Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THE ESSENCE OF CHINA: THE DAY WE TOOK THE TRAIN

Please do me a favour

If anyone ever tells you that taking the train is a romantic thing to do, please knock them to the ground and then jump up and down on them an awful lot. Perhaps even until they stop breathing and then, call me so I can come around and give them an extra kick just for good measure.

It is not romantic, it is not even fun. It is a hateful, horrible, dirty, unpleasant way to travel and that is in the West. In China, multiply that horror factor by about ten fold to take into the account the habits of the Chinese and you may just be able to imagine the misery I felt on my first over night train journey in China.

First of all, just to make sure we were extra ripe before we got on the train, a journey in a small bus which rattled unpleasantly on the scabby roads for four hours before depositing us at the station at which we would board the train to take us to Wuzho at the beginning of the Three Gorges section of The Yangstze River.

The “pleasures” of what was about to come were first experienced when I went to visit the bathroom in the waiting room. Now, I expected squat toilets, I was even clued up enough to expect that the smell could kill a charging tofu at a hundred paces. What I did not expect was that the squat toilets were all open so that everyone did their, er business in full view and about a foot from their neighbour.

Obviously, I am of the delicate sort because this tightened my sphincter muscles like a virgin nun’s legs in a room full of drunk navvy’s and I suddenly lost all urge to do a No2, well perhaps ever again in my whole life. It did not, however seem to disturb the locals one jot and they were happily squatting down while the sounds of plentiful evacuation filled the air.

One resourceful chap seemed to think that this was also the chance to complete the circle of life. So, as he emptied, he also filled up at the other end by chowing down on one of the pot noodles readily available from the station counter. I would be hard pushed to argue which end made the most slurping noises.

It got worse, of course it did

Then we got on the train to find our “hard sleeper” carriage. No simple matter because the notion of queuing is as alien to the Chinese as environmental campaigning. The polite Englishman in me soon lost out to the righteously indignant traveller using Big Red ( remember, I call him that because he is big and he is red) to knock people out of my way with no care if they were elderly, infirm or in the nascent stages of life.



Chinese trains have a number of classes of travel ranging from a hard seat, through hard sleeper to soft sleeper. We had chosen the middle option which we were told was “comfortable” for an eighteen hour journey. They lied the dogs, oh how they lied.

Our tour leader, Jackie, stood opened mouthed when we boarded the train. It looked like this was rolling stock from WWII. Each grimy compartment was open to the carriage and held six bunks, three on each side with the top bunk being about a foot from the top. In lieu of air conditioning was a small spluttering fan which provided about as much movement in the air as waving a small postage stamp.

Well, as you can imagine, prissy little moi was on the point of a huge hissy fit and was about to kick off on one until I remembered some of the therapy I had spent so much money on over the years (I knew it would come in useful one day) and went to my “happy place” My happy place for the record is The Library Bar at The Lanesborough Hotel in London where I can be found sitting in front of the fireplace sipping on my second pre-dinner cocktail. It is not and never will be on a train.

In a calmer state I took my place on the middle birth just as the lights went out and the train grumbled its way out of the station. The heat was unbearable and an attempt to cool things down by opening the window let in a huge slug of diesel fumes covering all of us in a thin slimy black film of goo.

I finally managed to doze off helped by the clickety-clack of the wheels against the tracks but was awakened what seemed only minutes later by what entered my dreams as the sound of a lawnmower but in reality turned out to be the elderly man on the bunk below me voiding his rheum on the floor.




Now, I shall return to the subject of spitting ever such a lot in the next few posts, don’t you worry your pretty little heads. But, for now, it is enough to say that spitting is probably the number one Chinese past time. Not any spitting mind you. Not a polite removal of spittle from the mouth in a discreet fashion. No, lordy no. This is spitting summoned up from the soles of their boots and snorted wherever they damn well please. In the case of my compartment mate, right on the floor next to my sandals.

The sound of spitting is the soundtrack to my travels in China, but as I said, I shall come back to this topic on a regular basis, so never you mind.

It was getting light by now and the locals were getting ready for their morning ablutions. Each carriage has two small sinks and two toilets that are to all intents and purposes holes leading to the track. I had wondered why just about every man, woman and child seemed to be carrying a cigarette when they headed in the direction of the facilities imagining that the marketing of Camel Joe must have been extra successful. I soon realised what was afoot when I went to the bathroom myself. They were holding them in a vain attempt to disguise the smell.



Within about twenty feet of it, you become aware that they are approaching, within ten feet, your eyes begin to water and by the time you are five feet away, your skin feels like it is peeling off. The smell is inhuman and locals and tourists alike were coming out of the cubicles a strange and frightening shade of green.

One of our party even wretched as she approached.

My bladder informed me, however that I had no other option and I opened the door. At the suggestion of one of my fellow travellers, I sent in an advanced party in the form of a spray of deodorant before stepping inside.

In the name of all that is holy, I pray that none of you ever have to go through what I went through.

We will speak of this no more. It is time to keep silence on this matter. Well, until the next toilet story.

It is no great shock to learn that such a journey does quell one’s appetite and I had little stomach for my own pot noodles, purchased the night before. The thought of that toilet, the constant background noise of people snorting and spitting and the thought of our friend squatting with toilet paper in one had and pot noodle in the other took my desire to ingest food right away.

Jackie seemed unbothered by all of this and bought a bowl of rice and vegetables at a short halt in the journey.


She offered me some and I wish I could say that it was delicious and made the journey all seem worthwhile. But, I did not touch a bite. I was far from certain that I would keep it in my stomach although, by the state of the carriage by this time, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if I had redecorated in bile covered pebble dash

We were all a bit miserable by the time the train pulled into Luzhuo in Sichuan province from which our journey up the Yangtze would begin. It was three in the afternoon, we all looked like we were about to audition for a minstrel show and we had not eaten properly for hours.

Just the time to take us on a tour of the Three Gorges Dam then, eh?

Like prisoners waiting for the journey up to the Big House, we all climbed wearily aboard our local bus to be greeted by our local guide, James who informed us that we would be ‘enjoying” a tour of the damn project.



It is impressive enough with over…………. Oh, to hell with it. If you really want to know how large and catastrophic it is, go and use Google.

We were prodded out for some slightly less than energetic strolls around the park by our guide and around the information centre which held less allure than a shower and a decent meal. But our spirits were raised enormously by the sight of more fabulous “chinglish” which raised a smile even from me who was very much in the slough of despond.




To the amusement of the group I also informed them at this point that my next trip after China was on The Trans Siberian Railway. Oh, how they did laugh.

Finally, thank The Lord, we were summoned back and taken the short journey to our boat from where we would begin a three day journey up the Yangtze.



More of that later, however, for now, just remember what I said at the beginning. If anyone ever tells you that they enjoy travelling by train. Well, you get the picture by now.

2 comments:

SamanthaF said...

I sit next to a Chinese girl at work, she is nodding throughout the bits I read out to her.

Could be an interesting Olympics.

Anonymous said...

Yo Geezer

Ah the memories. And they say that wounds heal with time. Well, I've been home for nearly 4 weeks, and still wake up at 2am after horendous dreams of full of hocking, squatting, trains with no airconditioning and warm beer.

Hope you are surviving the trans-Siberian mate!

Matt