Trains in China are a much more important operation than a small European country, they act as the main mode of transport between different cities and the quality of travel can vary immensely, on the whole as a westerner it’s a pretty awful experience and leaves you continually thinking inside your head ‘You could never do that in England’.
The first thing to note is that you can’t book train tickets online, you have to book them from the city you’re leaving and you have to do this as far in advance as you can otherwise there may only be seats available. Also if you do it too far in advance they may tell you there is nothing available at the station as the ticket agents pay them commission and so they would rather it be sold through them.
Our first train journey was Beijing to Xi’an. This takes 14 hours and despite asking 7 days in advance we only managed to get hard seats as there were no sleepers available. We thought this would be similar to sitting on a European train for 14 hours but we were in for a reality check. The seats were more like benches which makes it very hard to define your own area and the train also has the option of a standing ticket, of which I’m not even sure there is a ticket limit. When we were waiting at the station (which is more like an airport) we were so confused as to why there were so many people there so early and pushing so much to get on the train and then we realised it was because they wanted the prime standing space.
The aisles are filled by people who are potentially standing for 14 hours but who, inevitably edge their way on to the end of everyone else’s seats, reducing the already limited space you have. On top of this people eat a huge amount on the trains, snack after snack. One journey I spent next to someone gnawing on chicken feet and placing the bones on the table in front of me, there is also a general habit of eating with your mouth open and making that chewing noise that is enough to make anyone feel ill. The same journey I spent having to watch the small boy’s next to me pet cricket desperately trying to escape from its small cage on the table. Only today I heard a horror story of parents holding their small child out in front of them when they need to wee or poo and doing it straight onto the ground. This when there are people sat on the floor and many others eating.
The lack of discipline in children is another thing which, when on a long journey train, makes it nigh on impossible to hold back the ‘tuts’. After 10 hours of children running up and down, kicking chairs and screaming in people’s faces you really want to tell their parents to stop laughing at how funny and cute they are and give them the smacking they deserve. This also happened on the sleeper carriage when a man was letting his baby climb up and down the ladder screaming right next to my head as I was clearly attempting to sleep, it was midnight after all. Also on a sleeper carriage it is more expensive to have the bottom bed as it has enough headroom to sit down, something this results in is people just coming along (who have probably paid for the cheap standing seat) and just sitting on your bed.
In one instance I saw two people fast asleep and wrapped in blankets on the bottom bed before at the next stop someone who had bought the tickets had to kick them out. While the woman redressed her small child which had been sleeping in someone else’s bed she had no consideration for the fact they had wanted their sheets to at least appear clean.
And then we got a bullet train, which was somehow the same price for the 5 hour journey to Shanghai as the slow train of 19 hours would have been. In the high speed train the environment is more like an aeroplane with hostesses, announcements in English and a separate seat, with arm rests and ample leg room. There is an announcement telling people to keep their children under control and the atmosphere is generally a little more western. It was most definitely a more refreshing experience and if I can afford it in the future it will always be the preference.