It’s becoming a frequent feeling, this confusion mixed with lasting excitement and frustration. A strange sensation fills my mind now that I can communicate strictly through smiles and hand motions. I have spent so much time in a place where I knew the language that when it came to traveling “backpacker style”, it feels unnatural – and a hell of a lot harder. I randomly wipe out Thai words and people stare blankly back at me, yet somehow, things have been going smoothly. A prime example of this was the 16 hour overnight train from Xi’an to Chengdu, China.
It wasn’t my first long ride. Thailand successfully trained me for long travel hours in small spaces. But the greatest part was the many understanding Chinese nationals in our row. From helping us shove our heavy backpacks into tiny storage areas, to letting me switch seats to be with Allie – They were understanding, and assisted us with a smile. They even removed their shoes when stepping onto the seat cushions when they lifted our bags out of the way. So clean, so polite, so helpful. But things got a lot weirder later on. A play entitled, “16 hrs to Chengdu”, if you will.
16 HRS TO CHENGDU
A Play in Two Acts
A small, half-sized table projects outward between the rows of upward positioned, thinly cushioned seats. Allie hugs the window seat with her backpack beneath her, serving as a footrest. Myself, situated awkwardly on the aisle seat across from a older, sweet Chinese man and a younger, well-dressed woman with perfectly set makeup and hair. Diagonal to us, a young couple are intertwined, partaking in more cuddling and hand-holding that I am comfortable with. We are two rows from the bathroom and a pocket of space between the cars.
The train slowly departs from the Xi’an station. A much different and rockier ride than the magnetized bullet train from Beijing. Older, overbooked, and overheated cars build up speed as the sun sets.
The present day.
[Act One; Scene One] Nails.
I awaken to the sound of nails being filed. It is the woman across from me, and it is 12AM. She is prepping her nails for a series of spa-like treatments aboard the train. Mine and Allie’s head share the same small table as a pillow. So, as you can imagine, we could feel every file motion. Left. Right. Cut. Bend. Buff. Blow. When did car two become a nail salon? Like, while you’re at it, mine could use a good buffin’. Allie is out cold. I readjust my seating position. I turn quietly to face the chair back and sit cross legged. Before I pass out again, my gaze catches the glitter encrusted nail polish she glides on. I like it.
(END OF SCENE)
[Act One: Scene Two] Sleep.
My eyes open for the fifth time in twenty minutes. The train gently rocks back and forth as it sets out on the track. I have had my headphones in for about four hours now. I am so thankful for music. As I select a new Ed Sheeran song, my eyes drift to the men sitting on the floor next to the bathroom. I slowly realize that in about a third of the cars, 108 passengers had made make-shift beds on the floors, while the rest were leaning on each other or are pacing the thin aisle sleepily.
Babies are surprizingly well-behaved, sleeping ass-up baring it all in their split pants. For those who haven’t been to China, split pants are actually pants with a large split in the back, so it’s easy for the child to squat it out, if you know what I mean. While adults block the way, legs sprawling everywhere and shoulders being bumped as others try to pass, I observe quietly. Allie and I are the only foreigners in the car, and some of the few still sitting upright in our seats. Part of me debates the idea of removing our bags from the overhead and climbing up there myself.
At 3AM the entire car sleeps. The darkness from outside sinks in as the neon lights within the train walls continue to blare. It is silent.
(END OF ACT)
[Act Two: Scene One] Waking Hours.
As 6AM approaches, I decide sleep is a pointless endeavour. The sun has risen and the scenery is too good to miss. I haven’t moved from seat 5b for close to ten hours. The bathroom seems too far away to even try, but my bladder can’t stand to wait a minute longer. I make my way through the obstacle course of legs, luggage, and loogies. I am pleasantly surprised that I can’t see the passing tracks in the squatty potty.
When I again reach my sit, the PDA couple is up and attached at once. The girl speaking at top notch levels, giving no f*cks, screeches and laughs as I glare in her direction. At the same time, the train becomes suddenly more lively. People begin to shuffle through their belongings and get in line for the washroom. Teeth are being brushed, faces washed, makeup done, hair combed…Allie and I look at each other.
We are not moving.
(END OF SCENE)
[Act Two: Scene Two] Nonsmoking.
An older gentleman brushes my shoulder as he walks by. He stands in the small space between the bathroom and the car doors. My breathing suddening becomes restricted and I notice a smoggy hue in the air. This mofo is smoking a cigarette right next to the no smoking sign. I kid you not. I give him the dirtiest look I could, but he literally just kept puffing away. Allie had warned me smoking in nonsmoking areas was a bit of a thing in China. However, up to this point I hadn’t seen it firsthand.
He finishes his cigarette without a worry in the world, without anyone saying anything, and without putting it out. HE PUT IT IN THE TRASH.
He did this two more times.
(END OF SCENE)
There you have it. A 16 hour journey from Xi’an to Chengdu. It wasn’t so bad, but it was strange as hell.