Sunday, September 6, 2009

Train to Beijing

The train from Shanghai to Beijing was a really exciting experience for me. Perhaps I inherited it from my dad, who also loves trains, but I just get really excited about trains. I think it's so cool that they are such an old form of transportation and yet still so useful and efficient. Plus, the idea of having a sleeper car, and being able to lay horizontally while the train is in motion is just really neat!

So after a relatively uneventful last day in Shanghai, we said our goodbyes to Mimi's father and headed over to the Shanghai train station. As you may or may not know, the concept of a line is a relatively new phenomenon in China. According to Mimi, even Chinese people make fun of themselves for their inability to line up in an orderly queue (as the British say). I had already gotten a taste of it when we boarded the plane in Toronto. So when we arrived at the train station I was prepared for the worst. Indeed, at every juncture I had to fend off intruders from cutting me in line or stealing away my position. And in true Shanghai form, most of the belligerents were old ladies, armed with their own rolly polly suitcases as a strategic blocking mechanism.

When we got to the waiting room for our train, it was already packed to the brim with other travelers, many of which seemed to be college students returning to school. About twenty-five minutes before departure (9:58 PM), the doors were opened and we managed to worm our way onto the train. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see very much of the train, because we went straight to our car to stake out a place for our bags and get situated.

The sleeping car was very cramped but also pretty efficient. There were maybe ten sections in our car, each of which had six bunks stacked three high on each side. Along the narrow corridor were fold up chairs and above that was a rack for baggage. We had the middle two bunks, which according to Mimi is the worst draw. Below us were two middle-aged Shanghai ladies who were going to Beijing for a weekend of fun. Above Mimi was a German law graduate who was doing an internship with the German Consulate in Shanghai. At first, it wasn't clear who would be above me, but about an hour after the train was in motion, a young man hopped up above me, fell asleep within five minutes, and began immediately snoring. This continued until the next morning, at which point he got up, ate a huge bowl of instant noodles, and then went back to sleep until we arrived. This guy clearly had the Shanghai to Beijing train routine down pat.

For most of the trip, the German guy worked on his Chinese with the two ladies on the lower bunks. The ladies were having a blast and seemed to get a real kick out of his earnest desire to learn the language. They also learned a few phrases in German. In the morning, we kept hearing them say, "Gutentaga." From time to time, Mimi chimed in on the conversations (which were all in Chinese) and over all it was a really fun experience for me. I wasn't able to sleep all that much -- maybe five hours total -- but overall it was a really cool experience. We have at least 3 more overnight trains ahead of of us in China, and countless more in India, so I was glad to get at least one under my belt.

Unfortunately, for most of the trip there wasn't much to see out the window. For starters, it was already dark when we got on the train, and the conductors/attendants insist on closing the blinds until the morning in order to keep it dark. In the morning, I looked out from time to time, but I mostly saw drab, dilapidated buildings dotting the scenery. The beautiful landscapes must be somewhere else in China.

We arrived in Beijing at around 11 AM and Mimi's friend Maya met us at the train station. Mimi knows Maya from the year she spent studying in Shanghai after high school. Maya then moved up to Beijing and has been living here since, working as a freelance photographer. We spent the rest of the day recuperating and did a little bit of wandering. At night, we tried to find a reputable veggie restaurant but ended up getting very lost and frustrated. Eventually we found it though and the food definitely hit the spot. Quite tired from the train trip, we went back to Maya's apartment and crashed early.

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