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A Little China Choo-Choo

Posted by on July 21, 2012

China train travel. Hmm, what’s that like? Well, that depends on where you are. On my train trip from Zhuhai to Guangzhou–—one city in Guangdong province to another–—the train was brand new and the ride pristine.

Elsewhere I went…, not so much.

These rides were the stereotype of Chinese train travel. And when I went to buy my ticket from Beijing down to Ruzhou in Henan province, I was in economy mode. So instead of buying a sleeper for the 13-hour overnight journey, I bought a seat.

Next time I’ll work a little harder to afford the upgrade.

Beijing is the star. (Ruzhou, my destination, is just south of Luoyang.)

I was on my way to Ruzhou, because just outside of it is a town called Ruyang. And just outside Ruyang lives a special, old woman who I travelled all this way to meet.

Back in Beijing, I arrived at the train station on the evening of my last day there:

Alright, now I had to see where to go:


No worries–the display flashed between Chinese and English. I found my train and waited in line at the gate leading our to the rails.

Soon, it was time to board, and a nice hoard of riders and luggage flowed toward the ticket-taker gate. Outside we went to board the train; inside we went into our car:

Oh boy…Where’s everyone going to sit?

Oh, that’s right. They’re not–at least not on seats:

Sit tight, floor buddy.

It was around 8pm and I immediately began to dread the hours ahead when I’’d be restless, tired, and unable to sleep in all this commotion. People were everywhere.

One side of the aisle had sets of 2×2 seat-benches facing each other with a table top in the middle. To sleep, these riders could either try to lean back on the erect seats like an airplane. Or they could try to lean down on the table top, their arms or bags as pillows.

They were the lucky ones.

Cause the other side of the aisle had seat-groups of 3 x 3 facing each other. I got one of these, and on my bench I was monkey-in-the-middle. Still, it was better than the aisle seat, because the table top on our side extended out only so far, leaving this person with nothing to lean on. The 20-something guy to my right in this predicament chose to kneel on the floor and rest his head against the seat cushion.

And we were the lucky ones….

Cause finally there were those in the car who had no seat at all. It’’s better than not getting a ticket, but these poor folks either stood in the aisle, sat on their bags or on the floor, or picked up a makeshift stool that some lady was selling back at the station. (I watched her, too, and wondered what she was selling those things for.) Now I knew.

Through the night I had plenty of opportunity to observe the passengers, each with their own destination and story. I inquired with some of my seat-mates. One thing I’m always curious about is whether I can pinpoint a person’s province by their looks. That’s tough. Nonetheless, the idea that all Chinese look alike is dispelled when travelling with others from all over the country.

Here were some of the passengers:

These fellas were across from me.

So was this gal:

sleep-smiling :)

Sharing my bench were these fellas:

And across the aisle:


Eventually, I’d try to sleep. White noise hummed along with occasional knocking from the tracks. Our “dance” to this music was random, stuttering upper-body, back-and-forth sway-jerks. And if I can recall correctly, I think the car was lit up the whole time, too. No matter, I got exhausted and managed some sleep.

(And later in this trek, I’d have some hindsight gratitude after hearing about the rough ride for a couple Austrian women. Their car was so crowded that passengers on the floor curled up at their feet, using the women’s back-packs as pillows.)

Finally, morning came:

“Zao sheng hao”

And at around 7:00, I arrived at Ruzhou train station:

Straight and to the left. That’s where my ride was waiting. (But that’s for next time.)

I talked earlier about the “lucky ones”, those who have better conditions than others on the train. But I’’d say the lucky ones weren’’t in this car at all. Folks in the sleeper cars were quite better off. (And hey, why stop there? Plenty opt out of trains altogether, for obvious reasons, and pay a few extra yuan for a plane ticket—–where you have three more tiers of riding conditions.)

Here’s a peek at a sleeper car that I rode (I splurged) a bit later in my travels. It was fewer solo travelers and more families. Things were more spacious and, naturally, folks were well-rested. Things overall just seemed more chipper. It was a nice illustration that though money doesn’t make you happy, comfort sure helps.

Kids were playing some kind of ‘paper, rock, scissor’ singing game.

They got a kick out of me, an American. Some gave me seashells for gifts. Here’s one of the boys who was particularly adorable:

When in transport we have the chance to learn so much: the places people go, the stories they tell, the reasons for their travel. Americans, or course, love the automobile. In China, though, things are more public. And in a place that already is generally curious about Westerners, the train provides a fertile ground to nurture the interactions that make travel so special.

Next week, I’ll tell you about my experiences in small-town China.

have an awesome week,


One Response to A Little China Choo-Choo

  1. joe

    We are expat minnesotans living in Shanghai. Let me know if you travel tis way and need anything.