- Train origin: Xining West
- Train destination: Qingdao
- Train distance: 2476 km
- Travel Time: 35:18
- I Joined train at: Lanzhou
- I Left train at: Jinan
- My distance: 1855 km
- My travel time: 26:23
I was nervous. The longest I’d ever spent in the sitting car of a Chinese train was 5 hours was on a modern, comfortable D train between Beijing and Jinan. Now, I was about to travel in a hard seat on a train operated by aging 25G rolling stock, and spend 26 hours there; I didn’t have high hopes. However low my expectations were, nothing could prepare me for the hell of the next 26 hours. Now to qualify my story, I know some people have been to war, some people live on rubbish heaps, struggling to survive, some people are thrown in jail and tortured. I haven’t experienced any of that. I’m a middle class suburbanite from Melbourne, who is used to a little luxury. This was hell in relation to my world.
We boarded the carriage, to find it already full to overflowing. Conventional trains in China do not “sell out”. Once all of the beds and seats are sold, they go on selling unallocated standing room. People with standing room tickets may board any sitting car and find a spot to stand. The train had only come 2 stops (228km), but already the vestibules were full of standees, the washroom had people sitting in it, the corridor was crowded and all seats were taken.
We shooed some opportunistic standees from our allocated seats, then faced the next problem – what to do with our luggage. The overhead racks were already completely full, so we wedged our large suitcase under the seat. We decided to keep the small bag with our passports, tickets and cash close by.
In 25G rolling stock, “hard” seats are 5 across (2 on one side of the corridor, 3 on the other). The seats face each other over a table that extends from under the window, 1½ seats wide. There is very little leg room between seats, meaning that you need cooperation from the person sitting opposite if you want to stretch your legs out. The seat back is high, but is angled at around 92° and doesn’t recline, so it is impossible to lean back in your seat. I now understood why they were called hard seats; within 5 minutes of sitting down, I could feel the seams in my underwear digging into my legs.
We slid out of Lanzhou station, right on time and were soon travelling through beautiful terraced mountains. We passed through picturesque villages, nestled in the valleys and past stone quarries, one of which even had a rusted hulk of a steam locomotive sitting in a forgotten siding.
At each town we stopped at, more people, more people joined the train. The corridor was now rapidly filling and the air-conditioning was becoming less effective. In the evening, we arrived at the city of X’ian. I expected a lot of people to alight here, which they did, but still more boarded. There were now so many people standing in the corridor, that it resembled a peak hour commuter train.
Various conductors pushed their way along the carriage at random intervals; some selling useless things (whitening toothpaste, socks, annoying toys), some collecting rubbish and some making announcements using a megaphone – reminding us to keep our valuables secure and that smoking wasn’t allowed inside the carriage.
I needed to use the toilet before sleeping – an unpleasant task at the best of times, made even more difficult by the number of people standing in the corridor. The toilet had a queue of 5 people ahead of me, so I looked around the carriage as I waited; an old man was sleeping underneath the seats, children were sleeping on their parents’ knees, people were sitting on portable seats, the vestibules were jam packed and the next carriage looked just as crowded. I after a long wait, I had my turn in the filthy toilet.
It was time to sleep which presented a new problem; because the seat back was at 92°, it made it almost impossible to find a comfortable sleeping position. In fact, the only way to relax, was to slump forward in the seat and rest your head on your hands (or the table if you were lucky enough to have one in front of you). It was in this ridiculously uncomfortable position that I dozed during the night, never sleeping for more than 30 minutes at a time. At around 3am, someone in the carriage started playing loud music from a tinny speaker. The railway police were called in to quieten her down, but she turned it back up as soon as they were gone.
Throughout the night, we stopped in small towns, picking up more standees. Very rarely did someone actually leave the train, and by morning it was practically impossible to move. The air-conditioning could not cope with the number of people in the carriage, and it was uncomfortably warm and humid inside. At Zhengzhou, many people left the train, but even more boarded.
I could go on about how many more people boarded the train, but I’m sure you have the idea by now. Each minute seemed to last 10, and the seat became less and less comfortable. I tried to pass the time by reading, but the cramped and uncomfortable conditions made it impossible to concentrate on my book. How could a railway company who gets sleeping cars so right get sitting cars so wrong?
We finally arrived into Jinan, after more than 24 hours on board this overcrowded, uncomfortable sitting car. As we left the station, my joints were aching from spending so long sitting in the same position. Just walking was wonderful, and allowed me to stretch out. When we arrived at our accommodation we ate lunch (the first meal since breakfast the previous day). At 4:30, I announced that I would be taking a short nap – and awoke 15 hours later.