Train Travel Chinese Style, with Pot Noodles.

Soft-sleeper car, early morning

It's a long way from Shanghai to Harbin by train - two nights and a day, in fact. That's two nights and half a day longer than flying there. 

Why on earth then would you do it? Well, because it's a train, and train travel, even in China, is capable of being a romantic and memorable experience mirroring the great train journeys of old. As long as you can shut out the smokers, the squat toilets, the PA announcements and the toothbrush hawkers that is. More on them later.

Train journeys anywhere in China always begin in a cavernous, cold, poorly lit waiting room, a place that would feel like the antechamber to a mausoleum actually, were it not filled with so many thousands of people with luggage and bags of brightly-coloured pot noodles.

In the waiting room, you wait, and wait, and just when you think your train must be running late they call for boarding and the neon-yellow sign above your gate turns green, a signal to the entire crowd to leap out of their seats and run madly across the waiting room to assemble as a tightly-packed mosh-pit in front of the narrow gate. 

Some desperate buggers who have standing-only tickets cram their way to the front, shoving violently, and can later be seen sprinting across the platform to secure any spare seats so they don't have to sleep standing up.

The whole mosh-pit then squeezes through the single gate and on to the platform where it's just a matter of finding your car and berth number, more difficult than it should be because sometimes an entire Chinese family or very deaf grandmother has taken occupation of your seat. They know it's yours, they're just hoping you wouldn't turn up. After some to-and-fro and the eventual intervention of the guard, they give in, take their pot noodles and leave.

After memorable past experiences such as these in hard seat and hard sleeper class, for long journeys there is only one way to go - soft sleeper. It's as cheap as chips, and sounds luxurious, doesn't it? And it is, in the same way riding a bicycle is luxurious if you're accustomed to walking barefoot on icy ground with frostbite to all your toes.

In soft sleeper you're the master of your own four-berth compartment, two up, two down, with your own window, lockable door, soft cotton-coverd quilts, lace antimacassars and a Ministry of Railways thermos, standard issue. 

This is perfect if you travel as a family of four, as we do. If you take a berth on your own you will have to contend with a degree of smoking, snoring, spitting, plus or minus unexpected extra passengers in the berth above you, snuck in after the guards have gone to bed to share a bunk with their mother/brother/girlfriend.

The downside of soft sleeper? Well there's a few. There's the PA message on loop with a hidden volume switch it takes hours to find. The incessant smoking. And the pot noodle and toothbrush vendors who trundle their long narrow steel trolleys through the carriage every half hour with the same sing-song sales cry - "Bee-er! Instant noooo-dellls! Tooooth-brsh-toooooth-pste! Beee-er!" and on it goes. 

But the worst by far is the single stainless steel squatter toilet you have to share with the whole carriage. Now if, for example, you have a supernatural ability to go to the bathroom at the start of a thirty-three hour train journey and never again, this won't bother you one bit. On the other hand, if you need to use the toilet more than once and you have some ridiculous hang-up about flushing, or about ones and twos being confined to the receptacle of the squatter, or about used toilet paper thrown on the floor, or even about touching the same door handle as the person who left their large number two in the corner of the room, then thirty three hours in soft-sleeper is going to be tough for you. 

I prefer not to think about it. It's just shit, after all. And it's much worse in hard sleeper.

But it does then get you thinking about the troubling grimy carpet, and where all that grime has been tracked from. Better to just take your shoes off when you get back to your room. And try not to drink any water.

The first night on the train is noisy and busy. I hadn't paid attention to the schedule when I booked our tickets, and our first 13 stops occurr in the first overnight stretch of 11 hours. Just frequently enough to drift off to sleep before the next load of passengers boards and wakes you with a jolt, in combination with the searchlight strength platform lights streaming in your window and the platform PA message. 

Even at three am Chinese train passengers have no sense of quiet awareness of a carriage full of sleeping bodies, and consider it perfectly natural to wander up and down the corridor yelling:

'Where is number 33?' 
'What berth are you again?'
'Are you sure we're in the right car?'
'Oh! There's 33!'
'I just passed it.'
'There! Behind you! No! The other way!' 

The same guys always need to get out of bed for a smoke once an hour. 

If nothing else, train travel is great for people watching. My favorites are the train guards - a special breed of slightly fierce-looking but actually really goofy individuals. They sport a navy blue uniform with a pilot's hat, with degrees of red braid and gold buttons you can acquire depending on rank. 

The guards in my carriage. 'No photos! My hat's crooked!'

Soon after we get on the train I find one of them dragging a reluctant six year old down the corridor to the 130cm mark on the wall at the end of every carriage, to check he isn't scamming an under-130cm ticket when he should be paying for a regular child's ticket, the pint-sized 131cm rascal. I hear his dad pleading that his shoes have extra thick soles. The guards let him off, just this once. The dad smiles a lot, nervously, as the guards return his son but the kid knew all along it was one big funny joke at his father's expense and the guards were in on it.

Of course, you'll want to know about train food, that special variety of cuisine served up by the Ministry of Railways. It varies by route, and runs the gamut from unidentifiable slop (I've described my first train meal consisting of fingernails and gristle before) to really quite tasty in a retro, boarding school sort of way. 

The dining car is often empty, becuase the meals are expensive compared to a five yuan pot of instant noodles, but there are always one or two hardy souls sleeping with their heads on the table nursing a bottle of fiery bai jiu so they don't have to return to the horror of the debris-strewn hard-seat carriages, and a couple of off-duty guards lounging around. The cook always wears the dirtiest white coat and has little hair. 

Faced with the look of some train food, it's no wonder that at least fifty percent of our meals turn out to be pot noodles. Instant ramen, two-minute noodles, cup-a-noodles, whatever you know them by, the Chinese name for them is the best ever - fangbian main 方便面 -convenience noodles. My husband is always disappointed that the sachet of dehydrated green and brown flakes doesn't transmogrify into a hearty beef and vegetable stew under the influence of hot water from our thermos, just like the picture on the pot. But they are only five yuan. 

Chinese train travel is still, in spite of the downsides, for me the most wonderful way to travel. You go to sleep in Shanghai, and wake up to a winter-scoured landscape in Shandong province, and through the day see frozen rivers, and village houses stacked with golden corn, and beautiful parts of the Chinese countryside out of view for the air traveller. 

Dinner over for the second time, just outside Tianjin I drift off to sleep to the comforting thought that it's only ten hours until I can use a clean hotel toilet. And tomorrow I'll be in Harbin.

Train fanatic? Other train journeys you might enjoy:

Shanghai to Guilin by Slow Train

To Ancient Xian by Train

Train to Nanjing

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