How to See the Real China: Take the Train


I looked up “Orient Express” on my favorite movie website, IMDB. And got some intriguing results. There’s “Romance on the Orient Express.” Sounds good. There’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Sounds messy. There’s “Mystery on the Orient Express.” Not sure. And there’s “The Lady of the Orient Express.” We’re back where we started. Sort of.

Only trouble is, as far as I can tell the Orient Express never went anywhere near China. It apparently originated in Paris and terminated in Istanbul. (Or the other way around if you’re Turkish). So it stopped short of what I thought was “The Orient” by about, oh, some 3,000+ miles. Or about 4,828 kilometers, if you’re one of those metric people.

So then I had to Google “where is the Orient” and it made a little more sense. In Roman times, the East – The Orient – was, well, those countries east of Rome. Duh. Which is a very long-winded introduction to today’s topic.

China has one of the most extensive rail systems in the world. According to Wikipedia, only the USA has a larger rail system. I have a hard time believing that. And besides, it’s like comparing apples to mandarin oranges. When was the last time you went anywhere on a train? Chinese go everywhere on the train. Especially during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and Mid-Autumn Festival.

We Westerners seem to immediately spin our own cocoons when we board a train. We isolate ourselves with a newspaper, a book, a laptop or an MP3 player. The first thing Chinese do is assemble in small groups to play cards, drink tea, chew on chicken feet and, most importantly, find someone with which to gossip the entire trip.

Tsingtao and a Soft Sleeper - Western Decadence

There are four classes of train ticket. They are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. I have experienced all four and even stood up for an entire night during the run-up to Spring Festival. I never would have made it if it hadn’t been for the kindness of some students who took pity on this “lao wai.” One of the group had a soft seat, so we each took half hour shifts.

One of my students in my first year of teaching lived in far-off Xinjiang Province. During Spring Festival, she would stand for five days and nights on the train, spend five days and nights with her family, and then stand five more days and nights returning to college. Of course, she didn’t stand the whole way. What I mean is she couldn’t afford to buy a ticket for a seat, so she would hunker down with her luggage as best she could. Kind of makes your eyes tear up a little, huh?

This is the Real China – it can be found in the character of the people. And I haven’t even begun to mention what’s passing outside your train window. Okay, technically you are passing it, but you catch my drift.

Consider, too, the advantages of train travel. Most train stations in China are located somewhere near the heart of the city and usually right next to the bus station. Airports, on the other hand are usually way out on the outskirts and right next to nothing.

Also, you’ve got to sleep somewhere, right? Most train trips of any distance last overnight, so the price of a hard sleeper or a soft sleeper includes your motel. Sort of. And there’s no need to leave a wake-up call. Remember those gossipers I mentioned? They really do talk the ENTIRE trip!

A soft sleeper is usually housed within a cabin or compartment with four berths. Two upper and two lower. If you really want privacy, you could purchase all four berths. But then, that kind of defeats the purpose, right?

If you want some exercise, just stand and walk a few cars that way and a few cars the other way. Get ready for the priceless expressions on the faces of the passengers when they realize a foreigner is on the train. Especially the faces of the children. Invariably, there will be an English speaker eager to practice and then interpret for the rest of the group.

I need to mention that the bathroom (W.C.) on each train car is always locked by the attendant while your train is in the station. Think about it.

Every train car has a hot water station for tea and “fast noodles.” If you are feeling adventurous you can even wander up and down looking for the dining car, which is usually somewhere near the middle of the train. And the adventure doesn’t stop there.  I would recommend looking at what the other diners are eating and go with that. Just point.

This article is now up around 800 words and starting to need it’s own dining car, so I guess I will quit here. I have more to say, but will save it for “The Real China, Part II.”

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3 thoughts on “How to See the Real China: Take the Train

  1. haha, pretty funny. This post reminds me of my extensive experience of traveling by train in China. It brings back a lot of memories, some are fond and interesting, others are not so much fun. But railway trip really is party of Chinese people’s life. What gives that girl the strength to put up such an ordeal to travel? Maybe it is just her mom’s cooking or her dad’s smile. I always connect the railway with the incredibly tight bond in Chinese families. Just looking at the ridiculously huge amount of people heading back to their hometowns in the Spring Festival, it is like Christmas here, sorta…Anyways, glad you enjoyed the adventure of traveling in China by train.

    • You’re right about the railroad being a kind of symbol for the amazing bond that exists in Chinese families. Even though many families are spread out among the cities and the countryside, they still all will endure any hardship in order to be together again during Spring Festival. Ron

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