Day 39: Train Ride from Hell, Dragon Town + Pandas

Trip Start Aug 24, 2005
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Trip End Jul 2006


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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

China's National Day falls on October 1, and everyone gets 7 days off for the holiday. While traveling is not the most common thing for Chinese people to do, mostly because of financial reasons, if they are going to travel, the National Day holiday is the time of the year to do it. It's the most busy and widely traveled week of the year. So, of course we all decided to hop on the bandwagon and see some more of China.

Our first stop: Chengdu, the capitol city of Sichuan (aka Szechwan) Province.

The Train Ride from Hell: Chengdu is just far enough from Wuhan that it's unreasonable to take a bus, but not far enough to justify buying a plane ticket, so we settled on traveling by train. On most Chinese trains you have a choice between 3 kinds of tickets: soft berth (soft sleepers where you get a private room for four people and four relatively comfortable beds; the most expensive ticket), hard berth (hard sleepers with six bunks; the next most expensive ticket), and hard seat (basically rows of semi-comfortable seats; the least expensive ticket). We were told that the train ride would be about 14 hours, but if you get a sleeper ticket on an overnight train, it's really not bad at all. It sure beats the 14 hour long plane ride that we took to get to China, anyway.

Sadly, however, when we went to buy our tickets, we were informed that they only had hard seats left.

Great.

BUT, we figured that if we could handle a 14 hour plane ride sitting in tiny semi-comfortable seats, we could handle a 14 hour train ride sitting in tiny semi-comfortable seats. So we bought the tickets, ready for adventure.

Then the cashier told us that it was a 17.5 hour train ride. Right.

On the evening of National Day, we hopped on the train with our backpacks and found our train car to be PACKED with people. We had to push people out of the aisle to get to our seats, and when we finally found our seats, we had to push people out of them. Apparently you can also buy standing tickets for this section, and on 17.5 hour long train rides, standing people take every chance they can to sit down. So, everytime one of us got up to go to the bathroom or something, we would have to kick people out of our seats again when we got back. Pity the person who was sitting in the aisle seat, because anyone standing in the aisle would lean on them whenever they got the chance. On the one hand I felt bad for the standers who either stood, squatted, sat on buckets, or piled on top of each other in empty seats for hours on end, but it's a little hard to feel bad for them when their buckets are digging into your legs, you have a week's worth of life on your lap, and you're sitting ram-rod straight in cramped dirty seats. I don't care how comfortable your seats are, after 5 hours of sitting in exactly the same position (with said buckets digging into your legs) everything goes numb.

To make our train ride experience even better, we were sitting near the bathrooms and the exit.

None of you are allowed to complain to me ever again about sitting near a bathroom on a long trip until you have sat near a Chinese squatter.

Squatters smell nauseating in general, but when you put one on a wobbly train, don't clean it for a couple of days, and have tons of people peeing, pooping, and God knows what else in them for hours, you might start to get an idea of the stench we were sitting in. If you need me to spell it out for you, try imagining urine splattered everywhere and, though I didn't personally experience it because I decided that I would rather hold it for 5 hours than pee in the train squatter again, a huge pile of shit in the squatter that you have to pee over and can't flush away because there is no more water left to flush with.

And let me tell you, you don't know the true art of aiming until you have peed in a squatter on a lurching train, while trying to hold the bathroom door closed because it doesn't lock and there are random Chinese people trying to break it down while you're in there.

The aisle near the bathrooms was packed with standing people which meant that if you wanted to use the bathroom, you needed to push your way through the mass and stand right in front of the door, so that when the person in the bathroom started to come out you could kind of fall into the bathroom and switch places with them. Also, apparently smoking on trains is the thing to do, because I think every Chinese man within 10 feet of us was smoking like a chimney for the entire trip.

Probably the best part of the train ride was trying to sleep during the night. Stephanie and I were periodically switching places throughout the train ride, and since I started in the window seat, I had the pleasure of sitting in the aisle seat for the night. Let's just say that you don't know true sleeping comfort until you have spent a night sleeping hunched over the backpack on your lap with Chinese people occasionally leaning on you as you sleep. You also don't know how easy it is to stay asleep until you've been woken up at 3 AM because of a screaming Chinese man running down the aisle. And you definitely don't know back and neck cricks until you experience sleeping on the backpack on your lap.

Once daytime arrived, though, I started to get used to the train and started noticing some of the beautiful details of the experience. Some of the highlights:

--Everybody on the train busting out numerous Chinese Ramen bowls periodically throughout the trip and making them with a boiling water spicket on the train

--The sweet, refreshing smell of fresh oranges that some of the Chinese people near us brought onto the train, and the fact that they threw all of the orange peels on the floor of the train

--The man who came by every so often to sweep the garbage and orange peels from the aisles with a bamboo broom, and would tell us in Chinese to raise our feet so he could sweep under them

--The bored little kid who kept trying to wake up the poor man squatting next to him who was just trying to get some sleep

--Looking up at a Chinese poster across from our seats and being able to read the date in Chinese

--Having vendors come around doing demonstrations of random products like the strongest socks in the world and an amazing versatile top that played an extremely high pitched version of "Happy Birthday" over and over while it lit up and spun around on everything the vendor put it on, including a string (she even put the spinning top back inside its box, strung the box onto the string, and the entire box spun around while traveling up and down the string; it was astounding and sure beats the wooden blocks that we used to play with when we were kids)

--The bamboo broom man throwing all of the garbage from the train out the window, which wasn't actually a beautiful detail at all, it made me really angry

--Seeing the river flooded and frothing with waterfalls shooting out of the mountains onto the road; sometimes the waterfalls were so thick and falling so quickly that they looked like brown, gushing, liquid mud slides falling onto the road

--Seeing a flooded area that you only knew was flooded because you could see the ridges of red-tiled roofs and the tops of trees sticking out of the water

--Seeing a calm brown river snaking through green lush mountains with giant tropical plants, small farms framed by rice paddies, and tiny rundown houses that were somehow romantically beautiful in their poverty

--Having the Chinese people sitting on top of each other across from us being fascinated with my digital camera and blatantly staring at everything we did

--Trying desperately to take pictures of the scenery (the houses framed by farms; the people working and wading in the rice paddies ala "I Love Lucy"; the tiny child running up the path with his grandfather, exuberantly waving at the train; the water buffalo chilling in the fields; the children running up the copper stone path to their home, calling to their dog, and laughing affectionately with each other, etc etc etc), and realizing with a certain sadness that my pictures can't do it justice; no one will ever experience or see those things in exactly the same way that I have, even I won't if I ever take the same train ride again

For the record, I probably will never take the same train ride again.

Mostly because it kept stopping in the middle of the night for a total of six hours for no apparent reason.

None of you are allowed to complain to me about long car, plane or train rides until you have spent TWENTY-THREE consecutive hours sitting in third class on a Chinese train next to the squatter.

Dragon Town: We got to Chengdu in the early evening (a good 6 hours after we were supposed to arrive) with no hotel or hostel reservations, so our first order of business was finding a place to spend the night. With the help of Lonely Planet and a really nice Chinese woman who personally showed us the way, we found the Dragon Town Hostel really far down a small alley that was completely torn up and under construction. It was a really quaint, Japanese looking place, and there were a bunch of travelers hanging out in the courtyard as we walked into the lobby. We wanted to get a dormitory room for the six of us which would cost 30 RMB (almost $4) a night, but we were told that there were absolutely no vacancies for that night.

Fabulous.

At this point it's getting dark outside, we're exhausted from the train ride, we haven't eaten in hours, and none of us are familiar with the city so we have no idea where else we can stay. We ask if there is another hostel nearby that might have room for us, and after a few tense minutes of them typing away on the computer and making phone calls....

....they tell us that they can put some mattresses on the floor of the lobby for us for the night. Perfect.

Our sleeping arrangement set for the night, we took off to find some food. Because Sichuan food is supposed to be the best food in China (I mean, it's even famous in America!) we were really excited to try the real thing.

China is kind of a funny place though. It seems like everytime you are falling over with hunger there is no food in sight. After walking for a good 15 minutes, we finally came across a restaurant and gladly went in. I was glad to walk in and discover that it was a hotpot restaurant, since hotpot ("firepot" when literally translated) originated in Sichuan Province. The tables all have large pots on an open flame in the middle of them, and you are brought raw meat and veggies to the table which are thrown into the broth in the pot and then eaten at your leisure. You make a spicy condiment sauce for everything at your table (well, actually they made it for us since they thought we didn't know how.... and actually we didn't know how so it was good that they made them) using salt, coriander, MSG, cilantro, chilies, and some of the broth from the hotpot. It was really really good.

On our way back to the hostel we stopped at a bakery and a fruit stand to buy some food for breakfast. Once we were back at the hostel we finally washed up and brushed our teeth in one of the communal bathrooms, and around 11:30pm, the hostel managers mopped up the lobby and set up our mattresses for us to sleep. We thought that we were only going to get mattresses and maybe a sheet, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that each of us got a sheet to cover the mattress, a blanket and a pillow, all for the wonderful discounted price of 25 RMB (~$3). They even lit mosquito coils for us (which smelled so familiar, just like summer nights in Baraboo), and I had some incense burning next to me because I happened to be sleeping next to a little Buddhist altar. There was also a really friendly couple from Melbourne, Australia slumber partying with us, as well as a couple of Chinese people who we didn't notice were there until we woke up the next morning. Actually it was really comfortable to sleep there; I don't know if it was the mattress or if I was just exhausted and glad to have somewhere to lay down, but once I fell asleep I was out for the count.

Pandas!!: We woke up really early the next morning and took off with a small tour group of people from our hostel for the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center around 7:15 am. I had been to the center the first time I was in China (in June 2004) and had really enjoyed being there, so I was excited to go back. It was almost as good this time around, though it was hard to compare the two experiences since the first time I was there we were given a several-hour-long guided tour by a woman from Atlanta who was working at the center for a couple of months and could give us a ton of inside information and answer our questions, while this time we had two hours to roam around on our own. It was nice to be able to go wherever we wanted to, but I wish we had had one more hour to look around. They have more than 20 different kinds of endangered animals that they breed there and we didn't get a chance to see any of them this time around because we didn't have enough time. I'm definitely not complaining though; there are less than 1000 giant pandas left in the world (about 80% of them are only found in Sichuan province, the other 20% are only found in nearby Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces, unless you count the few that are in zoos around the world) so I feel very lucky to have seen so many of them up close. The first time I was at the Center I got to see two panda cubs, and it was really great to see both of them a little more grown up this year. I was also EXTREMELY lucky to see a baby panda, that couldn't have been more than a month or two old. They have a birthing cage inside one of the buildings with a thick glass window with curtains looking into it so people can see inside. The curtains were only open a couple of feet, so everyone was pushing their way towards it and fighting to get a glance. It is REALLY RARE to see a baby panda, so it was an amazing moment for me, though it was slightly soured by the hordes of Chinese tourists that kept shoving into me as I was trying to get a picture of the baby (which I did post in the photo album, and I'm sorry that it's blurry, but, as I said, I had people pushing into me and I wasn't allowed to use a flash). The experience was kind of like the first time that I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre: I was really excited to see it and wanted to just sit there looking at it for hours, but there were so many other people that wanted to do the same thing and were rudely pushing their way towards it, that it made me lose my desire to even look at it. Tragedy, really.

Our afternoon was spent perusing the various parks and temples in Chengdu. It really is a beautiful city that seems so clean and orderly after being in Wuhan. Drivers actually obey traffic signals for the most part, and traffic is pretty light, though if you ask any person from Chengdu about the traffic they'll tell you that it's pretty bad. We just told them to spend a day in Wuhan and then it'll feel like cars don't even exist in Chengdu. We visited the oldest Daoist Temple in the area, Qingyang Gong, which was huge and beautiful, and we also went to the largest Buddhist Temple in Chengdu, Wenshu Monastery, and ate at their very famous vegetarian restaurant. It was interesting to see some of the monks walking around with cell phones, and apparently Becky even got to play ping pong with some of the monks. I sadly missed that because Stephanie and I were sitting on a bridge over a little pond where a bunch of old people were sitting and talking. Sichuan Province has a very laid-back lifestyle, where people are less concerned with working and more concerned with food and relaxing in teahouses. It has been called the "Italy of China." Other provinces consider the Sichuan people to be lazy since they just sit around in teahouses playing mahjong and talking all day, but I think they have just realized that friendship and company (oh, and food!) fulfill your life more than work does.

That night we got our own room at the hostel (which was strangely less comfortable than the mattresses on the floor of the lobby) which had a chain and padlock, and the next day we left Chengdu bright and early, hopped on a bus, and headed to ChongQing.
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Comments

jun
jun on

Say hi*^_^*
Hi,I saw your journey accidentatlly.I am so happy to read these words that you wrote.Luckily,I studied in Wuhan University during 2001-2004, now I am in Beijing for my gruduate.
Yop,my hometown is Sichuan Province.So I just want to tell you the Sichuan people is very warm and kind-hearted.And there are enough places to visit.So you can try to make some friends with the guy that is living or studying in Sichuan.I'm sure they will glad to take you to go anywhere.
What a pity.I have to say I am bad at English.Why I spent the time in knocking the key is because my hometown is the best place I think.
Have good days in China:)

Dev on

Hey.. wow i am speechless after reading your blog.. as i hold a ticket for a 17hr train journey from shanghai to yangzhou to beijing and I leave tomorrow.. and the worst plan I am travelling alone as my friends bought tickets on a different train and it was full... aah.. i am sure i am going to get a hell of an experience .. hope to see myself alive at the end of the train ride..

kvitkalily
kvitkalily on

Haha it will certainly be an experience to say the least! You will definitely have some stories after that ride :) I too hope you make it out alive! Hope you have an amazing adventure!

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