"I'm sorry sir, but we don't have any tickets...."
Said the ticket lady in the Xi'an train station in her best chinglish (I hope I'm not offending anyone by using this term).
"Hmm...so do I have any options?" I asked.
"Hard seat?" was the reply.
I grimaced at the thought of that, but really didn't have much choice. "Alright, I'll do that."
My previous experience with Chinese trains had been excellent. They're clean, fast, the people are friendly, and most importantly the beer is usually cheap. One notable exception from this list is that there are always available beds. From what I understood, it was virtually impossible for a Chinese train to be full because they just kept adding cars. So imagine my surprise when I found out that I couldn't get the hard sleeper I had been accustomed to.
"16 hours and overnight...I can handle that," I thought, "How bad can it be?" Famous last words.
Ironically, I had heard a horror story from a guy who gone the hard seat route a couple of days prior. I convinced myself that this wasn't going to happen to me...I'm sure we've all done that once or twice.
Finally the time arrives for me to board the train. Upon entry I realize that this carriage holds 120 people...far more than the 66 in the hard sleepers or 24 in the soft sleepers. I took my seat only to find a woman breastfeeding her baby directly across from me, not to mention the inherent lack of room for a 6'0 (180 cm?) white guy and that the backrest was perpendicular to the seat (without any reclining action). My first thought was, "How am I gonna sleep on this thing?" I can tell you that that question was never answered.
The train took off, only to stop ever hour and pick up more people. By the end, I think we had about 150 people in the car. Most were in the aisles, some in the bathroom, some in the sink area, and some by the exit. A lot of these guys stood for the better part of 10 hours...yikes.
There is another thing that goes along with being the only white person in your carriage...anyone that speaks any sort of english is gonna talk to you. And did I ever draw a crowd. So much so that people were asking the poor lady with the baby to switch seats. One guy also woke up a older woman to ask if she would move. Both weren't havin' any of that. Such courtesy.
I did get in some questions about Mao and Zhou Enlai and Deng, but trying to comprehend poor english at 3 AM is not all that easy. We talked well into the wee hours of the morning and finally I had to bring out some Canadian money to draw their attention to something else.
Shortly thereafter, they went to "sleep." This whole sleeping bit just wasn't working for me, so I sat there just staring blankly out the window. Beijing eventually came into view and we finally got off the train. The parting words by my new found friends were "Don't ever forget us." How could I? I had just spent the most memorable train trip of my life asking them about contraversial political figures in Chinese history. What a night!
One plus out of the ordeal was that I developed a fancy for quail eggs. Can't get any decent ones in Canada (that I know of), let alone India.