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On the train in China

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

AUSTRIA | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [1129] | Comments [5] | Scholarship Entry

A lone redhead from Europe in a train carriage full of Chinese people: That's me, and I am having what I have been looking forward to for quite a while – my first solo travel experience in a country very different from my own. I have scored one of the last tickets for an overnight train from Shanghai to Guangzhou - “hard seat”, which I have just discovered means I will be spending 18 hours squeezed into a seat-and-table combination seemingly constructed to minimize leg space. My excitement is fading fast, however, less due to this but more because it suddenly feels a bit daunting to be the only barely-Chinese-speaker in a scenario clearly not intended for tourists. A woman starts to make her rounds around the carriage offering home-cooked chicken pieces for sale. She is not too successful, however, as most passengers appear to prefer cup noodles prepared at a mysterious hot water source on the train. I surreptitiously draw cookies from my food bag and feel hopelessly inept at authentic Chinese train travel. There is an illuminated display at the front of the carriage endlessly looping the same message of welcome, but no stops are ever announced, so I have no idea where we are. The man sitting next to me has a long, dirty little fingernail and a gold front tooth; the man sitting across from me has a stack of books in front of him; the man sitting opposite to me is wearing a pink polo shirt. I feel bad that this is as much information as I will be able to glean about these people as the bits of Chinese in my head cannot ever seem to assemble enough for me to actually communicate with them. At one stop, a blind man is helped onto the train by a conductor and talks to us; I have no idea what he is saying, but I can see that after he is finished, everybody digs out some money to put into his outstretched hand. I, too, give him a 10 Yuan note, and finally feel like I am fitting in a little. The train rumbles on; my row mate in pink picks up my hat, puts it on, motions “Yours?”, gives me a little smile, and puts it back. I suddenly feel happy to have this train as my home for the night. The night is sleepless, as whenever I doze off an animated conversation appears to start right next to me. The next morning, toothbrushes are sold and I understand the prices, enormous mounds of colourful garbage are swept through the aisle into a surprising number of bags, and the train pulls into Guangzhou's main station. As I hurtle away with the masses, the last thing I see is three pigs in cages being unloaded from the train onto the platform, and I cannot help feeling somewhat accomplished: This place is still strange to me, but now I know it a little better.

Tags: #2011writing, travel writing scholarship 2011



Great story! There's something about train rides, isn't there? I really liked how you described going from feeling like a total foreigner to starting to feel, in a small way, like part of the community of nighttime commuters. Well done.

  aro-tron Mar 28, 2011 8:32 PM


Here is the story with the paragraph division it was supposed to have:

  monikita Apr 2, 2011 4:23 AM


Was led to this page from Aro-tron's journal :) and am happy I came over. The way you describe people is fantastic..am from India and out train rides are so like the Chinese train rides :) and I can so picture it all..very vivid. The way you end it 'This place is still strange to me, but now I know it a little better.' couldnt ask for a more feel good line :) take care..n keep travelling n exploring :)

  lekshminair Apr 2, 2011 6:00 PM


Well done on capturing the personalities aboard those trains, sounds exactly as I remembered it. Look forward to more.

  raeynn Apr 12, 2011 1:28 PM


Couldnt agree more with lekshiminair! There is something abt these train rides..:) Loved ur story!

  havewingswillfly Apr 25, 2011 1:06 AM

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