One Fine Adventure: Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
My trip to Xi’an started at the Wuxi Railway Station’s South Square waiting rooms. The overnight slow train, Z92, to Xi’an pulls into Wuxi at 8:15 pm. Hundreds of passengers queue at one door up to twenty minutes in advance. Slow trains in China have very lax guidelines for carry-on luggage sizes which results in many passengers schlepping bags, boxes, crates, and containers of all shapes through the cramped aisles of the trains. All manner of objects are transported in overhead compartments, under seats and in any space that is not being taken up by a passengers. More often than not seats are filled with passengers holding on to their belongings while standing-room passengers lean against their friends in the aisles.
The seating arrangement of the Z trains situations five seats across looking directly at another group of five seats with two small tables attached to the walls of the train on either side of the aisle. A group of six seats, 3 and 3, are aligned on the left side of the train and a group of four seats, 2 and 2, are aligned on the right and both groups are separated by the aisle. On theft side of the train a table is bolted to the wall and is only large enough for the four seats nearest the wall to reach the table. The two seats closest to the aisle have no table space and this can make sleeping terribly difficult. I was fortunate enough to be in one of these seats.
Luckily for me I had come prepared with a six-pack of beer and enough money to buy more beer from the drink cart attendant. As the train pulled away from Wuxi I went over my my plan for the evening while examining my cabin mates with a coy smile. My plan was to drink 6-12 beers and fall asleep for the majority of the the overnight trip. We all know about the best laid plans. Nothing on this thirteen hour ride would go exactly as I had hoped. Full steam ahead to the first stop, Nanjing.
Vestibules are packed with standing-room passengers lounging on their carry on bags. The imagery invokes imagery from early westbound American trains and the hobos carrying all of their worldly possessions or students college students in beanbag chairs. Getting to the bathroom requires a walk through the smoke filled vestibules and over the beanbag chairs. After waiting in line and contracting lung cancer I made it into the first of many visits to the bathroom. Imagine trying to use a squatty potty at Lollapalooza after ten shots of whiskey and you can begin to understand the dilemma of a Chinese slow train potty break. The erratic movement of the train makes standing incredibly difficult and the begrimed conditions make any slip an opportunity for lifelong emotional scarring. Aim clearly is not a top priority for the patrons of the rolling toilet. The bathrooms on the slow train in India were actually less disturbing and I could see the tracks whizzing by through the hole in the bathroom.
I would not realize the error of my ways until my actions were irreversible. The bathroom became a fairly frequent port of call throughout the night, and unfortunately after four beers I saw no need to right the ship and continued on with my drinking. By the end of the fourth beer the young men sitting around me had taken a great interest in my drinking and some had even joined in on the party. In fact, I had actually been a topic of conversation since I took my first steps onto the train. A great deal of curiosity lead to a fair amount of staring and even some broken conversations started after an hour of travel. There would be little sleep on this adventure.
Long ago I accepted that the Chinese people are not rude, but they are intensely curious. Many of the people on the train were lacking in their experiences with foreigners and what better chance to gain some experience than an extended trip through the night? My translator app was working overtime tonight and after a few more beers everyone nearby was laughing as we slaughtered both English and Chinese. The vast majority of the laughs were directed at my rendition of Chinese words, but some brave souls were willing to take a turn speaking English. These attempts drew the loudest laughs from the crowd. Smiling, laughing and allowing yourself to be laughed at creates an open dialogue, a sense of trust and community in places where language and cultural divides could easily keep people apart.