and cigarette butts out of my hair. I have never known happiness like I did at that moment. A combination of euphoria and exhaustion swept over me and for a second I didn’t know whether to cry with joy or pass out.

Qiao threw his bag over his shoulder and collected my own large backpack filled with travelling essentials like hairdryers, knifes, knot-tying manuals and lip gloss.

“That was the worst trip of my life. Nothing, nothing will convince me that travelling by train is romantic. Which disillusioned Russian poet came up with that idea?”
“Yeah, it wasn’t great. But it was no where near as bad as the 11 hour standing train ride I had to take to deliver an electrical cable.”
“Go to hell.”

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