Alessandra Ferrer '13: A Collection of Trains

Alessandra Ferrer was the 2013-2014 Shansi Fellow at Beijing Normal University. This is her end of year narrative.


Probably no one other type of experience this past year has more informed me than that of riding on trains around China.  Here is a collection of stories I have written either during or shortly after a train ride. 


Episode I

August 2013

Beijing to Harbin: Unexpected Hard Seat


I got on the train around 1:30pm with a huge mass of people.  The crowds at the Beijing Train Station are truly impressive.  It’s sort of like an angrier version of New Years at Times Square, except everybody has luggage and are trying to squeeze through a single person door.  Apparently the slow train to Harbin is a very popular ride, and every car had many, many (I wish I could estimate numbers) people crowding the aisles with their standing room only tickets. The general train survival guide seemed to be this: bring as much snack food as you possibly can.  Most people had whole suitcases devoted to snacks—most popular included of course instant noodles, sausage-like tubes of pureed meat/seafood shrink wrapped in plastic, little crème-filled pastries, sunflower and similar seeds, and unidentifiable to my eyes animal parts also shrink-wrapped in plastic.  If you were fast enough, you could buy fruit at the various stations during the day.  The general concept seemed to be eat constantly while you’re awake, then sleep as much as possible—usually taking turns with your traveling mates. 


I don’t think I’ve ever made more friends instantly than on this train ride.  The first 4 hours or so of the train ride were similar to an interview.  Within 30 minutes of introductions, I was asked what I thought the main differences between FDR and Obama were, and what I thought about both presidents.  Around 2am (12 hours in) a few of the other passengers had a very intense debate about whether free thought/independent critical thinking was a good thing to include in education (especially early education).  IT was mainly one 2nd year college student arguing against everybody else.  I felt bad for him, but  a) I didn’t feel like I should really join in a discussion that is essentially East vs West and say that I agreed that the everybody else in the train was all wrong and b) it was 2 am and I was exhausted. Though I could understand everything, if I tried to speak Chinese in that moment, I probably couldn’t have even said my name properly. 


One of the best parts of riding a train in China is the great displays of kindness.  Everybody squeezes together to make room for a standing ticketed rider to perch, food is shared, and the general theme around the car is genial cooperation.  My bench made for 3 hosted at various times a very small, very fashionable young woman from Beijing (standing ticket), a very old, very deaf, possibly blind man (standing ticket), a male college student (standing ticket), myself (seated ticket), an impossibly tiny female college student headed to Xinjiang (seated), and various silent gentlemen who never stayed for long.  The small, fashionable woman also had a fashionable friend, who wasn’t quite as nice, and quite a bit more whiney, who stood the entire way to her destination (only around 3 hours).  I would whine too if I had to stand in the crowded aisle for 3 hours.


Additionally, rather than suffer in silence, we trainmates formed a strong bond.  The outgoing father of the family across from me asked me if I was too terribly uncomfortable (as the thought of somebody actually being comfortable was just impossible).  I told him it wasn’t too bad, and he smiled and said I should think of this as an “experience”.  I wasn’t miserable though. Those who made the entire 18+ hour train ride standing were the miserable ones.  One young couple one row up from me started the ride standing, and by the end had collapsed on the floor, clutching each other and patting each other’s heads.  It takes a lot to make you accept lying on the train’s floor, since the train floor is essentially one gigantic trashcan.  Various liquids, spit, dirty tissue, food wrappers and sunflower seed shells litter the floor.  This seems to actually be the system, as the conductor/service men come through at every stop to sweep the floor/mop up the liquid stuff.  Still, lying or even sitting on this floor isn’t something most people in a good state of mind are willing to do. 


There was even a peanut gallery of sorts. Around midnight (approx. 10 hours in), the conductors walked through the train offering coffee for 3 yuan/cup (instant coffee).  Not 10 minutes passed before they were walking back up the train yelling the same thing.  Somewhere in the middle of the car, somebody says loud enough for everybody to hear:  “You know what that means—nobody wants it!” People also noticed that though the train ride was in general freezing cold and uncomfortable (with patrons occasionally screaming at the conductor to turn off the air conditioning—to which he would respond, oh yes! I’ll do that immediately! And then continue doing whatever duty [usually pretty important, like fixing the toilets or breaking up a fight]), but right before they came around with popsicles for sale, the cars all became rather toasty. 


The row facing us housed a family of three.  The father was incredibly extroverted. The mother was shy for the first 10 or so hours.   And the 9-year-old son was mostly sleeping or eating for the ride, so he never said much.   They were returning home after a small vacation in Beijing.  They all took turns lying down on the bench/seat with the boy usually lying on top of the parent that got to sleep, with the other parent squatting on a mini collapsible stool.  The father’s feet stuck out in the aisle and the constant carts of food that passed by mercilessly ran into his legs as the cart owner would shout, “Pull your legs in!!! PULL YOUR LEGS IN PULLYOURLEGS IN.”


Over to my left across the aisle is another family of 3, on 2 seats.  The parents were both very young—maybe 20 or so? And the baby was actually 2 years old.  The child definitely is suffering from something.  He refuses to eat, cries constant, and as a result of his not eating, his head seems to be gigantic (though still small for a 2 year old), while his body seems to belong to a much younger baby.  The end result was that the child looked very much like an alien.  The parents were extremely grumpy and exhausted, and were not very kind to the child at all, at times smacking its head with a fork (tines in), and hitting it with hard plastic toys with sharp edges.  I wouldn’t want to eat either, if my parents screamed “OPEN” every time it was feeding time, and then pushed food in my mouth.  


Riding the surprise! overnight on hard seats to Harbin from Beijing was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life.  Certainly not a “bad” experience, and one I’d prefer not to repeat.  Without steady Internet, and without the guts to just ask, I climbed aboard the over-crowded, standing-room only (though I was lucky enough to have purchased a seat) train car expecting, worse-case scenario, a 10 hour train ride to Harbin.  I now wonder how I could have been so foolish.  I was sadly, unknowingly in store for an 18.5-hour train ride on hard seats without the proper clothing, food, or water.  I fortunately tend not to wear or even own uncomfortable clothes, but had I known I would be forced to sit in one position for such a long length of time, I certainly would have worn something else.  I also would have packed something ahead of time—enough to share with my trainmates.  I also would have remembered to bring my water bottle.  Also maybe a book.  Of course, as soon as I took out my journal/notebook, the crowd took renewed interest in me.  They all seemed very impressed that I was writing in English, even though I had already explained that English was indeed my first language.  And that I am American.  Eventually I put away the notebook as it was causing too much of a scene. 


At some point during the night, I attempted to sleep.  There wasn’t space to stretch my legs out, or even scoot forward in the seat to give me something to sort of lean into to support my head.  At this point I was still foolish hopeful that I would be arriving at any minute, so I wasn’t too interested in sleep anyway.  At some point (around 3 am or so), I began the open mouthed, mid-air, instant sleep, then jerk awake routine, and tried to find some way to arrange my body so that I could rest/relax.  Eventually I brought up my big travelling backpack, put it on my lap, and leaned over it for support.  Mostly, this meant my face was resting on my running shoes (like I’ve said—poor planning), and I couldn’t arrange my face so I wasn’t breathing in hot air (fun fact: breathing in hot air/just exhaled air makes me panicky. I always need a reliable air hole).  I slept for maybe an hour total between 3am and 6am when I gave up and focused on buying some food. 


Finally, I arrived in Harbin.  Exhausted and so excited to get off the train, I set out walking in the rain (no cabs available due to said rain).  About 45 minutes into my walk, I realize that I’m heading south instead of north and cross the road so I don’t have to walk by the same policemen/shop keepers twice.  Finally, the rain clears up and I hail a cab, and after we figure out where the hostel is located, I get dropped off!!


I check in and then almost immediately fall asleep in my bunk.  I sleep for a good 4 hours, and then around 4pm make it out to Stalin Park by the river.  I also ate the best noodles I’ve had in China on my way to the park.  I was insanely hungry—having only had the instant noodles for breakfast in the past 30 hours—and the vegetable fried noodles were everything I could have ever hoped for. 



Episode II

January 2014 (The first leg of my 3-week, winter vacation trip)

Beijing to Wuhan: An Upsetting Day 1


I woke up at 5:15, showered, put my still drying clothes in my bag, and headed out by 5:30. The first taxi I came across without customers had the driver in the passenger seat passed out drunk with a pile of vomit next to his car. A Chinese man next to the taxi advised me to find another. I should have taken this as an omen.

I got to the train station with plenty of time--a whole 30 minutes before boarding, but of course already there were no empty seats in the waiting room left to sit in. I was starving at this point, especially since I was going off of 3 hours of sleep (planning to catch up on the 5 hour train ride), but all my hands were occupied.

By 6:45, we had all boarded the train--a swanky gaotie or super fast rail with wide comfy seats and plenty of leg space. As soon as we had settled in, I dug into the food bag I had prepared (I learned my lesson from Harbin!). I enjoyed some matcha biscuit cookies and some "vitamin" bread (bread with dried fruit in it), and some water. Then I worked on trying to pass out.

Once we started moving--at a very punctual 7:00am!--I began to feel not very good. As a child, I occasionally suffered from mild carsickness, but now I rarely notice it, and can power through whatever I do feel. Trying my best on the fail rail, I was determined not to let whatever queasiness I felt deter me from sleep.

By 8:30 it was not a question of if, but when I was going to vomit. Around 8:45 I quickly jumped up from my seat to rush to the bathroom. My spirits were not yet low enough to miss noting the relative cleanliness and the fact that it was a (!!!) true sit down toilet (not a squatty potty). I had not yet realized I would not be returning to the wide, swanky seat and all the spacious legroom.

After I threw up a few times, to the great interest of the chain smoking men hanging around the bathrooms, I felt a little better, but I wasn't sure I should go sit back down yet. I rarely vomit. Since the 7th grade, when I last came down with a stomach bug, I have vomited only once. I usually pride myself on an iron stomach, and the whole experience freaked me out a little. I'm glad I stayed by the toilets, however, because all the matcha cookies and vitamin bread and bile and water and whatever else could have possibly been in my stomach had not yet come up yet. Every 30-45 minutes until I stepped off the train, I ran into the bathroom to puke several times. I couldn't kneel in front of the toilet, but only bend at the waist while praying I wouldn't fall over or slip in the ever growing puddle (remember I said relatively clean) of human waste, urine, and now drops of my own vomit on the bathroom floor. I also needed to keep my purse with all of my valuable items on me at all times, since this leg of the journey was a solo ride.

The highlights version of the remaining 3 hours includes the one round of puking that started outside the toilet, since all the bathrooms were occupied. I managed to grab a paper cup next to the hot water dispenser (fancy, right?), and with now practiced and perfect aim, vomit in front of man washing his hands, without spilling or slopping over the sides of the cup. By the end, the whole carriage knew about the foreigner puking her guts out in the toilets, and even let me sit in the fold down chair in the exit/entry corrider usually reserved for the oldest chain smoker. I fantasized about stepping out on solid land again and considered maybe kissing the ground to be dramatic, but when I finally left the train at 12:30pm, I was so exhausted and dehydrated, that carrying my backpack was dramatic enough.

I warily found a taxi to take me to the hostel. Shockingly, the taxi driver, who drove more aggressively than your average Beijing taxi driver, had only a soothing effect on my stomach, and by the time I stepped out at the hostel, I no longer felt queasy at all.

With the first leg of train travel of the trip over, I was very happy to check in, see Xenna, and explore Wuhan for a day or so.



Note I:  After talking with an expert or two, however, doubt has been cast if this was really a case of carsickness or rather food poisoning.  It’s hard to say, really.  I won’t be trying any green tea biscuits for a while, in any case.


Note II:  Every train ride since has been peaceful and, I’m happy to say, vomit-free!


Episode III

January 2014 (Halfway through the 3-week, winter break trip)

Guangzhou to Changsha: The World’s Largest Annual Human Migration


After the last train ride on a sleeper car from Wuhan to Guangzhou, I’ve returned to the hard seats. My favorite place to be in all of China. As it’s still mid-January, it's still a bit early for the main spring festival migration, but things are certainly heating up. 


Forgetting that Guangzhou has one of the largest populations of migrant workers, all eager to get home for the holidays, Xenna and I arrive at the train station a mere 30 minutes before the train is supposed to leave. Lining up to even get into the station is a horde of people worse than I've ever seen in or around a train station before in China. We push through the massive crowd lining up outside the station (or rather, were pushed) and with only about 10 minutes to spare, find the correct waiting room. 


There's a mass of people crowding around the ticket checking station, with everybody wondering why nobody has boarded. Ticket checks are apparently not happening, and people are getting antsy.  5 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave, they announce that everybody needs to go downstairs and board from a different platform. Before the announcer can really finish her announcement, a stampede of our train-mates loaded down with bag after makeshift bag storm the stairs, carrying Xenna and myself with it. We have to run to our assigned car (with the train conductors shouting their encouragement through megaphones), but we manage to make it inside. 


I settle down and force my backpack under the seat. Tensions are running high and nobody is happy. 


The man sitting next to me pulls out his phone and text his wife/friend. He starts off explaining that it was worse than he had anticipated and there were so, so many people. Good to know we weren't alone in thinking this. 


Then the train starts to pull away. He tells the person in question that he'll get in touch with him/her later, and pulls up a game app. 


Meanwhile, events are developing in the car on a larger scale. The conductor is busy making enemies by rearranging all the haphazardly thrown luggage perching above our heads to make it neater and safer, as well as open space for more people's luggage. Eventually, the conductor finds an open paper bag of hard metal cans and decides that this is not safe to perch on the overhead rack, and a new round of hostile bickering commences. 


Once the conductor walked away far enough to be out of ear shot, a younger man turned to the man with the open paper bag filled with metal cans to ask if he'd ever ridden this line before. The young man then kindly explained that if the man with the bag of metal cans waited a bit, he could simply place the bag back overhead and nobody would check again.


At the same time as this conversation took place, high pitched screams could be heard from the corridor by the bathrooms, where a mass of standing ticket passengers were stuffed. A woman was screeching at another standing ticket, saying something about being crazy and stupid. A conductor approached them, and made them leave to find another space to fight. 


It seems as though things have settled, and we are 30 minutes into our 7 hour train ride. Xenna is unfortunately one seat and an aisle away from me, making communication difficult. But I have Harry Potter in Chinese and a newspaper article I want to read, so I should be set.  After all, this leg in hard seat is only 7 hours. 



Episode IV

February 2014

Chengdu to Beijing: Interactions with Children and the Lessons of Hard Seat


For the second half of my Spring Festival/Winter Break vacation travels, I headed west to Chongqing and Chengdu.  24 hours to and 27 hours back.  On the return trip, everybody was coming back from Chinese New Year holiday, and it was super packed with standing-only ticketers.  The family who was sitting next to me had purchased 2 sitting tickets for 3 people (2 parents and 1 4-year-old girl) and so subsequently took up more than 2 seats’ worth of space.  There was a lot of squirming.  They also did not bring a single toy, colored pencil, sheet of paper, or anything to entertain their small child for a 27 hour train ride.  These were not financially poor people.  They were very likely solidly middle class, with fancy clothing and fancy electronics, healthy bodies, etc. I am not sure what they expected the little girl to do. She got in trouble maybe every 10 minutes, which usually meant her mother would end up screaming (translated to English): "I'll make you get off at the next stop all alone, do you want that?!?! You'll be an orphan!!" Or some variation on orphaning her daughter.  For a couple hours there was an extremely old lady with a baby (her grandchild) on her lap who threw up on my pants (just a little bit).  The maybe 18-month-old kept crying for his/her parents. The little girl next to me asked her parents where the child's parents were.  This made everybody in our section a little bit uncomfortable and a lot sad. 


The last couple hours of the ride, I ended up making paper airplanes with her, and she innocently referred to me as an American Devil a few times, with her parents blushing in the background.


Train rides are so interesting.  You get to learn so much about the people you're sitting next to.  From children, to chain-smokers,  to even the conductors, everybody is forced into a confined amount of space for an extended period of time, and how people interact with each other starts to change a little. People are so rude to those in the service-industry, and the way passengers treat our conductors is no exception. Conductors are stuck in a strange place of both attempting to serve and control several hundred people for (in the case of this particular train-ride) 27 hours straight.  I talked with the conductor assigned to our car for a bit, after he saw my American passport.  Most of the conductors I’ve had the pleasure to have extended interactions with have had an excellent sense of humor, often excelling in dry wit.  At one point the conductor of our car was sweeping up the huge mess of trash that had accumulated as people had discarded the usual trainride-generated waste on the floor. By the time he had arrived at our row, there was a pile of instant noodle wrappers, seed shells, individually packaged cookie wrappers, plastic water bottles, and other waste-products over a foot high being pushed along by his large (industrial-sized) broom.  He had just finished chastising the family of 3 next to me for dumping maybe 3 cups of sunflower seed shells all over the floor, when he opens his arms wide, looks at me while crouched down next to the massive pile of trash and says: "Welcome to China!"  


And while it was a wonderful joke, delivered at the perfect time, in the most appropriate of settings, it was also a great opportunity to realize just how much train rides require an active effort to look for the bright parts of every trip.  But as soon as you start looking, they are everywhere.  As an American living in China, there are certainly days where everyday life feels a bit like an extended hard seat trip.  And that’s when you know you haven’t been looking hard enough for the bright bits.  There’s a lot of discomfort in the hours of a hard seat ride, but there are funny conductors, and adorable children, and generous co-passengers eager to share their food, and kind chain-smokers, and most certainly hours upon hours full of opportunities to watch people in confined spaces for extended hours interacting with each other and yourself.  It’s better than a good television program.  The trick of it all is to enjoy the story as it’s unfolding, with you in the middle, feeling the same feelings as your co-passengers. I’d recommend it to everyone, at least just once.