Forty-two hours on a train in China

Amtrak it ain’t.

On a budget, with time to spare and feeling guilty about my carbon footprint, I decided to brave the train from Shanghai to Kunming. A soft-sleeper (equivalent to first class) wasn’t any less expensive than the plane, so I opted for the hard sleeper class – three bunks to a wall, two walls to a “nook.” It was definitely an adventure: following is a rundown of the 42 hours it took to get to Kunming….

4 p.m
. Almost as soon as I take my pack off in Shanghai’s southern train station’s “waiting lounge,” people start rushing out the door; I follow. I find my bunk and set about securing a spot on a shelf for my pack. I nod hello to the five other passengers sharing my area. Across from the beds are two seats that fold down from the wall; the only real place to sit are on these and the bottom bunks, since the middle and upper berths don’t have enough headroom. There are no other Westerners and no one around me speaks English.

6 p.m. I watch the Shanghai outer limits roll by. At first I thought the window was tinted gray, so dark was the sky. It was lightly raining and the pollution left the air hazy. Along the tracks stretched rows and rows of vegetable patches with all kinds of greens. At first I couldn’t understand why the patches were rectangles instead of squares, like on American farms, until I realized that these were developed on a scale designed for human labor, not machinery.

7 p.m. There doesn’t seem to be any bottled water for sale on board. Boiling water is readily available, and passengers all have plastic containers that they fill and let chill. I only have one small disposable bottle, and am getting thirsty. I eat a protein bar left over from my flights and a cup of instant noodles. People are smoking, but in between cars so it’s not too bad. Also, the cell phone noise and pop music seem mild compared to what I’ve expected.

8 p.m. I brave the squat toilet, and climb into bed. The bunks are narrow, with guard rails, so it’s impossible to curl up. There’s a tiny hook where I hang my glasses, headlamp, and, much later, ear plugs. The fluorescent lighting is garish and I throw my sweatshirt over my eyes. The youth in the next nook over are having a party, or so it sounds. I fall asleep to my iPod playing Elvis Perkins.

6 a.m. The stewards come through and open curtains. I crack all my joints and crawl out of bed. I eat another protein bar and take my last sip of water. I go to the bathroom, and soon as I’m in someone pounds on the door. I hear someone say something about the foreigner (“laowai”) and a few seconds later the pounding is louder. I give up on emptying my bladder and step out. A steward dumps a bucket of boiling water in the hole and all over the floor. Seeing the steam come off, I decide to hold it a bit longer – do I really need a poop steam bath?

9 a.m. I lay down to read and fall asleep. So do most of the people around me.

11 a.m. Everyone is eating lunch. A woman in a white head scarf rolls a cart filled with unidentifiable stuff on it. I eat my last protein bar.

Noon: I try to fill my disposable water bottle with boiling water, and it melts. Whoops. I return to my bunk and practice saying, in Mandarin, “I would like cold water,” even though I know it’s useless. I try walking to the dining car, but the doors are locked.

2 p.m. I begin knitting a hat, which gets a lot of attention; people stop to fondle the yarn. I sit on the bottom bunk with one of the friendly couples. I also start sending out text messages that read “I’m stillll on the train!” just for some contact.

4 p.m.
After I about lose it over how thirsty I am, the train makes a big stop. I see food carts as we pull in the station, and when we’ve come to a complete stop I sprint along with all the other passengers. I grab two liters of water and a super-sized instant noodle. The train is in the station less than five minutes; I’m glad I did like the locals and ran.

6 p.m. I’ve been on the train for 26 hours. My friendly couples have been traded for a family with a charming but boisterous young child. I eat my noodles, and wait to brush my teeth at the sink next to the hot water dispenser. The young man inside sticks his feet in the sink one at a time and washes them.

8 p.m.
I take an over-the-counter sleeping pill and fall asleep to David Sedaris.

6 a.m. I wake up to an impossibly fluorescent sunrise over rolling peaks. The land looks arid and dry, with a few trees. A nuclear reactor rolls by. A brand new highway, empty. People working in fields. A brand new city rising from the farmland. I send out more text messages and knit.

7 a.m.
Ladies, I know you’re with me here. Thirty-nine hours on a train and my body can’t wait three more to start my period. Sometimes, it truly is the curse. I deal with it, and am grateful it didn’t start three hours in.

10 a.m.
Arrival! I haven’t eaten anything since my last instant noodles at 6 p.m., my hair is oily enough to lube an engine, and I’m doubled over with cramps. I get in a cab, find my hostel, use the bathroom, shower, and then order a Western breakfast.

That about sums up the ride. In general, it wasn’t awful, but I’m not signing up to do it again next week, either.The train was surprisingly quiet and passably clean. A companion would have helped the tedium and some foreknowledge about eating and drinking supplies would have been nice as well, but all in all I’m glad I saved money and carbon by riding rather than flying.