Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Traveling Hard Seat in China

Train 2205, carriage 9, hard seat 41. Even with all the windows open and a faint waft emanating from a series of rotating ceiling fans, the heavy, hot air was as still as a dead body. Every seat in the carriage was taken with the excess passengers standing in the aisle. A couple of people sat above everyone else on the seat backs, absentmindedly fanning themselves with newspapers.

Sweat was dribbling out from every one of my pores and I repeatedly my examined pocket alarm clock wishing the ordeal would get underway. I was in a sour mood. I'd asked the conductors when I boarded the train if there was a chance of obtaining an upgrade. They'd babbled something in Chinese that offered a glint of hope but nothing had materialized. Traveling overnight by hard seat is possibly one of the worst ways of getting anywhere. I'd experienced it fourteen years previously and swore I'd never do it again. I ended up buying the ticket because everything else had been sold out. It didn't stop me from going back to the ticket office on several occasions but each time I'd been met by the infamous "Mei you" - "Don't have". As time ran out, I held on to the last straw hope that perhaps the Chinese Railway had modernized along with much of the rest of the country. The moment I caught sight of the train, I knew it hadn't.

Seat number 41 was an aisle seat. Between me and the window were two other people with three more sitting facing us. The seats were the same type I'd known and hated. They had padding, which was nice, the main problem was the angle of the seat back; no matter which way you sat, it didn't line up with your back and neck thereby ensuring that, whichever way you positioned yourself, only part you would be touching it. The seats themselves were not quite wide enough and were positioned just close enough to the facing passengers to make sure you were doomed to sitting like a naughty schoolboy who has to sit up straight at his desk with his feet firmly planted on the floor. A sliver of a table extended out from the carriage wall with just enough space so that the people by the window could fold their arms on it and put their heads down. Those in the middle seats could do likewise but each only owned about a 10th of the table top. Seat 41 and its opposite didn't even have that luxury. As the booby prize, the passengers on the edge got a hefty belt from the legs and baggage of everyone struggling up and down the aisle.

The train shuddered into motion and by the time we'd reached cruising speed the air had calmed down a little. My fellow passengers and the staff had already taken some interest in the grouchy foreigner amongst them. One of the conductors saw me board on the train and had made it his personal mission to track me down and eke out a free English lesson. He said his name was Shaolin, like the famous Kung Fu temple somewhere north of us. At the time I secretly wished he'd do what the students at his namesake do and take a flying leap. But I figured it would kill a some time and that was exactly what I wanted to do. We ran through the usual banalities, "Where are you from?", "Are you married?" etcetera, before hitting hot topics such as "how long had he been a train conductor" and "what had he done before?" His vocabulary proved to be quite extensive but his grammar followed patterns that defied logic. Pronunciation, he admitted, was one of his biggest failings. I could only agree. Whenever I asked him a question, he'd ask me to repeat it then, in a desperate attempt to understand the second time, he'd shut his eyes and screw up his face so tightly it's a wonder smoke didn't come billowing out of his ears. Whenever the train pulled into a station, we'd have recess as Shaolin hurtled down the corridor to unlock the doors to let more passengers on.

With cunning born of desperation, I started twisting the English lesson towards the question of ticket upgrades. He earnestly replied that regulations forebade him from issuing bearths to passengers. I seemed like a good opportunity to teach him the saying "rules were made to be broken". Eventually I had to write it down to make sure he understood. When he did, his eyes suddenly grew large and he literally took a step backwards. Was I actually suggesting I thwart The Regulations!?
"Oh! No!" I assured him, secretly hoping for just such an event, I was merely teaching him some useful English.

In a last desperate bid to tilt the odds in my favor I asked him if he'd like to have a book in English, namely the now pointless Vietnamese guidebook I'd seriously considered leaving behind in the hotel room that morning. Regulations, he assured me, also forbid him from accepting gifts from passengers. That didn't stop me. I ferreted around in my bag, pulled out the book and generously gave it to him in full view of the entire carriage. He couldn't refuse as it would have caused me a loss of face in front of the whole audience. Instead he perused it studiously, making murmurings of appreciation and kept it. I figured I'd gone as far as I dared, if he couldn't get me a sleeper now then there simply wasn't one to be had. Desiring a little breathing room and also wanting to give him some time to find me the coveted berth, I said was going to the dining car for a beer. I never saw him again.

Although the railway's superstructure had remained virtually the same, some changes had taken place in new China. Smoking in the seating area of carriages had been banned and, except for those few who felt that rules should indeed be broken, everyone complied. Another big change was that people generally refrained from using the floor as a trash can. In old China, the conductors used to sweep it every few hours or the gathering piles would have eventually taken over.

I tried all the positions I'd attempted fourteen years before to try and get some sleep: legs crossed and wedged below the seat, head lolling forward; body sideways with knees in the aisle, head flat against the seat back; head back, spine arched, feet flat on the floor. It was no use. When my body did eventually give out and sleep overtake me, my torso would begin falling toward the floor and I'd awake with a sickening start. I closed my eyes and tried to concoct intricate memories of past journeys to help the seconds inch by and every hour on the hour I'd make the trek to the space between the carriages to light a cigarette and stare out the window into the all consuming darkness. I smoked slowly and deliberately making sure each one lasted as long as humanly possible. When I returned to my seat, one of the standees would have invariably taken it for a momentary reprieve. I'd unceremoniously turf him out of it then go back to the next installment of serial memories.

As we approached stations in the early hours of the morning, the passengers would liven up. Those who were staying would examine the people across the aisle to see if they were making any move to collect their baggage. If they were, a hurried interrogation would take place and a frantic scramble across the aisle take place, the coveted seat by the window being the prize. I missed out on all occasions and stayed propped up in seat 41. Finally the sky started to lighten and one of the conductors came by to tell me we'd be arriving at Huai Hua in half an hour.


At 8:25 AM, January 16, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

love this. been in china for half a year now, and this is a beautiful description of dynamics on the train. thanks a bunch!!


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