Part 1: The 19 hour train ride across China from Huangshan to Beijing, from the last 硬座 to first class 软卧

Huangshan Railway Station photo
19 hour train ride across China from Huangshan to Beijing, starting from Huangshan Railway Station

I love taking trains. When I had a chance to travel across China, from Huangshan to Beijing, I jumped on it. Why take a flight, when I could try to understand China as the train flits from province to province?

I was right. I did learn a lot about China. The landscape is not beautiful to be honest. Every few acres of land is peppered with a spring of a factory spewing out black smoke. Not a pretty sight, compared to India’s rolling plains. That being said, it’s these factories that have saved so many Chinese from poverty and raised their standard of living. I am not complaining.

More importantly, during this 19 hours, I learnt a lot about the people.

When I first tried to book the ticket, all that was available was the hard seat 硬座, which is a literal translation from the Chinese term. In reality, it’s a cushioned seat, but the leg room is small. It’s also air-conditioned, so you don’t have to worry about freezing cold temperatures at night in a moving train, as I have experienced in India.

I was left with no choice but to purchase that ticket, as the trip to Beijing was a must for me.

The experience in the hard seat carriage was mostly bearable, despite the fact that there were people smoking near the doors. As it was air-conditioned, the faint smell of smoke wafted through the compartment all the time. On the train, it was quite cramped. I had the aisle seat, so I could easily stretch my legs. But when the train comes to a stop, people would start squeezing on board, inadvertently brushing past you. It was hard to fall asleep.

Just like India and many parts of South East Asia, there are people who board the train without purchasing a ticket. Like vultures, they are always on the lookout for empty seats. Upon entering the cabin, I searched in vain for my seat, only to find a 50 plus year old lady sitting proudly on it. Waving my ticket in front of her, I told her firmly, that it was my seat.

It took at least 15 minutes to settle down, be it chasing non-seat owners from one’s seat, to stuffing my backpack on the top compartment. As I wondered how to spend the 19 hours fruitfully, a scene caught my eye.

There was an old man, an old lady with a 4-year-old girl and a baby boy who was about one year old. Unlike the poor people in India, they had it better. They were dressed in sweaters and shoes to buffer against the cold. But you could tell that they were poorer than average Chinese.

huangshan to beijing train ride
The grandfather with his granddaughter, who was standing because the baby was sleeping at the place he was sitting on
beijing huangshan train 19 hours
Grandmother looking after the baby. His sister is in orange.

They bought just one seat on the train, so the seat went to the old lady, who was carrying the baby boy. There were no other vacant seats for the old man to sit, so he had to rest in the area where bulky luggage was stored at, and the little girl accompanied him. I think he was sitting on a bag of rice.

The baby slept very well. He was chubby, looked healthy, but there were pimples on his cheeks. I thought it was very strange that he had these pimples. Isn’t it a thing for teenagers?

Things were still relatively fine when the baby was sleeping. When the grandfather stood up to let the baby boy stretch and sleep on the seat, some passengers on the train asked him why were just the old couple taking care of the kids. Where were their parents?

The reply was that they were heading to Tian Jin, where the mother of the children was doing business. The trip will take them a total of 18 hours.

Why not get a berth? Some asked. At least the children can lie down and there will be more space.

It seems like money was a concern. But the grandfather agreed, and I offered to help put their names on the waiting list for berths. (As I was about to do so for myself.)

I was in carriage 5, so I squeezed past people in the corridors, to reach the train conductor, who was in carriage 7. He told me to put my name down on the waiting list, and check back with him once the train arrives at Nanjing. (That was 5 hours later.)

When I got back, the baby was awake and crying. I think he was hungry. A fellow passenger gave him some biscuits. I gave him a biscuit. But later I realised that the food could be the cause of his “pimples”. As his saliva mixed with the biscuits, they form mushy bits and soon they were all over his face. The grandmother didn’t have the chance to wipe them off for him, and he started crying. Imagine the combination of tears, saliva and biscuit crumbs. It was a mess. The grandmother tried to shush him but got frustrated, and lightly smacked him on the face, I guess reinforcing the tear/saliva/biscuit mixture onto his skin. I signed.

Later, as she was carrying him, he started to pee. Fortunately, her pants were black because I think some of the pee may have seeped into them. Now you may be thinking that the baby would have soiled his pants. Wrong. The Chinese have cleverly invented baby pants with a hole at the bottom, for babies to pee and poo all they want without soiling their clothes. Looks a little weird though.

Baby pants in China
Baby pants in China Credits: Vagaondjourney.com

This is where the drama happens. The grandmother took out a diaper, but instead of letting it absorb the pee, allowed the boy to pee on the train floor. I uncontrollably squirmed as the pee slid across from corner to corner, thanking my lucky stars that I had invested in a pair of waterproof Timberland shoes.

Thank goodness, the train had a mop, and the attendant came and mopped up the mess in no time. But the drama was far from over. The baby boy now wanted to poo. He was behind me, and for some reason no diapers was used again, and he pooped on the train floor, just before his grandfather could bring him to the toilet. The grandfather then cleaned up and thankfully, there were no traces left of what happened.

I thought it was over, but the tipping point was just round the corner. For the past two times the baby had defecated on the train, I thought it was because the grandparents had no time to help him put on a diaper.

But then I saw for my very own eyes, that as the baby was about to pee again, the grandmother pushed him forward away from herself (in my direction) and let him start, oblivious to my infuriated glare, and the clean diapers which was next to her. The pee once again trickled down the train floor. I closed my eyes.

There were also other things that irked me in the lowest class seating area. The grandmother was constant spewing out phlegm. Unlike in India where people could spit out of an open window, she spitted on the floor, and used her shoe to step over it. (Like that could help in any way.) She did it about 3 times during the 6 hours I was there.

While I was writing my diary, a busybody uncle who was next to me read out loud the Chinese words I was writing – they were the name of the hotel I was staying at. Thankfully, he didn’t understand the rest of it because it was in English. I did write down what I heard from the train announcement, which was about “社会文明,环境优美“ (A gracious society with beautiful surroundings), which was blasted out in a bid to encourage passengers not to litter. I thought in my head at that point time, with all the pee and poo trickling down, the shrieks from the baby, the spitting/ covering up with the shoe practice, that eight words were really 对牛弹琴。(Play the Gu zheng to a bull, he won’t understand.)

At Nanjing, I wriggled my way to the train conductor, and asked if there was a berth available. He said, yes, but only in first class. It cost SGD50 more. Now I had a struggle, I really wanted a berth, it was expensive, but it would be really great if the baby, little girl and the two oldies could have somewhere to rest, and stop all the bawling and defecating in public areas. So I paid up for the ticket, not registering that it was an upper berth seat and that the ticket was only valid for one adult and one child. I thought, like in India, no one ever follows the rules. Of course, I was wrong.

When I once more pushed my way across several sacks of what seems to be rice and somebody’s leg to return to the cabin, I told the Grandfather to have my seat. After all, it was first class and he would be able to have a good rest. (In my head, I was actually delighted to get the peeing/pooing away as far as possible). The Grandfather asked me, how much was the ticket.

I could only say, “钱不是问题” (Money is not a problem). Which I firmly believed, as with many things in live, problems are not problems if they can be solved with money. Of course I was not some rich tycoon who could buy them two first class seats. In my head, it will be good if one of them and the kid could just lie down and rest for a while.

The Grandfather thanked me. He said he would move the children when the train was less crowded. He asked where I was from. I said, Singapore. I don’t think they heard about Singapore before. Some people in the train started saying, “新加坡人真好.” (Singaporeans are really nice.)

huangshan to beijing train ride
The educated lady who asked me to go to the first class

A fellow passenger (who looks more educated) asked to see the ticket that I had purchased. She then exclaimed “Girl, this seat is for the high berth. Not suitable for the elderly, and for little children. You better go there yourself. What you can do is to vacant this seat now, so the Grandfather can sit down. ”

The grandfather nodded in approval and asked me to use the berth instead. And for a strange reason, my heart was filled with happiness. First class – a nice berth to rest over the night…

Just then, an elderly lady, in her sixties, heard that I had offered them a berth, and started muttering some dialect in my ears. I assume it was for me to find a berth for her. She was with her son. I felt like telling her, “Excuse me, do I look like some charity giving out free train seats? Isn’t it your son’s responsibility to look after your well-being and buy you a train ticket?”

I am not sure  why I was so angry. I think it’s because I think there’s a fine line between being charitable, and giving in to the beggars. And I hate the latter. No one owes you a living. If your son didn’t buy you a seat on the train, then there’s just too bad for you…

There’s also a moral conundrum about giving seats to the elderly. Some of them come on board, don’t pay for the seat, and expect you to give up seats to them. I don’t mind if it’s a one hour journey. But if it’s for 19 hours? Hell, no!

So this is how I spent the first 6 hours of my 19 hour train ride in the lowest class carriage… Feeling sad, a strong sense of sympathy and yet feeling exasperated and pissed off at the same time.

Click here for Part 2 of this 19 hour train ride about “living” in the first class carriage.

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