The joys of train travel in China
Don’t be daunted by trains, stations and logistical stress. A train journey can be the highlight of a China backpacking adventure – if travellers go into it with the right mindset.
Everyone travelling through China will at some point in their journey encounter what I call their “China moment”. It’s an instance when the cultural and linguistic barriers seem insurmountable; when the weight of a billion-plus citizens sits on your shoulders; when you feel tiny and insignificant, and for a few seconds you question your sanity and wonder why you didn’t book a month backpacking in South-East Asia.
The Great Wall of characters
For many people, their “China moment” arrives at a train station. Picture this: you’re standing in the main concourse of Xi’an Railway Station. Commuters brush past you, head down at top speed – as commuters tend to do everywhere – utterly oblivious to your presence. Families dragging enormous canvas bags full of food and clothes or presents for relatives back home walk past at a slightly slower pace, encumbered by their luggage. The announcements – all in Mandarin – come thick and fast over the tannoy. You feel like the most anonymous foreigner in China.
All around you people surge past, knowing where they need to be and when. Now it’s your turn, so you look up at the boards. And it’s then that you realise the only thing you can make sense of is the digital clock telling you the time. It’s just a wall – a great wall – of Chinese characters. And somewhere in those hundreds of characters are the two that, when put together, spell the name of your destination. After ten minutes of searching, you think you’ve found it but then you remember you’ve bought tickets for the express train. But you don’t speak Chinese, and you don’t know the characters for “express” and so the futility of your efforts starts to sink in.
This is often when the “China moment” kicks in. There are a few minutes of panic, then nervous laughter or righteous anger, then the moment subsides and the brain is back on an even keel. Backpackers are a resourceful bunch and that resourceful instinct tends to pull us through most situations – even in Chinese train stations.
In fact, this whole train station scenario deserves rethinking. Because far from being a regular source of tantrums or panics, many of us at The Dragon Trip reckon train travel can be a highlight of any China backpacking tour and culturally very rewarding. It’s all a question of mindset.
Try thinking of it this way: you will be sitting with, or bunking up next to, the truest cross-section of Chinese society. Train travel is still the fastest and most affordable way of getting around in China, so almost everyone uses trains – not just backpackers on a budget. You will encounter students, businessmen, farmers, coal miners, factory workers, the elderly and the young. It’s a microcosm of this vast and surprisingly diverse country. People watching doesn’t get much better. If you’re learning Mandarin, it’s a fantastic opportunity to get chatting; equally, a Chinese person learning English may think exactly the same thing and approach you first for a chat.
There is also a unique camaraderie on Chinese trains. It isn’t a loud and jovial sort of camaraderie, but because everyone is in such close proximity to each other for many hours, the normal boundaries of privacy are temporarily suspended. I don’t mean this in a nudist, free-for-all way, but it is not uncommon for people to share seats with those with standing tickets, to help people struggling to carry their bags, to share some food, to chat with those around them. In a country brimming with intense individual ambition, trains can reveal China’s softer side.
Finally, embracing Chinese train rituals is great fun. Each carriage has a hot water dispenser that serves as the focal point for most Chinese passengers. They will regularly head to the dispenser to refill their tea flasks and cook their fangbian mian – instant noodles. Even on long journeys passengers will rarely eat anything but these noodles which come in an endless variety of flavours. So before your journey, buy yourself a flask and stock up on noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then head straight for the hot water dispenser. Who knows who’ll you meet or what experience awaits…
You’ll experience the delights of China’s trains on all our China adventure tours. Of course, we book the tickets and remove all the hassle – so just sit back, relax and enjoy!