One the reasons we gave for wanting to take this trip was that it was going to be a great test for our relationship and for ourselves. I have to admit something: in the face of that lumbering beast named China, I lost my shit. I may have failed my first serious test.
But like all good institutions, the school of life gave me another chance in the form of a thirteen hour train ride to Qingdao.
Just buying the ticket would have been enough to put Kristine BC (Before China) over the edge: the non-existent lines, the pushing and the screaming would have firmly sent Kristine BC into a panic attack.
But Kristine AC handled this with aplomb. When after a 40 minute wait, we finally reached the ticket box, and when the woman did not understand our pronunciation of the city Qingdao (Ching-dao) and proceeded to wait on the next person in line, Kristine AC held it together. KAC stood there, not giving up her hard fought place in front of the ticket box, pushing back at the hordes of elbows in her back, and screamed, “Qingdao. QINGDAO. QINGDAO!!!”
Finally an unexpected voice spoke from the crowd, “You’re going to Qingdao?” With the help of that heavenly being, we were able to book a train out of Nanjing.
This was not the test that life gave to us. Instead the test was to survive this overnight train ride.
We had booked the cheapest tickets on the slowest moving train in China.
There are several seats that you can buy on a train, and for some reason they’re labeled hard and soft. They should be labeled “first class” and “economy,” but they’re not. “Soft” indicates first class and “hard” indicates economy: the seats are not actually hard at all, they’re all physically soft. You can book sleeper seats which are bunk beds. You can also buy standing room seats, but why would you ever do that?
13 hours is a relatively long ride. We were prepared to read, write and nap our way through it. We were not prepared to be shoved into a box car filled with half the population of China.
Our tickets were a step above standing room: we had a soft bench seat that faced our seat mate with a small table in the middle. Our cabin was the place where the standing room people stood. We had people sleeping on top of us, people eating over us, and of course, people screaming around us. The air was perfumed with cigarette smoke and steam from the local favorite, beef ramen.
Occasionally American music would blare from the train speakers, competing with the music that each person was already playing from their phone. As the train rolled into each stop (and there were A LOT OF STOPS), there was never any indication of where we were – no station announcement, no conductor message. The only “train officials” we saw were the ones rolling carts up and down the alley, selling air-tight packets of chicken legs and hotdogs.
If you got up from your seat, it wouldn’t be yours any longer. It would be immediately poached by a standing-only person, who would be asleep on your table by the time you got back.
Did I mention the roaches?