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Budget Travel

China by Train

Budget Travel Not Always a Bargain

Most of us have sacrificed comfort to economize, but has anyone paid so dearly for their mistake as this? If so, send us your story. —Editor

After a week spent exploring the wonders of Beijing I looked forward to my next stop, the city of Xi’ian, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and a mere 19 hours by train from Beijing. When I entered the ticket office: I had already chosen the train I wanted to take. A kind old man translated the schedule board for me. I wrote it all out—a 1-way second class hard-sleeper ticket to Xi’ian—and handed it to the young woman behind the counter.

She asked me if I wanted a first class ticket. I smiled and told her I was a “budget traveler.” She asked again, didn’t I really mean to travel first class? I smiled again and shook my head. So she filled out my ticket and wished me a good trip.

In each compartment were six bunk beds, three on each side. My ticket was for the top bunk, where I would sleep with my nose about 10 inches from the ceiling. Sweat was dripping down my face as I surveyed my home for the next 19 hours. It was August now in China and about 100 degrees F. every day. A small ceiling fan didn’t appear to be producing much of a breeze. Taking a deep breath and determined to enjoy the ride, I settled in, stuffing my backpack onto my bunk where it would sleep with me for the entire trip. I heard the whistle sound, and the train slowly pulled out of the station.

Shared Compartments

Sharing my compartment were five Chinese men, all in their 30s. I smiled and used two of my four Mandarin words, “shay shay,” to greet them. They all grunted in response. I resigned myself to reading and window gazing. But no such luck. As soon as the men settled, they pulled out rice wine bottles and monopolized the two bottom bunks for a game of mahjong. A small sign in our compartment announced, in English and Chinese, that the bottom bunks were to be shared between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. So I climbed down with the men.

Normally alcohol lends itself to positive cross-cultural interaction, but not this time. After the first round of the bottle (from which I was excluded), the spitting started. Then the cigarettes came out, and soon our little compartment was filled with smoke and the stench of bad wine. This all combined with the heat and the smell of toddlers peeing in the hallway.

I perched on the edge of the bunk and tried to read. About every 20 minutes a different group of people came to our little space just to stare at me. I smiled, trying to engage them in some way; but they just wanted to watch me. I felt a bit like a strange zoo exhibit.

Open Toilets

My reading was interrupted periodically with dashes to the drop-toilet at the end of the car. People seemed quite unconcerned with hitting the hole in the floor. So every trip to the toilet involved many deep breaths outside the door, very shallow mouth-open breathing inside, and careful foot placement. However, the air wafting up through the open hole in the floor was refreshing, and I especially enjoyed the scenery when we went over bridges.

Night fell, and the air in the car grew thicker. At one break in the game I moved to open the windows, but I was yelled down with a torrent of Mandarin. Through sign language, I finally learned that it was unsafe to open a window at night because people could crawl through it and steal things. I was clearly outnumbered, so I sat back down and tried to think about happy places—all of which had air conditioning, no-smoking laws, and diapers.

Closed Windows

After a meal of reconstituted noodles and another harrowing trip to the bathroom, I climbed up to my bunk through a fog of cigarette smoke and lay sweltering on the hard plastic. The drunken card game below continued until 4 a.m. When the sun rose we were nowhere near our destination and running about four hours late.

After more noodles for breakfast, I again perched on the edge of the seat and watched my bunkmates play mahjong. They were thoroughly hung over, but now they were drinking tea, which didn’t smell as bad when they spat it on the floor. And, since the sun was up, we could open the window. The “Let’s go stare at the foreign devil” shift resumed after everyone finished breakfast, and my audience continued to grow. When the train finally pulled into the station, after 23 hours instead of 19, my first act was to buy a first class ticket for the next part of my trip, from Xi'ian to Chengdu. For a few dollars more the perks included a locking door, only two bunk mates, down comforters and pillows, and that modern miracle, air conditioning.

CORA NALLY has visited 35 countries taught English in Japan, and served in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. She is currently a freelance writer in Seattle, WA.

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