The sun is rising out of the window over the rice fields and streams and the early morning mist is still hanging over the trees. Inside the train cabin, people are starting to wake up – I can hear lots of coughing and snorting. Seb is wrapped up like a silk worm in his green travel sheet on the bunk across from me. He smiles sleepily and I guess he hasn’t slept much. The heavy smell of cigarettes, soup and sweat has only slightly diminished from last night’s passengers’ activities. I am feeling surprisingly refreshed and excited to be here, in this sleeper train headed to Nanning, China.
Last night when we boarded, I wasn’t feeling so positive. I’d spent the previous day being sick in Hong Kong and my stomach was still pretty weak. We took the 2-hour express train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou – our first step into mainland China – and I felt immediately out of my element. Compared to the relatively westernized Hong Kong where English is prevalent, and where we were staying with friends for the last few days, this was a different world. We saw no other Westerners, no English spoken or written, and the Chinese ‘manners’ were much more obvious: the spitting, the cutting in lines, the yelling, the staring…they are all very tolerant of this kind of behavior, but it can be rather unnerving for a first-timer like me. I always relish an interesting experience to witness though.
We managed to finagle some tickets on the overnight train to Nanning via hand gestures and our Lonely Planet Chinese phrases but getting on the train was an experience in itself. We were only able to get tickets for the seated class, but after about 5 minutes sitting erect in a packed cabin, we reconsidered our options for the coming 14 hours. I managed to signal to the controller that we needed to lay down in the sleeper cars, and he gestured that we should get off the wagon and move to the sleeper berth cabins. Dashing up the platform with our backpacks swinging awkwardly around us, we managed to jump on the train just moments before it pulled out of the station.
After being moved 3 times between cabins for unknown reasons, one controller who spoke a bit of English took pity and told Seb “You a movie star! No hair here, but lots hair here!” referring to his current bald head with growing beard, both traits that seem rare in this part of China. He found us opposing bunks on the 2nd level of a sleeper berth and we settled in for the night. The family of five in the bunks below us seems curious to see these white foreigners, and they chat quietly among themselves until falling asleep.
The accommodations are sparse and far from immaculate (bits of rice in my bunk, stained pillows and someone else’s hair on the linens) but relatively comfortable once we found our silk travel sheets and my blow up pillow. I’m thankful that I didn’t drink much water yesterday, as the scary latrines are just tiled troughs in the opens space between wagons.
This morning after a decent amount of sleep in the gently rocking train, I am finding the sense of humor in the situation and am embracing the yuck (though not literally). This is only the beginning.