We’d just been in the Northeastern provinces of China and were heading back to Beijing, sad to leave our friend to go home but excited to explore a new area of China. And, boy, did we have some big plans. We were going to make our way across the entire width of China from Beijing to the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, stopping in mini-Tibet and the Chinese desert along the way. It was going to be awesome.
But the transportation Gods had other ideas…
Getting a train in China is hard. They have this ridiculous system where they only let you buy tickets 10 days in advance. And being a foreigner meant we couldn’t even do this online. Furthermore, considering how extensive and generally great China’s train network is, how out of most people’s price range China’s domestic air travel is, and how many, how extraordinarily many, people live in China, trains get booked up aggravatingly fast.
So, despite the fact we got to the Beijing train station super early, and didn’t mind sticking around for a day or two, we could not get a train West. After a few hours of confused and verging on angry exchanges between our Chinese speaking friend and the ticket seller, we decided to head somewhere for a shower and a rethink. The new plan? Who cares, just get us out of Beijing! Not that we didn’t like Beijing. It is an awesome city with so much to do, see and eat, but we had done it, we had seen it, and we had eaten it. And we had plans!
But even these flexible plans didn’t seem to fit with the Fates of Transportation. No. The Fates wanted us to board a 30-hour train to Chengdu. With a standing ticket. That is, a ticket that does not qualify you to have a seat. It couldn’t be too hard, could it? I mean I’d taken a 55-hour bus in Brazil once. Oh, but wait, I had a seat. A seat that reclined…
But we survived, and even had a little fun. So, without further ado here are my tips for standing ticket survival.
Our preparations for this epic adventure included getting some fold away chairs with backs, a bag full of instant noodles, and some Oreos for good measure. The great thing about trains in China is that they not only have a food cart, but hot water dispensers for your oh-so-yummy instant noodles (even if you aren’t about to get on a 30-hour train, you’ve seriously got to try China’s instant noodles). Although, be careful of instant noodle carriers sloshing boiling hot water on you on their way back to their seats, especially, you know, if you are on the floor because you don’t have your own seat. Also, be careful of the food trollies patrolling every hour- they won’t think twice about running over your toes or screaming in your sleeping ear if you are in their way, which you most probably will be if you don’t have a seat.
The first thing you must do if you find yourself with only a standing ticket is to get to the station early and push yourself as near to the front of the already-busy queue as you can. The second most important thing to do, once you have got on the train, is to find the kindest-looking faces you can see and force yourself into their personal space. Chances are they have been in your position before, so explain, as best you can if you don’t have a lovely Chinese-speaking friend, about your situation and ask if they mind if you hang with them. Then unfold your little seats, order a beer, sit back, and relax!
As well as looking for friendly faces, try and get near a toilet. This may sound counterintuitive (30 hours next to a squat toilet isn’t exactly prime real estate), but there is often one less seat near these areas. There is also a washing area, meaning even more room to make camp. And once you have settled in, try not to move! Because someone will take your place.
Entertainment comes in many forms on a 30-hour train ride. Some like to take sleeping pills, get under the seats, get covered in pumpkin seed shells and noodles and simply zonk out, dreaming of their next destination. And apparently you can take this option even if you are 6-foot-4! Other past times include drinking – the most common trick and a surefire way to get you chatting with the locals who are doing the same. Why not read an entire book? Or play some Uno? The train is your oyster!
But seriously, all these things are what we did to fill our time and we actually had a laugh. It isn’t the best way to spend 30 hours, and really how much more is $50 for a flight? But you know what? I would probably do it again.
And considering that we arrived in the city where it is possible to see these cute little friends, we were happy!