I’d heard a few colourful adjectives from friends and fellow travel bloggers to describe China before coming here, not all of them positive. “Dirty” was a common term being thrown around, but as a farm girl who made money by shovelling shit for the next-door neighbour as a kid, I would say I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to interesting smells and questionable cleanliness. “How bad could it be?” I thought. Worse than anything I could have possibly imagined.
To give context to this statement, allow me to describe a train trip from hell. Imagine the most uncomfortable, dirty, overcrowded train you’ve ever sat on for an extended period of time in North America or Europe, and multiply those feelings of filth and violation of personal space by about a million. This will come close to our recent experience of an overnight train from YingTan to Guilin in China.
First, booking our tickets was an absolute nightmare. National Week happens in China from October 1-7, which is when the entire nation, consisting of approximately 1.3 billion people, has time off and travels mostly within their own country (making booking tickets – bus or train – nearly impossible). We were lucky enough to get two tickets for “hard seats” in a two-leg journey. First from Huangshan to YingTan on Saturday morning (six hours), then from YingTan to Guilin (15 hours, 5pm arriving at 8am). Hard seats aren’t as bad as they sound, but sitting in them for basically a 24 hour period does not do wonders for your back or legs either. Picture a slightly cushioned chair positioned at a 90 degree angle, three across, facing another three chairs directly opposite. If you’re on the other side of the train there will be two across instead of three.
The first leg of the trip was not that bad. The train was relatively empty, allowing us to walk freely around the train and even have a quick sleep. “If the next train is anything like this,” said Kyle, “it might not be all that bad.” Famous last words.
We arrive in YingTan and immediately realize we are the only white people in the station. This is normally not something that would bother Kyle or myself, but when you have people constantly staring at you and pointing, it starts to get a little unnerving. We were used to people coming up and asking for pictures with us in other parts of China, but no pictures were asked of us, not even smiles, just intrusive stares and constant whispers. We decided to ignore this and try to relax on the steps outside the train station. However, this also proved difficult considering all you heard and saw every two seconds was Chinese people clearing their nostrils and spitting up mucus on the ground. What really pushed me over the edge was seeing a mother sit down beside me and allowing her two year old to piss all over the ground. There are some cultural differences that, in my opinion, are just plain wrong and medieval. Inequality to women is one of them, and completely unsanitary practices are another. All this and we weren’t even on the train yet.
We finally board the train to find it packed to the brim, including our seats which we had booked. We kindly showed our tickets to the people sitting here, doing our best in sign language and general body movements to indicate that these were our seats, and would like to sit down in them in preparation for the 15 hour journey ahead. One man got up, another woman moved over slightly, and a mother and her child remained sitting in the window seat with my name on it. Now, some of you might be thinking, “that poor mother and child, don’t they need a seat?” I’m sure they do, which is why you should book these things ahead of time, splurge on the extra ten bucks and buy a hard seat instead of a standing ticket, and not expect someone else to stand for you. We ended up piling four people into three seats (five if you include the young child), where we remained for the next few hours.
Eventually other people boarded the train and also complained about us being in their seats. We tried to gesture and charade as best we could about the predicament we were in (namely that said mother and child were basically taking up both our seats now, not just one). After much confusion and body movement that you only hope doesn’t mean anything offensive in mandarin, our actual seats became free and we finally secured two spots. Three people in three seats, life was looking up, or so we thought.
A family boards the train on the next stop and sits directly in front of us (remember, the seats face each other on these trains). Within minutes the mother, who is standing at this point, horks up a big spitball and proceeds to launch it onto the floor of the train, then (to “clean it up” I presume), rubs it with her shoe to create a lovely spit-streak mark. I make a mental note to not put anything on the floor at this point. Finally at about midnight I manage to lull myself into a decent slumber, listening to my Harry Potter audiobooks and imagining I’m anywhere but on a train in the middle of China with pissing babies and toilets that consist of a hole in the urine-covered floor leading directly out to the train tracks. All of a sudden I’m awoken by Kyle shaking me vigorously. “Jamie, wake up, wake up! Move your foot!” I look down to see what was previously a cute little Asian kid now puking up half-chewed noodles and dumplings all over the floor, most of which landed on Kyle’s exposed sandal-clad foot, with the rest spraying up the side of my sneakers and socks. We had reached a new low.
The dad did his best to clean up the mess, finding a straw broom of sorts and shovelling his overstuffed kid’s vomit into the trash can. No mop to be found, we climbed back into our seats with the smell of digested Ichiban soup still lingering. Kyle grabbed a bottle of water and dumped half its contents onto his foot, while I used toilet paper to wipe the small chunks now starting to dry on my only pair of shoes. Somehow, we fell back to sleep on this train ride from hell, and managed to arrive at the station over an hour late than previously stated.
There are some aspects of Chinese culture that I admire. Family, for one, is extremely valued, and it’s expected that everyone contribute as best they can to help each other out economically and emotionally. There are many metaphors and stories that the Chinese people use to explain their culture, which include lessons that most North Americans could benefit from. That being said, there are certain elements of this culture that I simply do not agree with. Basic standards of hygiene have been scientifically proven to prevent disease, and allowing your child to piss on the street and spit on the floor does not help (nor does puking on someone else’s foot). That is the first long-distance train experience Kyle and I have had in China, and it’s also our last. Nothing comes close to the filth and violation of personal space we both experienced on the train from Yingtan to Guilin. We’re flying to Hong Kong, and no one can convince us otherwise.