adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Monday, September 17, 2007


31 hours to Turpan: Part 3/3

Man, having a stats counter is great. I used to think nobody visited the page, since there were no comments, but now I've discovered plenty of people visit my blog, and actually look at all the posts I've written, too! :D This is the last post about being on the train, I promise. Perhaps it can give you some feeling of how long the train ride was ;)

Did I ever mention I once went to Henan province? This is the Longmen grottoes near Luoyang, a place not unlike the Datong caves we visited earlier. It's an impressive place, but personally I preferred the caves in Datong; this place was simply way too crowded.

After a few hours, I decided to check if we could upgrade. There were tons of people sitting and standing in the aisles, so it took me quite a long time of carefully stepping over people's heads before I made it two cars up to the upgrade desk. The guy sitting at the desk was a heavyset man with a kindly, but tired face who reminded me of Sgt. Hong from Chuishiban de gushi(a comedy about a Chinese military kitchen crew).

"Hey, any sleepers?"
It was obviously not the first time he had been asked tonight. Exasperated, he replied that there weren't any.
"What about soft sleeper?(the luxury sleeper class)"
"什么卧都没有!(There aren't any sleepers of any kind!)"

I threaded my way back to our seat, where I had to chase out the guy who had been sitting there earlier. Later on, he noticed there were two inches of seat left next to me, so he sat down, crowding everyone (it's supposed to be three people to a seat). I chased him out again. The remaining 30 hours stretched out ahead of me. Rebecca decided to ask about upgrades (we figured they might be nicer to her, since she's foreign-looking), and was told she could probably get sleepers once we'd gotten to Lanzhou, in the morning at 8:00. Eight hours of sitting isn't too bad, as long as I know I have a bed waiting for me.

Bored in Xi'an? Take a visit to the Han Yang tombs, where you can walk around on glass floors over the tombs! This site has terracotta figures too, much smaller than the famous warriors, but more varied, with court officials, soldiers, commoners, and livestock.

Needless to say, I didn't sleep all night. I had another game of "get the hell off my seat" with a younger woman. Ordinarily, I would feel a bit bad about chasing a younger woman out from the seat, but hours of crowded train travel really get on your nerves. Hey, if she wanted to sit down, she should have paid for a seat like I did!

At 6AM, Rebecca went up to ask about upgrades, figuring she'd get in line early to beat the crowd when we got to Lanzhou. Hours went by. The two babies in the seat across from us woke up and started screaming. Lanzhou came and went. I sat giddily expecting Rebecca to come back with two fresh sleeper tickets. More hours went by. Finally, around 11AM, she came back empty-handed. There were no sleepers, she said, and everyone who had been waiting at the desk had given up and gone back. I was crushed.

A couple hours later, I went up to the desk and asked. The guy sitting at the desk had a friendly face and looked more Middle Eastern than Chinese.
"Any sleepers?"
The man grinned and shrugged, shaking his head. "Where are you headed?" he asked.
"Oohhhh! I feel your pain! Look, buddy, there'll be an announcement once we have sleepers. Just sit down and take it easy until then, OK?"
I wasn't going back to my seat without getting a sleeper, so I decided to stand there and wait. A woman in her 30s came to sit at the upgrade desk. Stations came and passed. Several people came by to ask about sleepers, but there were none. The woman looked Chinese and spoke just like a Chinese, but she had very green eyes. Eventually, the number of people crowding around and peeking over her shoulder to read the records she was writing got to her.
"For heaven's sake there aren't any sleepers! Go back to your seats already!"

The "forest of steles" at the Shaolin temple in Henan province. It's a pretty touristy place, but the kung fu show is impressive.

The crowd murmured with discontent. "So many people got off at Lanzhou, how couldn't there be any sleepers?" "Hey, I heard they were selling sleepers last night!" "Somebody told me they HAVE sleepers, they just won't sell them!" Confronted by several angry passengers, the lady finally explained the situation: yes, people were getting off, but stations up ahead have priority to sell the sleeper tickets. They weren't going to risk selling sleepers now, only to have people getting on later find someone already in their bunk. After reaching certain stations (which she wouldn't divulge), they could free up the sleepers if there were any left over. Contented with the explanation, people started going back. Except me, of course. I stayed standing there, even when the heavyset guy from last night, looking sympathetic, suggested I just go back and wait. I noticed he had green eyes too, despite looking Chinese. Although there were no sleepers, there were plenty of empty seats to be sold to people who had bought standing tickets.

A fellow handed over a couple hundreds and asked for a seat ticket. The heavyset guy, as most people do when accepting 100's, gave them a few rubs to check for authenticity. "Hmmm, this one feels a bit thick..." The guy offered another 100. "Try this one!" Other guys buying tickets intentionally handed over more 100's than needed, hoping the ticket guy would screw up and take a fake one.

Touristy, but fun - you can rent bikes up on the Xi'an city walls and ride all the way around. It takes a bit over an hour.

Eventually, I went back to my seat. We'd already spent almost 15 hours on the train, so we were halfway done. We stopped at another big station, Zhangye, and a lot of people got off. We had to wait for about half an hour before starting up again. This could be the big stop - but by now, my hopes were dashed and I was tired of asking, so I stayed in my seat. The car was much less crowded now - all the country Jethroes who hadn't actually bought seat tickets were now happily sitting in the freed-up seats, unharassed by angry ticket owners. If only the situation were the same for sleeper bunks, I thought.

After another half hour, there was a sudden announcement over the intercom. A sweet female voice speaking extremely standard Chinese was happy to inform us that...yes, the sale of sleeper tickets was beginning in car 12!!!

I bolted out of my seat and jumped over the people sitting in the aisle, racing up to the upgrade desk I knew so well. As I neared car 12, I noticed a huge amount of people crowded together, pushing each other. Something told me they weren't in line for the bathroom.

What better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than playing a game of Chinese chess with your buds?

When they say people don't queue in China, they don't mean they NEVER queue. People queue up in supermarkets, at the rail ticket window, and even for the Line 13. But after you've been sitting in a crowded hard seat compartment for 15 hours, it's every man for himself. I waded into the crowd, edging my way towards sleeper bunk heaven. Someone had procured sleeper tickets! He pushed his way through the crowd, who made way for him, and a gap appeared. Everyone started pushing and shoving like mad, me included. I managed to take full advantage of the opening, having shoved several guys behind me, and was close enough to take a fistful of 100's out and wave it at the guy at the desk, as many others were doing.

"Stop pushing! There's enough for everyone!" The heavyset guy's words fell on deaf ears. The struggle to get to the desk continued. "Ahh, that's our typical Chinese competitive spirit for you," he sighed. Noticing my ruthless fight to get to the desk, he chuckled with approval. "And this young fellow isn't letting anyone get ahead of him. He's actually a foreigner - Korean - you know that?" he said, talking to another rail worker. For some reason all Chinese who have realized I'm a foreigner think I'm Korean. Trust me, brother, even us fake Koreans aren't letting anyone get sleepers before we do.

Us fake Koreans enjoy a good Korean BBQ from time to time. Freshly grilled bulgogi wrapped in lettuce, with a dab of fermented soybean paste and a slice of fresh garlic - heavenly.

I got the sleepers! As I pushed through the crowd back to my seat, sleeper tickets held victoriously over my head, people in the crowd started asking me, "Hey, how much did those cost?" "How many did you buy? Only 2?!" "How many are left?"

Compared to the seats, the hard sleeper compartment was paradise. I lay back, relaxed, and pulled out a copy of Duzhe(Chinese Reader's Digest) to pass the remaining 15 hours. The rest of the ride was uneventful. A lady noticed my Xinjiang guidebook(written in Chinese) and asked to take a look, curious. The guy in the bunk across from me struck up conversation with me. We chatted for a bit about Xinjiang. He asked where Rebecca was from. She mentioned she was Swedish, and I added that I was from the US. He was quite surprised that I was from the US - "I thought you were her tour guide!" We chatted some more about China - I mentioned I wanted to come work here in the future. Excited, he told me a story.
"This country has changed so much. 10 years ago, my wife fell ill and I went bankrupt paying her hospital bills. I was working every day hand-to-mouth just to get by. But everything has changed since then. I might not be rich now, but I have my own business and I'm doing pretty well." He gave me his QQ number(QQ is an instant messaging service everyone in China uses) and told me to add him once I got back to the US.

I got my first real sleep since getting on the train. We were passing through northwestern Gansu, and I noticed the scenery looked just like southern New Mexico, with rocky, bush-covered desert. Near sunset, we made a short stop in a little station and got some ice cream from vendors at the platform. We had a meal in the restaurant car - the food was awful, but I liked the ambiance.

Rebecca in the restaurant car.

The next day at 5AM, a rail worker woke us up to get ready to disembark in an hour at Turpan. The sun rose over the flat, empty desert of Xinjiang.

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