Train tickets for sleeping berths between Beijing and Pingyao (a touristic city about 12 hours south of the Chinese capital) are quite hard to get. Instead of traveling on a different date – where beds would be available for that overnight ride – I did choose to go “soft seat”. This means essentially a journey in third class, having just a seat.
The reality is actually much worse than that. Once on the train, my seat was taken by people without reservation. They would quickly vacate my seat, once they figured out that I had a reservation – but then they’d just would seat next to me. Means, two seats would occupy three persons. And I wasn’t the only traveler in this situation – my estimate is that the train left Beijing with about 15% more passengers than seats.
During the journey, each time when I was leaving my seat to go to the toilet, to have a smoke or to get some hot water, I would find it occupied by a sleeping person upon return. So I was quite busy communicating with the Chinese – essentially by chasing away squatters.
On top of that, my seat neighbor was drunk and had eaten lots of garlic prior that day. And he was about to eat a very smelly (but probably tasty) grilled chicken right when we left Beijing. He was clearly upset by having a European-sized neighbor and made clear and angry gestures that he felt uncomfortable by me stealing “his” legroom. Probably as a revenge, he tried to wipe his oily hands under the table – after having finished his meal – by using my pants as a napkin substitute. I gave him the stare of Darth Vader and actually smacked his hand.
Since I also had little legroom left, I decided after two hours into the journey to stand instead in the smoker’s compartment. This is simply the area where the car doors are located. At least I would have some space there – and smokers tend to be the friendlier persons with whom you’d enter quickly into a friendly conversation.
At first, this worked out quite fine. I picked up a few words of Chinese and some guy did let me play some kind of a “Mario brothers” clone game on his mobile phone. We had a bit of a competition in who was the better gamer (me, obviously). But then, the train stopped several times and it seemed that for each person leaving the car, at least three others were boarding. Needless to outline that the smokers area filled up very quickly, too. People were lying on newspapers on the floors. The car attendant even had to deal with people trying to use the toilets as a sleeping or baggage area.
However, the Chinese people are very eager to please tourists and I was offered more than once to have a seat when a person was leaving the train at a stop. They were clearly not comfortable seeing an European in the same situation as they were in. But I refused several times, because I simply would not want to end up with the little legroom the Chinese trains do offer. However, after five hours standing near the doors, I gave in. By that time it was 3 o’clock in the morning and I was desperate to catch some sleep. So I sat down on one of the next seats offered to me. But then again, the train would stop every hour or so and people went off and on the car with all the disturbances that come with it: Storing the luggage, shouting, stumbling over people who are sleeping on the floor, etc.
Moreover, one guy was trying to sleep standing in the aisle, by using my headrest as a kind of fixture for his arms, preventing me to lean back. The other guy next to me changed his position every two minutes, pushing my legs away. And the lady sitting at my right was not very amused being touched by a Westerners legs.
To make a long story short: I had about one hour of sleep in total, which were split in a dozen or so power napping minutes. But it was an experience and I took it with the best of the humor possible. Nevertheless, third class in China will be off-limits to me in the future (contrary to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan where 3rd class “Platzkartny” is actually quite comfortable).
About two hours before arrival in the morning, the mood of the people on the train got much more relaxed, since a lot of people were leaving at stations. It seemed that finally everyone was able so sit down somewhere. By that time, I had a very nice conversation with a Chinese student who was speaking as much English as I do speak Chinese. But the conversation was nevertheless very entertaining and friendly. That moment compensated for the painful night.
Consequently, the first thing upon arrival in Pingyao was to catch some sleep in the hostel. The hostel is quite nice, located in a former governor’s house, with several large courtyards, surrounded by the dormitories. I ended up in a dormitory on the first floor of the main building. Waking up every morning feels like being back in time somewhere in the 18th century in rural China. Adding to this illusion is the fact that the core of this touristy place is closed to traffic. Walking down the stairs to the shared shower in the courtyard, the birds, trees and the sunrise are the perfect start for a nice day. This is the ideal place to get some rest, do laundry, plan for the trips ahead and read that book which I never bothered to open since the start of my journey.