Ah, trains in China! With an extensive track network and relatively inexpensive tickets, they are the travel mode of choice here. In some places, you can travel by high-speed Maglev train. In others, you can sit in a compartment far more comfortable than any airplane (softer seats, more leg room) as you whiz along at 250km/h. In others, you can sit in a cramped car for nine hours overnight during the Spring Festival travel rush (ask my mom about her favourite train ride!). And in others, you can share a train car with 200 other people plus an entire military unit and have one of your nearby seatmates be a migrant worker wearing every piece of clothing he owns, sweating profusely and smelling strongly of urine (see mom, it could have been worse).
Is traveling by train relatively easy and accessible here? Yes. Are there things about it that drive me nuts? You bet (you already knew that though, because why would I be writing a blog post about it if there weren’t, right?!).
As always, my ever-patient husband tries to explain the little idiosyncrasies to me. Things like, “You can’t buy tickets more than 3 days in advance or in a city other than the one you want to depart from because there are so many people in China that if they let you buy tickets anytime, anywhere, no one would ever be able to get tickets.” Or “There are so many people in China that they have to sell tickets without seats or people would never be able to get where they want to go.” Or “They have to keep the slow trains on the tracks here because there are so many people in China that they need all those trains to help people get where they want to go” (do you sense a theme in his answers? I can’t quite put my finger on it…).
Far too often, though, it’s not the rail system itself that annoys me, but rather the behaviour of those using the rail system.
Recently, my husband and I were on our way home from visiting his family at Spring Festival, traveling by train, of course. We were lucky enough to have soft sleeper tickets for the nine hour overnight journey from his hometown to Beijing, arriving at the North station at 6am. We headed back around the front, bought our tickets home for later that day (because we couldn’t buy them on our way through Beijing the first time – too early – nor could we buy them in his hometown, because that wasn’t the station we wanted to depart from), and headed off to have breakfast and run errands in Beijing.
Later that afternoon, we made our way to the West station to head home. We arrived early enough that we were able to get a seat in the waiting room and we watched as the place slowly filled up. Soon, people started forming a line to go through the ticket check and out to the platform. This was an hour before our train was scheduled to leave.
Half an hour before our departure time, the line had grown and become more defined (and by “defined,” I mean “filling the entire aisle between the rows of seats.” I definitely do not mean “orderly”). Then, there was a ripple of movement and shuffling forward.
My husband said to me, “We’d better get ready and get in line.”
I snapped back, “There’s no rush. Firstly, there is half an hour before we leave. And secondly, people always do that – they line up and then there is a push towards the gates that makes it seem like they are checking tickets, but they never are. It’s just people pushing. Then, five or ten minutes later, there is a second push of people, and that’s when they are really checking tickets and boarding the train.”
The look I got from him when I said that was one of shock and disbelief, as he realized that I had figured out one of China’s treasured secrets.
But his best comment came later, as we were actually moving through the ticket check and then tripping over slow-walkers on our way to board the train.
I grumbled, tired from traveling and from the crowds of people, “Why do all these people insist on pushing to the front of the line so they can be first through the ticket check and then, once they’ve gotten through, proceed to saunter at a snail’s pace to the platform?”
My husband’s cheeky response? “They’re celebrating their victory!”