A Travellerspoint blog

The epic 38 hour train ride across China

Don't take the train during Chinese holiday...

I now understand why I was warned by numerous people not to travel in China during the national holiday... Unkowingly I had planned my longest train journey through China - spanning the entire length of the country from Beijing to Kunming - during the national holiday week. Purchasing my train tickets well in advance (I thought...) I was incredulous to find that only hard seat tickets (the lowest class of tickets, or so I thought) were still available. Thirty-eight hours on a hard seat - how bad could it be? I had no idea of the horror that was in store for me.

'Hard seats' consisted of a seating arrangement of 6 'hard' seats (and indeed, they were hard) grouped together. This was incredibly claustrophobic, especially due to the number of boxes and sacks of shit that the entire Chinese population seemed to insist on traveling with (really, how many rice cookers does one need?). OK, I thought, this is bearable. That was until the notion of the 'standing' ticket became apparent to me. I had heard the phrase 'standing ticket' previously but refused to believe that: 1. such a barbaric concept could exist for overnight train journeys and 2. who would be stupid enough to buy a ticket anyway? I was mistaken on all accounts - it seemed that 60% of the train's passengers had a 'standing' ticket which was apparently available in an infinite number, meaning that the train exceeded it's seating capacity by- I would estimate - 5 times. 'Standing' in fact meant finding any space to place oneself without occupying a seat - fold-up chairs were placed in the aisles, people lay underneath seats, in the sinks (yes, 'in' the sink), by the toilet: every foreseable square centimetre of space on the train carriage was occupied. Sporadically people would try to sneak onto the end seat of a row, meaning that the 3 seats would actually be accomodating 4 people. It could be likened to a refugee camp.

I nearly leapt for joy at the first stop after approximately 4 hours - surely none of these people could be in it for the overnight journey? Expecting the train to shift the straggling 'standing' passengers and clear up some space on the train, I was horrified to find that the few passengers who did disembark were only replaced by a new batch! After approximately 7 hours when I no longer had sensation in my arse and was unable to even walk along the carriage due to the sheer number of passenegers crammed into the aisle like sardines, I was on the verge of developing claustrophobia: I had to get off the train. It was just unbearable. However, it was midnight and the highly inconvenient Chinese custom of not displaying station names hindered any chance of me finding a hotel. Resolving to stick it out until the morning, I attempted to sleep. Drifting in and out of consciousness I was sporadically woken by the rapid turnover of passengers occupying the seats around me (most of them overweight males with no concept of personal space). By 6am I resolved to stick the rest of the journey out - I had survived 12 hours, only another 26 to go. The situation didn't improve: all disembarking passengers were replaced by equal numbers of new passengers meaning the train's capacity remained constant.

The toilets were a whole other nightmare. The staff had obvioulsy given up on any attempts to clean the train and there seemed to be a universally distinct lack of ability to contain shit within the toilet pan; I had to limit my oral intake so as to reduce my need for contact. The fact that the sinks were inaccessable due to their occupation by passengers confounded the issue.

Thirty eight hours finally approached....and passed by.... The final insult: the train arrived 2 hours later than scheduled! Feeling as if I had survived a form of archaic torture, I was overjoyed to be on land again.

Don't EVER take the train during Chinese holiday.

Posted by dodging_cholera 22:28 Archived in China Comments (0)

China: please don't spit

That sweet sound of hacking...

Our most enduring memory of China will always be the national custom of public spitting. Small pools of saliva could be found at regular intervals on the side-walk and in most public places throughout China. Apparently the constant need to spit is a universal phenomena common to all citizens and occurs at a frequency so regular that the soundtrack to our trip in China would be the cacophony of hacking accompanying this vehement expulsion of saliva. At first we were puzzled; was there a national outbreak of a rare gastro-intestinal disorder? Was the food that awful? Everything was made clear when we were informed that the habit stemmed from the belief that swallowing one's own saliva was unhealthy. Makes perfect sense now....Only we still don't understand the habit of using the lavatory in full public view with the door wide open when there is actually a door. Perhaps somebody could explain that?

Posted by dodging_cholera 06:02 Archived in China Comments (0)

Mongolia

that sweet smell of sheep

The one pervading memory of Mongolia is sheep - that stench of dirty mutton managed to infiltrate every inanimate object regardless of whether there were sheep in the vicinity or not. We spent our time in Mongolia being driven in a van through the wilderness of the Gobi dessert for 9 days staying at local ger camps along the way. Sheep (and goats to a lesser extent) are big in Mongolia; the main enterprise and the main food source of the country. Subsequently every meal, whether or not it contained mutton, had the subtle taste of sheep; our bedding and even our clothing had absorbed that stench. The most disturbing thing was when we unscrewed the lid of the hot water flask each morning to make coffee and even then that sheepish smell would come seeping out.
Gers are little more than sophisticated tents with a fire situated in the middle (if you're lucky) with beds around the outside. For the most part there is no running water; subsequently we didn't shower for at least 5 days (this was a new low point for us). Thankfully being mercifully cold we weren't that bothered about this gross violation of personal hygiene. Another preoccupation of this trip was the state of the toilets. Usually this was an affair consisting of 2 wooden slats over a pit; if we were lucky there would be a functional door so that we could maintain our dignity. Our lowest toilet moment perhaps was the lavatory with no door that actually faced onto the street so passers-by had full view of toileting activities.
The highlight of our time in Mongolia was the night we had been allocated to the 'reject' ger in the midst of a storm. It was obviously mid-construction, lacking an outer layer and wall furnishings to hide the mould. Furthermore it only had 3 beds, yet there were 4 of us - the couple we were sharing with were not happy to be informed that they would have to share a single bed as they were a couple! Chillingly cold, it also lacked a fire. There was only one way to get through this situation - get drunk. This was where our alcoholic driver came in handy - providing us with beer and forcing us to down shots of Mongolian vodka. Eventually we were intoxicated enough to sleep in the squallor of our ger.... yet our driver didn't seem to want to sleep and spent the night flitting in and out of our tent to sit on each of our beds in turn to try and start conversations with us while we were sleeping....
After 9 days on the road with our temperamental and alcohol dependent driver, we forfeited plans to go further north and fled back to the, now apparently, sophisticated China.

Posted by dodging_cholera 07:39 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Japan to China

the 52 hour journey across the Yellow Sea

Our first experience of China began the moment we set foot on the ferry to Tianjin in the Japanese port of Kobe. We thought we would be the only backpackers stupid enough to take a 52 hour ferry to avoid the cost of flying, however we were surprised to find 3 other Europeans also taking the ferry (the vast remaining majority were Chinese).

Leaving the sanitation and civilisation of Japan behind, it seemed that the entire ship of Chinese passengers had washed their laundry and hung it out to dry around the ferry before we had even left the port. We established our sleeping arrangements - a room with a wooden floor and rows of mattresses designed to accommodate 22 people (we were relieved there were only 8 of us for this journey - 3 other Europeans and 3 Chinese). Immediately one of our room mates had adorned the room with his wet underwear (complete with skid-marks, despite having apparently been washed).

2 hours: We were bored. Our fellow passengers seemed to have settled in well - all changed into pajamas, smoking profusely and drinking green tea out of plastic flasks.

6 hours: Eventually we discovered the bathroom. Clearly it had never been cleaned. Despite there being 2 cubicles with lockable doors, our fellow passengers seemed to ignore the function of the door, not seeming to appreciate privacy...

8 hours: Glad that we had come prepared with enough food supplies to last a week - clearly eating would be our main entertainment for the journey.

12 hours: We were invited to join in the evening's entertainment - kareoke (obviously). Cowering at the back we were subjected to 2 hours of 'singing' by the crew and passengers whilst family members filmed everything (including us...). We only wished that the crew would be as enthusiastic about cleaning the toilet as they were about singing...

14 hours: Relieved when the entertainment was finally over, we retired to 'bed'. We soon realised that it was apparently socially acceptable to smoke in a communal dorm room. Slightly concerned by our Chinese room mates' apparent alcohol dependence problem, we surprisingly slept without much disturbance.

22 hours: We discovered the intercom system in our room after being rudely awoken by an announcement informing us that breakfast was the most important meal of the day; no caffeinated beverages, mostly inedible. Not impressed.

36 hours: 4 cheese sandwiches, 8 pots of instant noodles and 5 instant coffees later...bored out of our minds and concerned that our food supplies were rapidly declining secondary to boredom.

55 hours: Finally - 3 hours late - we reached Chinese soil. Relieved to be on land again we had been fully initiated into Chinese culture.

The New Low
- drinking instant coffee
- stealing kitchen utensils from the ferry kitchen in order to drink instant coffee

Posted by dodging_cholera 21:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ghetto in Japan?

Nobody in that district had 4 limbs...

Japan: the pinnacle of Asian sophistication and civilisation. Yet somehow we still managed to end up staying in the ghetto of Osaka. We had read warnings about the insalubrious nature of the Shin-Imamiya district on various travel blogs but had chosen to disregard them: 'It's Japan, how bad can it be?'. How bad indeed; worse, in fact, than most of the ghettos of South East London that I have inhabited in my time. Littered with brothels and unsavory drinking holes, it appeared that Shin-Imamiya was a dumping ground for all the country's cripples, drunkards, prostitutes and addicts; a veritable mix of society's untouchables. Nobody in that district had all 4 limbs and full mental capacity... Nowhere else in Japan had we experienced heckling when walking down the street - this was actually intimidating for Japan! Our experience at the Hotel Chuo Selene epitomised the character of the area. Sharing a dorm room with 2 other girls, we were slightly disturbed one night when the drunken male hotel receptionist let himself into our room at 2am, stripped to his underwear to sleep in the empty dorm bed where he proceeded to snore with a quality that could only be described as beast-like. We endured this for 4 hours throughout which he was totally immune to the verbal abuse we hurled at him. The moral of the story: take heed of the information offered on travel-blogs. We do not endorse staying in Shin-Imamiya district or at the Hotel Chuo Selene!!

Posted by dodging_cholera 05:38 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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