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.