A Hard Seat Train

by Bryan Tutt

Bryan Tutt grew up in Houston, Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University. He now lives in Austin and is working on a novel based on his travels in Central America.

Standing in the train station in Luoyang, I was wishing I had studied Mandarin Chinese instead of Spanish back in college. I needed a ticket to Xi'an, but I couldn't read the signs to figure out which line I should stand in. There were several "black market" guys selling tickets, but I was wary of buying a ticket I couldn't read from a guy who would be long gone if the ticket turned out to be counterfeit. Helpless and illiterate, I went around asking "Xi'an?" until somebody pointed to one of the ticket windows. After thirty minutes in line, I was at the ticket window pointing in my phrasebook to "sleeper." By pointing and gesturing, the clerk managed to tell me I was in the wrong line. An hour later, at the third ticket window I tried, I managed to purchase a ticket for the three a.m. train to Xi'an. There were no sleepers available, so I had to settle for a "hard seat" (meaning third class) ticket. I had heard other travelers talk about the horrors of hard seat trains, but I wasn't worried. After all, I was a seasoned traveler, a veteran of trains in Europe and busses in Guatemala and Honduras. How bad could an eight-hour train ride be?

Half an hour before the train arrived, people started lining up at the entrance to the platform where our train would arrive. There are no assigned seats in a hard seat car, so everyone wanted to get on early enough to get a seat. I joined the crowd, nodding and smiling at everyone who told me "hello," which is the one word of English everyone in China knows. When the doors opened, the quiet crowd suddenly became an unruly mob. People were pushing and shoving each other through the doors to the platform, then running to the train to join a rugby scrum at the entrance to a car. I stood and watched in shock as these normally polite and reserved folks shoved, kicked, and elbowed each other to force their way into a car. Always one to observe local customs, I joined the stampeding herd. The people behind me were pushing me toward the train; the people beside me were pushing me away from it. I caught hold of a handrail and was about to board the car when an elbow hit me in the mouth, and ten people stepped over and around me onto the train. When I finally scrambled aboard, the seats were all filled. It was a tight squeeze just finding a place to sit in the aisle. The floor was covered with dust, chicken bones, cigarette butts, and spit. The Chinese passengers who didn't have seats spread newspaper on the floor before they sat down. I sat on my backpack and prepared myself for a long night of discomfort and second-hand cigarette smoke.

Every few minutes those of us on the floor would have to get up, turn sideways or somehow make ourselves smaller so that a conductor or a refreshment cart could pass. One of the conductors indicated that I should follow the refreshment cart to the dining car. She was insistent, and in China one doesn't question authority, so I picked up my backpack and followed the vendor down the crowded aisle. He was selling boxed dinners of rice and a variety of meats, including boiled chicken feet. His sales were brisk, but our progress was slow. When we finally reached the dining car, the tables were full, and I wasn't hungry anyway, so I sat on the floor near the kitchen.

A conductor who looked to be in his early twenties approached me and asked, "Where you from?" I told him I was from the U.S. and he motioned for me to follow him. He led me to a small compartment with a bench seat just big enough for the two of us. He smiled and said, "You give me English lesson." Given the choice between a padded seat and a hard floor, I gladly accepted. He would flip through my English/Mandarin phrasebook and point to a word, which I would pronounce. He would say the English word a few times, then teach me to say it in Chinese. We went on this way for four hours, until I grew too tired to stay awake. When we reached Xi'an I said good-bye and thanked him for his hospitality.

For the rest of my stay in China, whenever someone asked what I did for a living, I said I was an English teacher. This may not have been completely honest, but it made me a lot of friends. One lady invited me to her home for dinner and English lessons every night for a week. In Guilin, an art student gave me a tour of the city and showed me some of his paintings. Most Chinese people are friendly to foreigners and eager to make a traveler feel welcome. Unless, of course, it's time to board a train, in which case it's dog-eat-dog. Which reminds me of a restaurant in Yang Shuo…

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