A Canadian in Beijing: Escape to Shanghai

The overnight train to Shanghai was like an adult summer camp on wheels. Beds three bunks high and six to a cubicle with only about three feet between each stack and it was clear that we were going to make friends with whomever was nearby. And we did!

But first, I was shocked at the crowds at Beijing Zhan, the principal railway station in the city. When we emerged from the underground of the subway to catch our train, Sarah told me that the crowds weren’t that bad, actually, but I still snapped pictures anyway. I couldn’t believe the density of the front courtyard with people sitting or waiting or milling about with luggage and children in tow. The excited energy was bouncing off the mid-evening lights as we dodged rolling luggage and bicycles, families and travellers in circled, seated mounds that would suddenly nearly trip us in the middle of the courtyard.

We twisted and turned and tried to keep sight of each other as we scurried into the station. We were almost late for our train, actually, and arrived just five minutes before our departure time. I wasn’t worried, though. Somehow I knew that Shanghai was on my horizon for this weekend and I knew that the train wouldn’t leave without us on it.

I was right.

We stepped into railway car number six just in time and turned down a narrow corridor that was about four feet wide. I still hadn’t registered that this wasn’t just a transit passageway to the car we were riding on, but was actually the train car itself and where we would be stationed for the next thirteen hours. We walked about ten feet and then Sarah stopped me and motioned that we had arrived at our home for the night. I turned and saw our travelling home. These were called “hard sleepers,” which is a mid-grade ticket. We were packed in but still comfortable and it looked quite cozy.

Despite the narrowness of the corridor, especially when people are sitting there, the train employees still managed to push the skinniest carts I’ve ever seen down these passageways calling out what they were offering from noodles to soup to hot water to quick snacks and bottled beverages. I had brought a bag stuffed with vegan snacks (I’m learning quickly!) and so we didn’t need to order any food. We were set and ready.

Jenni, Sarah and I were positioned in three bunks one on top of the other about half-way up the car. The top and middle bunks aren’t as expensive as the lower bunks as it is only on the lower bunks that one has enough headroom to sit up. For that reason, most people sit on the lower bench all at once, if they know each other. Otherwise, there are small chairs and tiny tables that fold out in the corridor for when travellers aren’t sleeping. In our case, we just split the cost three ways so it was an equitable travel experience. We all sat together on the lower bunk until it was time to sleep.

We all took dibs on who was sleeping where and I landed in the middle bunk. The highest bunk is probably the most private, but the middle bunk isn’t too bad either. Each one came with a pillow and a warm duvet and mine actually had a wonderful view out the window.

(Sarah snapped this of me this morning as I was watching the Chinese countryside racing past me. It was in these exact moments that I was thinking how much I want to explore more of this country!)

At 10:30pm, the lights went out and we all took to our bunk positions. There were no individual lights for the cubicles, so there was nothing to do but to sleep. Tired from a week of hectic socializing, studying and overall Beijing exploration, I had no trouble falling asleep within minutes. I have always been able to sleep in moving vehicles. It must be all the touring we’ve done.

I woke only to go to the bathroom sometime in the middle of the night. I climbed down, put on my shoes (you can’t use the squatter without them!) and then found that all the restrooms were locked. I was told in rushed Chinese that they were about to stop and that no one could use the bathrooms. It took awhile before I understood that the bathrooms are locked when people get off the train or board the train. Perhaps for security reasons? I’m not sure. Ten minutes later, we were back on our way, they re-opened the facilities, I used the squatter, and then I went back to sleep. I slept soundly until 6:30am when talking from nearby cubicles and the bounce of the sunshine nudged me to consciousness in my suspended cocoon.

A few hours later we pulled into Shanghai and were greeted with “Welcome to Shanghai” signs all throughout the arrivals corridor. I was grinning and rested and emerged into the sunlight with my friends, a full heart…

And a full bladder.

I hadn’t been able to use the facilities while in the train because I waited too long and then discovered again that they had locked the doors just before arriving in Shanghai. While Sarah and Jenni stood in line to book another train ticket for the end of their journey next week, I sought out a public restroom facility and was amazed to find that it cost money to use! An attendant called me back when I entered and gestured that I was to throw my money into a large barrel-like opening. It cost 2 kuai. I reached into my pocket, found the money and obeyed. After all, I had to go! When I had thrown in my money, she handed me a tissue to use.

I considered it a tariff for the tree’s sacrifice.

I re-emerged onto the sidewalk to be reunited with my friends, relieved and believing that anything is possible –

Shanghai had welcomed me.