An American Abroad

By Train to Shanghai

After saying goodbye to Spencer, I flew from Hanoi to back Kunming. The reason for this zig-zag was because I had stored my big luggage — about a hundred pounds worth — with my friend Martin while I traveled in Vietnam. Who wants to be encumbered by that much stuff unless and until it’s absolutely necessary?

I’d decided to close out my thirteen months in Asia with a visit to Shanghai to see old friends Wu Gang and Wang Wei and their son, Max. I had tutored them when they lived in the Toledo area, but now they had returned to Shanghai and I wanted very much to see them. I’d also decided to make the 2,375 kilometer (1,475 mile) journey by train, a journey comparable in length to going from Boston to New Orleans. The trip took about 38 hours.

This did not prove to be one of my better decisions.

I generally like train travel. It’s good enforced down-time. I’ve ridden the Lakeshore Limited from Toledo to Boston many times and enjoyed the restful freedom to read, write, nap, listen to music, watch the world roll by, and hang out with other travelers in the club car. I was picturing something like that when I reserved my Chinese train ticket.

When I got to the Kunming station, laden with 120 pounds of luggage, I found a chaotic scene. New security measures erected in the aftermath of the horrific terror attack there back in March have created a confusing gauntlet of checkpoints and unmarked temporary ticket windows. I queued up and went through airport-style security (which was more theater than anything else) outside the station. I was then funneled to a new outdoor ticket counter. After a wait in line of maybe 20 minutes, two women with bullhorns came over and announced that since it was now 6:00, these windows would be closing. The people lined up around me went nuts, angrily rushing the window, yelling at the clerks, and rudely thrusting money at them. It wasn’t any threat to my well-being, but it was pretty dispiriting to see people acting like this. I made it up to the front of the queue and the poor clerk there, seeing I was a laowai, took pity on me and issued my ticket after the official closing time.

I then went to check my two big 50-pound suitcases. I assumed (there’s that mistake again) that the procedure would be as simple as it is in the US. Nope. Finding out where to go was difficult; it seems that most of the personnel at the station had never heard of the idea of checking bags. Finally a porter led me to a dingy little storefront half a block from the station. This was a shipping office, but the clerk there also acted as if she had never heard of someone wanting to check luggage before. It took multiple and lengthy conversations via mobile phone with a friend of mine who speaks Chinese to finally get it worked out–and it cost me an additional ¥377. Furthermore, I was told that the luggage would not be going on my train with me, but would be on another train and would arrive a day after I did. I left doubting that I’d never see my bags again.

Finding the right place to wait for my train was also difficult, with the usual issues of different officials saying different things. (For an official to say “I don’t know” is to lose face, but to simply lie about knowing something and direct you to the wrong place is acceptable.) During my wait of several hours, I saw many Chinese people stocking up on food to take on the train. I told myself I didn’t want to burden myself further with food, and that I would simply buy it on the train. Another error.

When the train boarded, I found my compartment, a “soft sleeper” that contains four bunks, two up and two down. I was assigned one of the upper berths. While the bunk as actually long enough for me to stretch out comfortably, there was not enough headroom to allow me to sit up. This meant that I had to ride most of the way prone — not a good position for reading, writing or chatting. My compartment mates on the lower berths kindly allowed me to sit on their bunks, but I felt like I was intruding on their space. This is probably a very Western way of looking at things, but it’s the way I’m wired.

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After a couple hours, I crawled into my upper berth and fell asleep quickly.

I woke in the middle of the night with a painful headache and a queasy stomach. I’d actually eaten very little in the previous 24 hours, but something wasn’t sitting well with me. I went to the already-reeking bathroom a couple times where the odor of amoniated piss made me feel more nauseated. By morning I was throwing up and had a brutal headache.

My compartment-mates and the conductor were very kind to me. The conductor opened her med kit and fished out some herbal pills made of some kind of mint leaves. At her prescription, I took four of these. My stomach did settle about 90 minutes after that, though whether it was due to the pills or just the effects of time I cannot tell. My head still throbbed, and one of my compartment mates gave me some metholated ointment to put on my temples. I don’t think that did jack for my headache, but his concern and desire to help were genuine. Still, I spent most of Tuesday in the hallway of the sleeper car sitting on a little jump seat with my head resting against a support bar as people squeezed by me. It was pretty sub-optimal.

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I missed dinner and the dining car was closed, but the helpful conductor snuck me some bread, saying that she knew that Westerners like bread and that I really should eat something.

Wednesday morning I woke up starving and craving caffeine. (I think that caffeine withdrawal was in large part responsible for my symptoms. I guess I am an addict. Going cold-turkey’s a bitch.) I then discovered that the dining car was essentially out of food. At one stop, though, I left the train (technically not permitted, but I didn’t care) and quickly bought a pack of ramen noodles from a vendor on the platform. I mixed this with hot water and had my first real food in 48 hours.

We got into Shanghai on time and I happily rendezvoused with my good friend Wu Gang. With his help, I went looking for my luggage. To my surprise, I’d received a call en route saying that my luggage had actually gotten to Shanghai ahead of me. Finding it, however, proved difficult. Again, no one seemed to know where the luggage office was. Finally one knowledgeable worker directed me down the street from the station to another dingy office staffed by four people, three of whom were sleeping at 4:00 in the afternoon. It took a couple of phone calls to the shipping office back in Kunming, however, to determine that while my luggage was indeed in Shanghai, it wasn’t at this office. They did, however, promise to have it delivered there in 30 minutes. And they were better than their word; I had the suitcases 15 minutes later. But the whole luggage tango was nerve-wracking with its lack of clear information and its ad hoc feel.

I still like trains and train travel. Certainly if I hadn’t gotten sick I would have a much better memory of the experience. And to be honest, nothing terrible happened. In my year in Asia, I’ve traveled to eight different countries (China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam) and dozens of towns inside China and never had a real travel problem. So if an uncomfortable 38-hour train ride and a stomach bug were the worst things to befall me, I was actually pretty lucky.

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