This is my story of traveling by train from Beijing to Xi’an during Golden Week 2012 in China. I will walk you through my experience .
China has two mayor holidays throughout the year, where everyone gets a week off. One of those weeks is Golden Week, the first week of October. Now, China is always a crowded place, with people everywhere, all the time, but Golden Week is something else entirely. The Chinese celebrate the end of the harvest and the founding of China in this week. This Golden Week (2012) 86 million people travelled by road, 7.6 million people travelled by air and 60.9 million people traveled by train. In one week. Chinese people love to travel during Golden Week!
People use this week to go home and visit the family they can’t see for most of the year, or for seeing the landmarks of their great nation, mainly Tain’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, both in Beijing.
This completely clogs up the public transport systems of China. In Beijing they closed the subway stations at Tian’anmen Square, due to the masses and fear of terrorist attacks. More stations all over Beijing were closed for the same reasons. In this week, we chose to take the train. This story might scare you, but I promise it’s not always this bad.
In China, besides hard/soft sleeper, hard/soft seat, but you can also buy standing tickets. For 16 hour train rides. In Golden Week, even the standing tickets are sold out.
Getting in to the train station
Imagine arriving at the station, trying to fight your way out of a bus, into a huge crowd. All these people need to get into the station, past luggage checks, ticket checks and body searching officials. You kind of charge your way through, using your elbows and the added weight of your backpack and the daypack in front of you (the only occasion where having two bags on me was convenient), you get in what you think is the line for the ticket check.
When you finally get to the wrong gate you will be let through on account of being a lǎowài (foreigner). After having your ticket checked you can get in line again, luggage check. Usually this line moves reasonably fast.
It works like this: you dump your bags on a conveyor belt and walk through a metal-detector gate, while a bored official with a big gun pretends to look at the screen where the x-ray of your bag appears. Everyone beeps at those gates, no one gets checked. This predicament cleared, another official (with white gloves, think Mickey Mouse, but Chinese) will pretend to do a body search on you, so her boss will think she’s actually doing any work. The boss is smoking a cigarette and playing with his phone at that moment, so it doesn’t really matter what she does, it’s just keeping up appearances.
So after all this, you arrive in the waiting hall. Sounds relaxed eh? It’s not. The waiting room is small, filled with stinky, coughing, retching, farting, noodle-eating, staring-at-you Chinese. It’s the most impressive cacophony of sound and smell anyone can ever experience, barring India.
Every track has its own waiting hall, and usually about four trains per day leave from a track. So most of the people in that hall are waiting for the exact same train you are waiting for.
Surprisingly, Chinese trains and railway stations almost always run in time, we’ve only once or twice experienced a late train.
Getting on the train
After about an hour of waiting, the gates to the track open up, and everyone around you stands and rushes headlong to the gates dragging along kids and bags, creating a nice little traffic congestion on the way. After waiting in line for a while, your ticket again gets checked at the gate. So you get to the train.
It’s usually about 20 carts long, and printed on your ticket is your cart number, and your seat number. If you get a bed there is also upper, middle or lower printed in a Chinese character, which is pretty easy to read. You’ll be fine.
Anyway, you get to the train, along with the two thousand people who were in the waiting hall with you. You find your cart and get in line to get on. Your tickets are checked once again, this time by the caretaker of your cart. Every cart has a caretaker/train-conductor who sweeps and comes by with a garbage bag once an hour. He has to do this or else all the waste the Chinese produce will soon fill the train to pour out the windows. The conductor didn’t even try to do this in Golden Week, as there was no way he could have swept the floor with all those people standing, sitting and lying everywhere.
We had only gotten our tickets two days earlier. This due to some amazing planning and great ignorance on our side. We didn’t even know China had a Golden Week until about three days before. The only tickets we could get for our 13-hour train ride were hard seat tickets. Mixed in with the hard seat crowd are the standing tickets people.
Getting in your seat
When you get on the train it will became painfully clear to you just how much of a train ride from hell this is going to be. There already is some disagreeable woman and her fourteen bags sitting on your seat. This woman has a standing ticket and isn’t planning to use it, she’s planning to use your seat. Getting her off your seat is a challenge involving smiling on your side, angry looks on her side, her studying your ticket for about 5 minutes, a train conductor, some shouting and help of the Chinese crowd around you. But in the end, you will claim your seat, promise.
The seat is hard. You will have to sit on it for 13 hours. There is no air conditioning and there are over a hundred people with standing tickets in your car. Chinese like to stare and if they’re a crowd they care even less than usual. Being in a crowd that stares justifies staring for them. At least you’ll have the feeling you’re being well looked after.. Or at.
After a while an elderly lady spreads out a bamboo mat underneath some chairs which are about 40cm from the floor. You wonder what she is going to do. Next thing you know she crawls under those seats, and starts sleeping. It honestly looks like a better idea than your hard seat, but imagine an elderly European woman on a train in any country in Europa taking a bamboo mat out of her luggage, spreading it out underneath some chairs people are sitting on, and then shooing these people out of the way so she can crawl under and get to sleep. Can you even?
Did we tell you travelling during Golden Week is madness?
Getting of the train
So after a night of wallowing in excruciating pain in your entire body, caused by the hard seats, you get to sit there for a couple more hours while all the Chinese do what Chinese do best. Staring. At you. You should be used to it by now. When you finally get to Xi’an, sleep deprived and in need of a psychotherapist, you are glad to have it over with. If only.
You get out of the train and walk toward the exit of the tracks, along with all the rest of the people on the train. Your tickets are being checked again at that point. Then you get to walk toward the exit of the station, where you pass through another luggage check, body search and ticket check, because apparently the ones in Beijing aren’t sufficient. You walk out the station and are greeted by a huge crowd of people. Those people are the families, extended families and friends of the people who shared the train with you, who’ve come to pick up their relatives.
Imagine about ten-thousand people crammed into an area that’s not fit for even a quarter of them. So you do the routine of charging your way through again, to find the bus stop. Same story there. On the way there you are constantly harassed by motor drivers who are sure they can bring you, your girlfriend, two 50 liter backpacks and two daypacks to your hostel just fine. As you are in no mood to die after all this, you politely tell them to fuck off.
You got on the bus, built in 1934, and a miracle unfolds. It’s the right bus, and you have the right amount of yuan to buy your ticket. Bus drivers in China don’t do change, you just give them what you have closest to what it costs. It’s similarly crowded in the bus as everywhere else during Golden Week, but at that point you’re happy to have found the right one.
After this train trip, finding your hostel is cake, and as you collapse on your bed you vow yourself never to travel during Golden Week again.