A Canadian In Beijing: How Do You Train a Head Cold?

You put yourself on an overnight train in China to catch one and then you take another overnight train in China five days later and it learns to never leave your side!

I have been nursing a box of Kleenex and sipping ginger tea for just under a week now and still my head cold doesn’t seem to be lifting. I think I caught it on my way to Shanghai, and now it’s taken hold and is convinced that I am happy with its residence. I have been trying to evict it with potions of lemon, garlic, ginger and “hong tang” (or brown sugar – literally “red” sugar in China) and trying to increase my “warm” intake, as per Chinese medicine, but I’m still sick. I’ve been hacking up a lung in a pitch that is many decibels below my talking voice and making mountains of used tissues you’d need a sherpa to scale.


I am not one to get sick, normally, but I must admit that this pace has been crazy and I’ve been living a little like a delinquent teenager with lots of late night and parties with my dorm friends and my body is currently very angry with me.

I was surely an annoying fellow passenger on the return trip from Shanghai.

I took the overnight train again, but this time by myself and I have been patting myself on my own back about how seasoned a traveller I am and how amazing it was that I made it from Shanghai to Beijing without any serious mishaps. (I photographed the ticket above as official proof!)

The “soft sleeper” cars are a little nicer than the hard sleepers. They’re softer, for one (!), and they’re more private with doors that close at the end of each cubicle. There are also only four people to a cubicle as opposed to six, which makes for more headroom on each bunk and slightly less cramped conditions.

Besides the ability to close a door and the extra room, some other great features of the soft sleeper cars include the fancy restrooms that come with regularly stocked soap and toilet paper (wonder of wonders in China!), the constant hot water dispenser near the restrooms (one of my favourite drinks and lovely to just be able to fill up on “re shui” whenever I wanted to), the ability to turn on a reading light in my bunk, control of the overall cubicle lights (in the hard sleepers, when the lights are out there’s nothing else to do but sleep), the complimentary slippers and, of course, the extra pillow. I do love two pillows!

But my favourite feature was the volume control.

In China, I have noticed that piped music is very common. My friends have told me that they hear music at various times of the day coming from garden speakers, public offices, etc. I have been intrigued (in a slightly creeped out way) with the speakers on campus that pump out terrible music at 6:30 am everyday and then again in the early evening. It reminds me a bit of images of prison grounds and I suppose that’s where the creepiness comes in. That, and perhaps the insinuation that there’s some “Brave New World” style propaganda going on!?

Anyway, the train also has piped in music and it’s usually crackling through unequalized speakers. My musician’s ears have a hard time filtering out the ringing frequencies when I hear this happening and I recall that the trip to Shanghai last week included a lot of concentration on my part to ignore the music.

I mercifully located the volume knob at about 9:00pm when my cabin mates had already gone to sleep and the music suddenly started to whine through wincing speakers. That volume knob alone was worth the extra $175 kuai (about $25 Canadian).

So, I was trying to be kind to my fellow travellers by turning off the music, but I still kept them up all night coughing and blowing my nose. They were sympathetic and the next morning we struggled along in Chinese and English about my terrible cold and their concern for the lonely foreign girl seemingly without any immunity. I appreciate their concern, especially in light of their tired eyes.

I also became quite the fascination for a little girl who was about three years old. She regularly made appearances at our open door during the evening the train left and the morning before arriving in Beijing. Her grandmother was caring for her (as is often the set-up in China where the elderly provide childcare) and through her grandmother and my bunk mates, I learned the phrase “ta hen hao(4) qi(3),” which means that “she is very curious.” Also, the phrase, “wode biao(3) yu(3) ta butong,” which means that “I look different than she does.” That is exactly why she was curious too – I am the blonde “waiguoren” (foreigner) and this little three-year-old may never have seen someone who looks like me before. We had smiles and giggles and a few words and I appreciated her innocent and open curiosity as only a child can offer.

I arrived back in Beijing relieved to be home and eager to cocoon in my room to nurse this cold away. Tomorrow, I’ve given it its final notice. If it’s not out by then, I’m bringing in the exterminators.