121. Tickets without Seats

Tickets Without Seats: In the dining car of our first overnight train in China, we took a seat in an undersized vinyl booth bathed in harsh fluorescent lighting. The waitress spoke no English, was in a foul mood and therefore not impressed with our apologetic smiles and halting greetings. Still, the train rumbled steady below our seats, hurtling through a shadowy foreign landscape that wouldn’t reveal itself until the first violet light of dawn. The waitress was throwing off the cartoonish body language of impatience, foot tapping and arm folding, so I scanned the menu as quickly as possible. There was a small section offering a collection of previously unrelated items – cocktails and omelets – under the heading “Midnight Snack of Recreation.” I just ordered Kung Pao Chicken. Across the aisle, a small child who was drinking “Juice The Fruit Pressed Expertly Fresh” stared at me from behind his mother, like I was an alien, or a grizzly bear, or both. I think that was the exact moment I started falling in love with China.

In our first two weeks in this country, we have covered significant distance by train. China is enormous and crossing more than one province by train requires a minimum of fifteen hours on the rails. In two long, overnight trips, we’ve now experienced three of the main classes of Chinese train travel: Soft Sleeper, the most expensive and comfortable method which berths you in a quiet cabin of just four wide beds, with extra pillows (right); Hard Sleeper, which is still comfortable but with fewer frills and six narrow beds in each open compartment (bottom left) and; Absolutely No Sleeping, in which you board an overcrowded car and are required to stand or squat in the aisle for the duration of your trip, while everyone stares with breathless curiosity at your every Western trait and mannerism. Guess which one is most exciting.

When we went looking for three train tickets from Yangshuo to Huangshan on 24 hours notice, we didn’t realize that we were asking the near impossible. Our well-connected guesthouse owner miraculously made it happen though, and I was far less thankful than I should have been. I was dismayed by the nineteen-hour itinerary, namely the first third of it, which required us to take an early morning bus, then a taxi, to an obscure train station where we would board a train with a ticket that said, in Chinese, “No Seat Assigned.” Two months of travel in India gave me more than a passing understanding of what happens when demand exceeds supply on popular trains. The night before we traveled, feelings of despair began to set in.

Amy and Kirk were optimistic that we might be able to find a seat in the dining car for the five hours that we had no assigned seat. At the end of five hours, we had a different ticket for the same train that would put us in a Hard Sleeper car. When the train arrived, we elbowed and shoved our way on board and it became immediately apparent that not only was there no dining car in this portion of the train, there was hardly a square inch of floor space that wasn’t already occupied by another body. We wriggled as far down the aisle as we could, where forward progress was stopped by the number of other riders crammed into the same predicament. Whole families were already camped out in the car’s seats and they looked battle weary and exhausted, like they’d been there for days, tirelessly defending their plottage. The overhead luggage racks were stuffed to capacity. In the small open space at our end of the train car, between the toilets and the door to the next car, groups of Lost Boys squatted, smoked, played card games and passed around 3 Yuan bottles of rice wine liquor. We stood conspicuously tall, blonde and freckled in the aisle, sweating, out of breath, relentlessly stared at by a hundred astonished sets of Chinese eyes, clutching our giant backpacks and utterly without the words to express what we were feeling at that moment.

Then the train started moving.

Five hours to go.

Right away a commotion started at the far end of our car. It started moving towards us, a slow-turning tornado of human movement. People were holding bags over their heads, climbing onto seat backs and hanging from luggage racks. It took several minutes to realize that all of this was for a train employee was actually trying, and succeeding, at casually pushing a cart full of hot food and tea down the middle of this crowded aisle. In one of these great moments of Western disbelief, I knew the thing I was watching couldn’t possibly be happening, that this man with the cart would surely give up, turn around, abandon this folly. But he kept pushing. And people kept moving, climbing. And when it was our turn, all eyes still on us, we did the same. Albeit much less gracefully. And the carts continued coming through the car at fifteen-minute intervals for the rest of the trip.

We spent the first two hours largely in silence, Amy sitting on her bag reading a book, me watching her read a book and Kirk staring straight ahead as if he was in a line that could move at any moment. Denial. After the first two hours, the shock of the passengers around us began to give way to amusement and, thank God, pity. You have to understand that this country was closed to foreign visitors for so many generations that the sight of a Westerner – especially the near mythological capitalist American – in the common man’s train car is astonishing for most and surely disconcerting for some. But people in this car started warming up to us and in their warmth, we started really learning about China.

In an attempt to evade one of the food carts, I moved my body and backpack into what I imagined was the personal space of a seated family. In reality, there is no personal space in these situations and everyone is in silent agreement on this. No matter how uncomfortable, cramped, smoky, hot or difficult it gets, the Chinese don’t lose their temper on these trains, because they know it wouldn’t accomplish anything, because everyone’s in the same bind. When this family had accommodated me and the food trolley passed us by, I said one of the few Chinese phrases I know, just thank you, and they were so thrilled by the oddity of it that they insisted I leave my bag with them in order to make myself more comfortable. I did and I was. Shortly after, a gregarious older man notices us from the end of the car and starts waving excitedly. Then he starts pushing his way towards us. Then he starts barking at a seated teenage boy in rapid Mandarin and the boy reluctantly stands and offers me his seat. I decline, but the older man – let’s call him The Ambassador – is insistent. I offer it instead to Amy and everyone seems happy with the compromise, except the teenage boy who’s now sulking and glowering at us from the cramped end of the car. The Ambassador is pleased with his work and moves on to Kirk. And then he finds out that Kirk speaks some Mandarin. He was smitten.

Within seconds, every other person in the car is also clued into this, because the Ambassador is now shouting, waving his arms, beaming with happiness and what we can only assume is effusive goodwill. People in the car start giggling at what he’s saying, but we haven’t a clue. He starts barking enquiries at other passengers and suddenly people are climbing up to the luggage racks and making room for Kirk’s backpack. Then he pulls out his camera and starts a photo shoot with Kirk, featuring poses like, “Sunglasses On” and, “Now Take Sunglasses Off” and also, “Put Sunglasses Back On Again.” The whole car is in hysterics at this, everyone is suddenly involved and everyone with a camera is taking pictures of The Ambassador taking pictures of Kirk taking his sunglasses on and off. This moment of unanimous levity was like the icebreaker at Junior Prom, with shy and reluctant kids finally leaving the wall to come talk to us. So we talked. And talked and talked and talked. Forget what you know about the old China – the new China’s children can all speak English and they all want to know what you think of Chinese food and Yao Ming.

And then it was time to get off the train. Time to run down the platform, bags in tow, to jump on another car where we were promised seats. Those five hours were gone, passed easier than sleeping and better than dreaming. Handshakes, pats on the back and awkward hugs were all around. Surprisingly sad, it was like a going away party for the three American travelers who love Chinese food, think Yao Ming is a great basketball player, and who wanted to see China so much that they braved a crowded rail car without any seats. But we didn’t really brave anything and we didn’t do anything special. We did the opposite. We did something that normal Chinese people do every day, and it turned out to be the best five-hour attraction in this very, very big country.


  1. Victoria says:

    I was just on Eat Drink and Be Merry’s food blog at http://eatdrinknbmerry.blogspot.com/ and lo and behold, there you two were. How funny that two bloggers I read from the US would meet in China, at the same hostel no less. You should check out Dylan’s pictures of Yangshuo.

  2. Anonymous says:

    great story.


  3. Sloan says:

    Small small world – I’m glad you noticed that, because I forgot to get their contact info before we took off. I have Dylan and his impeccable Chinese to thank for negotiating an even cheaper two-hour massage, ordering the best noodle soup I’ve eaten in Asia and most importantly, talking me into eating dog.

  4. Sarah says:

    I love that Kirk is guest starring in your blog! Hi Kirk!
    I absolutely love this trip….you guys are amazing!

    (Erin’s sister)

  5. I don’t know either of you, but I have some first hand experience as a tall, blonde Westerner in China…and my goodness your description brings me a huge smile on my face. I miss that land!