The rocking movement of trains produces an exciting array of sensations in passengers.
I have heard from some of my more perverted friends that riding the rail stimulates them sexually. Others say hanging about on the bohemoth vehicles makes them sleepy. For me, when I climb aboard a train I feel immediately at peace with the world.
So, when I needed to calm my anxious nerves and realise the joys of traveling alone again, 18 hours on the railway seemed extraordinarily appealing . The thought of getting a few hands of solitaire in made me quiver with excitement, like a coffee addict getting a whiff of espresso. Chendgu to Xian in northern centreal China would be the perfect backdrop for some train meditation.
Preparation for such a journey, luckily for me, is fairly straightforward. I purchased a few beers, a box of instant noodles (super tasty in China, I even drink the oily broth), a large bag of sunflower seeds (these are amazingly popular here and sold unshelled, you crack them in your mouth and spit out the shell, swallowing the pip; it kills endless amounts of time), toilet paper, a generous handful of dried sweet potato and a bag of marinated tofu to add to the noodles. A large bottle of water usually comes in handy too. My favourite part about these preparations is that if you forget anything a cart on the train will help you out. They even have a proper restaurant.
It’s best to arrive early for the trains.
I love watching the sea of humanity outside the station. You can catch the smart-looking businessmen with their fancy shoes sitting beside boisterous family groups with an array of stripey luggage bags or next to grubby-looking beggars with their children sleeping on dirty rags. The contrasts and sheer amount of people in these places always ignites my contemplative mind, which is perfect for the journey ahead.
Train travel is exceedingly popular in China and you can get almost anywhere by rail. The stations fit more people in the forecourt than your most popular amusement park, which is only natural as a ride on one of China’s famous trains definitely rivals anything you’d find at Luna Park.
Yesterday, as I sat in the waiting room, on the floor as the seats were mostly taken up by greedy fat men napping, I laid out my first game of solitaire with relish. I could sense about 167 pairs of eyes on me, the only Western girl in the establishment, and a loner at that. I’m sure they were thinking I was weird and uncool being along, which is cool, because I’m not so taken with their penchant for eating turtles. Still, we exist together easily.
Then, an excited Chinese girl came and sat beside me, eager, as they always are, for a photo together. As usual, I was touched by her innocence and enthusiasm.
We sat together for about 20 minutes, understanding little of what the other said. It was the blind leading the blind, both apologising for our language shortcomings.
She even called her English-speaking brother on her cell, so he could tell me how pleased she was to meet me.
It still blows my mind that such short, chance encounters can mean so much to the Chinese. Their ability to overcome the barrier between stranger and pal is inspiring. She found someone to help me on the train and gave me an apple for my journey. And, so I began to relax and see the merits of my solo journey.
This morning I found this email from her and was genuinely moved:
To the friend from Australia
Dear friend penny
I am candy.How have you been?Is everything all right?
I admire you very much, you can own a person came to china.If possible, I hope I can go to Australia.Chinese name is Luo Ting.Nice to meet you, if you encountered in the journey of any difficulty, you can call me: 18783294631 my hometown in Sichuan Neijiang, hope you can come to visit.I am sixteen years old this year, is a student.You are the first foreign friend I know, my English is not very good, I hope you don’t mind.
I wish you a pleasant journey in Xi’an, wish you good luck.
Your friend candy
She also attached the pictures below.
A bit of background; the Chinese trains have soft sleepers, which are luxurious and expensive, by Chinese standards. There are two bunks on these supple beds and four people share a comparment with a door.
The hard sleepers, which feature three-tiered, less-expensive bunks, are my preference. They’re quite soft and all come with a clean blanket and pillow. Train sleeps are some of the best I’ve had in China.
Ofen, the solo journeys are a great chance to catch up on the journal, read some of my book, listen to some music and reflect on what’s been going on.
With the Swedes the trips were nothing less than a rocking party, the antithesis of a detox. Often we made a raft of friends with our raucous ways.
But, those days seemed a long-lost mirage as I settled in for some quiet contemplation with Xian drawing closer.
My favourite part of the journeys is watching the scenery as we pass. The trains chug alongside shanty towns, peasant communes, mansions, myriad homogenous-looking apartment blocks and, of course, a raft of agricultural fields. The mountains and rivers are always stunning.
I love being able to sit back, sip on my green tea and watch it all go by.
It’s relaxing, by it’s very essence, to be able to sit still and be moving somewhere. The sensation of getting something done, of moving forward, while doing nothing appeals to me like a block of chocolate to a Catholic after Lent.
Yesterday, I watched gushing rivers stream past the tracks, and mountains make way for rice paddies. From my many train trips, and I have spent 6 nights on trains so far, I believe I’m seeing China for what it really is – a massive food bowl.
The Australian in me keeps on searching for some wide open spaces, a deserted stretch of land or even a desert, but so far the only untended land is the mountains. They are mostly a luscious green. China has shown me some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and in a place where you have to pay to access anything deemed ‘scenic’, it’s nice to catch some of that for free from the train window.
Of course, the people can be delightful. I learned to count in Chinese on a train, courtesay of the game where everyone says a number as we go around a circle. It took at least 20 minutes to get to a hundred with three Westerners and three Chinese. Tedious, but thoroughly worthwhile when it comes to telling if a cabbie is trying to rip you off like a stubborn bandaid.
Last night, I managed to block out four different sets of males snores, all out of time, and a crying baby, to find an immense sense of peace and worth. I feel genuinely satisfied to travel through the Chinese countryside, and, of course, that’s only magnified by being able to do it alone.
I will keep you posted, however, on my rosy picture of these human-movers after I finish my 33-hour trip to Kunming tomorrow, on the way to Laos. I board the beast at 10 tomorrow night and get off at 9am after a day has passed. The only issue here: no sleepers were available, so I’m adding an extra dimension – the hard seat.
I’ve heard horrible things about the seats. One French man said to me today after I outlined my admittedly silly plan, “I have met many crazy people while I’ve been traveling, but you, wow.”
Gosh, what a compliment.
Awful or not, it’ll certainly be an adventure, and that, after all, is what life is all about.