Friday, January 6, 2012

My Train Experiences in China

During my recent visit to China, I took an over night train from Tulufan吐鲁番 (Turpan) to LiuYuan (柳园).  At Tulufan Railway Station, they don't sell any sleeper train tickets within 10 days.  Our only option was to get a non-sleeper train ticket.  To make it worse, there was no more seats available, we could only get no-seat tickets, at the same price as tickets with a seat!

I was naively thinking that there might not be many people in the train as it was low season for travelers, not realising that in Xinjiang, workers from other provinces in China usually start to go back to their home town 1 month before Chinese New Year.  As 2012's Chinese New Year came in on 23 Jan, so Christmas time is already the beginning of ChunYun(春运), meaning workers going home in large numbers for Chinese New Year.

The train was to depart Tulufan station at 11pm, but having nothing to do, we arrived at around 7pm.  There was some unrest in Xinjiang, and as a result, people coming into train stations and bus terminals, have to go through security check.

The station building itself is quite run down and it is small.  People crowded in the waiting room.  Some had seats, some didn't and sat on the floor.  The station itself is supposed to be smoke free, but people still smoked discretely in the waiting hall.  At the male toilet, then it was a different story.  There is a loud speaker right outside the male toilet, announcing no smoking is allowed in the male toilet.  But the reality is you can smell the smoke outside the toilet.  Going inside, many people were smoking there.

The male toilet is still the old style public toilet.  This means there are no doors.  People shit right in front of others who pass by.  It is like a parade of buttocks.

30 minutes before our train departure, we started to go to the platform.  Before that, we need get our tickets checked by the railway staff.  It was a nightmare.  There was no queue, and everybody just pushed ahead.  Some railway staff attempted to restore orderly, but their efforts are in vain.  They are out-numbered.

Boarding the train is another nightmare.  The carts were crowded and you could hardly moved.  And people with very big luggage, blocking the passageway in the cart.

I quickly found a vacant seat to sit down.  At Tulufan, it was still not so bad, there were still some vacant seats available, but after the train reached Hami, all the seats were taken by their rightful owners.  We really had to stand.  I was really lucky that out of the 8.5 hours train journey, I only had to stand for around 4 hours.

In the train, the temperature was high at around 27C, while outside temperature was at -16C!  People were sweating in the train.  The train was a smoke free train, but then nobody enforces this rule.  Sitting next to me there were two railway staff members.  They were smoking non-stop, one cigarette after another.  They didn't stop smoking for even a minute from Tulufan to Shanshan, where alighted.

It was a small society in the train, there were many kinds of people there.

There was a young lady, who was going to somewhere I couldn't remember, but she had to spend 3 days 3 nights in the train, without a seat!  She is young and at least average looking, and she was aware of that.  Using her charm to men, especially the older men, she managed to get some sympathy from men, occasionally got a seat for a while, or at least a small stool from someone for her to sit.

There are also two types of people in the train.  Some people have their rightful seats, and they are willing to share their seat with those who don't for some time.  Some people are more territory conscious.  They claimed their seats, and their territory, like animals peeing to show who is the boss.

I am most afraid of the train reaching a station.  When the train reaches a station, means more passengers will board the train.   That means at least one hour of chaos, with people fighting, arguing for seats, and space for luggage storage.  With more passengers, the temperature will rise further, and more people smoking.  The air quality in the cart became more and more unbearable.

I had a conversation with a young man who was traveling with his father, to go back to his hometown of Shuzhou from Shanshan, Xinjiang.  He is working at a construction company in Xinjiang.  He told me that in Xinjiang, they can only work 10 out of 12 months in a year, as the temperature is too low to do any work for the two coldest months.  For these two months without work, they will just go home and relax, without pay of course.  He and his father had traveled on this route a number of times, and always taking the train without sleeper.  I was very surprised.  I asked him why he didn't travel by air?  Especially his father is already old, and there is no way to get some good rest in a non-sleeper train.  He said they couldn't afford it.  The air ticket costs around 3000-4000 yuan return.  It is like his one month pay, 10% of what he earns in a year.

Then there was a non-Han Chinese young man.  He looked very young, probably just 20 years old, yet he had been working for 3 years.  He had also traveled this route a number of times.  This young man reminded me about the restaurant we went to in Tulufan.  In that small restaurant, from waitress to the cook, everybody was very young, probably late teens to early 20s.  People seem to start work early in this part of the country.

I must also mention a group of workers who were sitting opposite to me for a period of time.  They blasted loud music from their handphones, talked loudly at the wee hours of the day, played cards on the seats loudly, and walked around half naked.  It is a loud reminder that China is still a developing country.  There is still a lot of work to do in terms of education.  The way to become a developed & gracious nation is long and full of obstacles.

Another group of people I must mention are the railway staff.  They pushed their sales carts back and forth from time to time, causing lots of disturbances to the passengers.  Can you imagine their sales cart had to pass through a path full of people, sitting, sleeping, and standing?  The railway staff care about nothing, but their sales.  The comfort level of the passengers is basically none of their business.

The 8.5 hours long journey was a torture to me, and it felt like a century.  However, many more people in that train had to live in the train for a couple of days.  That's their yearly routine.  The government has not offered them any other alternatives.

I am lucky, I only had to go through their torture probably just once, it is not my yearly routine.  I wish in the near future, those people don't have to go through this torture either.  

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