Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 4: Night Train to Shang Qui

At about 10pm they let us onto the dark and grimy platform. Our train arrives and we pile on. We find Dan's berth, which is car 16. I'm in car 12. We were lucky to get two sleepers at such late notice.
Dan turns out to be a good traveller. He's my cousin who I met for basically the first time five days ago in the Vancouver airport. He's in China to look at machinery. I'm here for support. This must be tough for him. From Haida Gwaii to a Chinese interior province. From knowing and comfort of 50 years of familiarity to total confusion and seeming mayhem. I get him settled in for the night and tell him to set his alarm for 2:30 and go find my bed.
The berths sleep six - two stacks of 3. I find my bunk. I'm sharing a berth with five gymnasts from Hebei University returning home from a week long competition in Qing Dao. I say hello in Chinese and they are eager to talk. We sit on a lower bunk and I show them the pictures on my camera and on my iPad. They share their road snacks of sweet dried plums and salty crisps. 
Another group plays cards in the next berth over. People are milling around. Wearing flip flop shower slippers. The matron comes and gets my ticket, exchanging it for a red card. She says she'll wake me at 2:30. 
I wonder how Dan is doing. The station was a scary place. We had problems finding a place to sit and wait. When we bought water, we felt every pair of eyes in the station watching us. 
This is the highlight of my trip to China. I love sleeper trains. It takes me back to India in the late 80's. The train rocks though the night and I sleep a fitful sleep. We lurch and clank out of the stations. Our top speed is moderately slow. It's hot and humid and I'm sleeping in my clothes. I'm completely beaten down. This is my third night in China. The fatty beef isn't sitting well. The toilet is a steel squat that is slippery with piss. In fact, the whole train smells of urine as it is tracked out of the squat toilet stall. The girls brush their teeth at a three sink communal. 

Dan and I are among a very small knot of people who get off the train in Shang Qui at 3:10am. 

We had arranged a hotel - the Shang Qui Bing Gwan. There are taxis waiting in front of the station. It’s gloomy. It’s cool and humid at the same time. I forget to demand that the taxi driver turn the meter on so when we arrived at the hotel after a bumpy ten minute ride he said we could pay whatever we wanted. Dan gave him a $20 Yuan. But that wasn't enough so Dan gave him $50 more. On the ride he asked if we been to Shang Qui before. I lied and said we had a few years ago. I don't know why I lied. I didn't like the question.
He talked and laughed for the duration of the journey but I understood little of it and just wanted to lay down and get some sleep. 
We checked into the hotel. We were waiting for the elevator to arrive and a group of young people came in behind us. There were four of them - two couples and it looked like they might have spent the previous few hours drinking.
The room has two double beds. I take off my pants and fall asleep on top of the bed. 

I'm lucky to be given this chance to travel in China. Ever since reading Paul Theroux's book - Riding the Iron Rooster - I've wanted to ride the Chinese rails. 
It's only been three days - three full days - but I'm already weary but elated. Comfort, the internet, coffee. I miss these things, but not a lot.