It was eight in the evening and Leif and I were sitting quietly in our plastic chairs waiting for the train to begin boarding. I was working very hard to remain positive. When we had purchased the tickets for this particular train ride from Zhangjiajie to Xi’an, all the sleeper trains were already sold out. Our only option had been to purchase hard seats. Hard seats for a nine hour train ride…overnight.
As the time for boarding the train loomed near, I ran off to the bathroom to change into something more comfortable. I told myself that if I did everything in my power to make this trip comfortable, it would be. I had sat in chairs for endless periods of time before. This was going to be just like that. No big deal.
I heard the announcement for the train as I washed my hands. Leif was gathering up our things, so I ran over and grabbed out our passports. I took a deep breath, and we walked out onto the train station’s platform.
It was a madhouse as Leif and I tried to find our train car. Number 18.
“Leif, I think we’re at the far end of the train.”
We weaved our way through the people exiting and entering the train until, finally, we arrived at our car. We handed our tickets to the man at the door, and we walked on, single file. Leif was ahead of me, so I could only see the floor as we walked through the tight hallway.
The floor was wet and covered with nut shells. I saw a pile of used cigarettes off in the corner. I was just about to ask Leif if smoking was allowed on this train, when we turned to the right and into another small hallway of the train car. To my right was the washroom. I craned my neck to look inside the half-open door.
Squatty potty. Darn it. I thought to myself as we pressed forward. Then, suddenly, my ears were pounding, my eyes were watering, and my head was aching. The train car had opened up into the main seating area. I looked around me in confusion.
Where were the separate seats? Where was the quiet elevator music? Why were the florescent lights so sharp and harsh? And WHY were there SO many people?!
Everywhere I looked were eyes. Everyone was staring at me. Sitting, twisting, standing on chairs and aisles – looking at me. I took that moment to analyze the faces around me. These were not the faces I had grown accustomed to seeing in Beijing. These faces were dirty, taut, and unashamedly curious. These were not the wealthy Chinese of Beijing. These were the everyday Chinese. The Chinese that had maybe never seen a white person in their life.
The smells of the car invaded my nose and held me paralyzed. I already was aware that the average Chinese person doesn’t use deodorant, but these smells were so far beyond a lack of a simple toiletry. It was the smell of noodles, fish, shoes, un-flushed toilets, and sweat. I looked desperately towards the windows of the car. All of them were tightly closed. Not a single one open. I gagged.
We had continued walking and were now passing the center of the car, until Leif suddenly stopped.
“This is our seat,” he said as he pointed to a bench with a stained, blue cover over it. I looked at him with a dazed, confused expression. What did he mean this was our seat? There were already four people sitting on this bench. But then, as he pointed to the bench, the women sitting there looked up at us with daggers in their eyes.
Leif pulled out our tickets and started waving them near the women. They got up slowly, staring at us angrily all the while, until we were able to sit down. It was an incredibly tight squeeze. Our bench that seated three was directly across from another bench that seated three, with a small table close to the window.
Once we had sat down, two of the women we had forced to get up sat back down on the one seat next to me. One of the women pulled a roughly eight-year-old boy onto her lap. There were five of us on one bench. In China, it is completely normal for people to purchase “Standing Tickets.” These very cheap tickets allow you standing room on the train, but not a seat. However, that means that any time there is an open seat, it’s free game for a standing ticket-er.
So, there we were, five people on a bench, terrible smells filling the car, bright florescent lights overhead, and loud people chatting while their children screamed. I was beginning to panic. I knew I needed to be tough though. There was no changing our situation and whining about it would only make it worse. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out slowly.
Hours passed and the situation only grew worse. Leif and I consoled each other by saying,
“The lights will surely be turned off at some point. The kids will fall asleep. It will become quieter. It has to.”
We were wrong. At either end of the train car, men were smoking their cigarettes. The overflow of people made it impossible for the doors to be closed, so the cigarette smoke filled the train until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. There came a point where I was jealous of the children in the car. They could scream and cry and apparently it was perfectly acceptable.
Leif and I got out his computer to watch movies to distract ourselves as best as possible. Pulling out a computer on this train, however, increased the curiosity of everyone in the vicinity. The people on the benches behind us got up and watched over our shoulders as we started our film. People were constantly staring. At us. At the movie. At our clothes. At our bags.
Across from us, there was a couple who didn’t stop making out the entire trip. I wanted to point at them and say to the people staring at me,
“Look! Aren’t they weirder? Stare at them!” But even if I could speak those Chinese words, I doubt anyone would have been able to hear them over the sound in the train car. And certainly none of the men and women continuously taking my picture would have cared what I said.
The lights never turned off; The children never went to sleep; And the smoke never stopped filling our lungs. I have never felt so trapped in my entire life.
It was five in the morning when our train finally arrived at our destination.
I fell out of that train and onto the platform as if I were a walking corpse. We were sore and beyond exhausted, but we had survived.
At the time, I was miserable. I was bitter and wanted to hate China. I couldn’t understand why any of that was okay. As time has passed, I’ve given our trip a great deal of thought.
And, the truth is, I’m actually really glad it happened.
I’m glad we got those uncomfortable seats on a packed train car headed from Zhangjiajie to Xi’an.
I’m glad the smells were unbearable.
I’m glad the air was hard to breathe.
I’m glad I was stared at like an animal in a zoo.
I’m glad because this is what China is. China is not some beautiful place you can just go visit and not experience. China is a country that engages you. It is a country that demands every part of you. You can’t go and expect to keep your hands clean. If you aren’t seeing and experiencing all of China, then you aren’t experiencing China at all. Three weeks ago we visited one of the most beautiful places on this planet. And three weeks ago, we had one of our most miserable experiences.
And isn’t that true of our own lives? We can’t just pick out the best parts. We can’t only have the graduations, the weddings, and the laughter. We have to have the failures, the funerals and the tears as well. If you picked out only the best parts, it wouldn’t be real.
The idea of “travel” is so alluring. People pin beautiful quotes and pictures about it constantly. It’s this picture from the top of a mountain. A picture of monks in a temple. A picture of a sailboat on a sea. A picture of a cottage in a forest. It’s this great, charming idea of “escape.”
But, here’s what I have come to see: travel is not escaping; it is experiencing.
Here I am, stripping away this beautiful aura I had placed around the idea of travel and making it real.
Travel is messy, travel is exhausting, and travel can be painful.
But you have to get through the rough parts, so you can truly appreciate the beauty that comes along with it.
Do you have any horror stories from traveling? Leave a comment below.