Anyone (especially my parents, or the folks I just visited in Hunan province) will tell you that I’m a huge train dork. I’ve loved trains since I was a kid, and remain convinced that – with the possible exception of the motorcycle and the definite exception of my own feet – they are the most awesome form of transportation available.
This thesis is supported by innumerable subpoints, vast swathes of objective (in my mind) supporting evidence. For example: Trains are great because you don’t need to drive. You can sit, sleep, or get up and walk around. The ride is comparatively smooth, so you can do lots of things, from reading and writing to dancing and singing, without falling over. You might, depending on the train, travel at unbelievably fast speeds. You see interesting parts of the countryside. You can meet lots of friendly people, and with them share conversations and food and drink and experiences.
Traveling on trains in China is especially great due to this last point. On nearly every Chinese train ride I’ve experienced, I’ve been questioned and accosted and harangued and generally engaged into the conversations and arguments and meals and drinks – even into the games of truth-or-dare – of my fellow passengers. I’ve gotten into heated discussions about everything from American gun control to Lady Gaga and from the minority experience in China to the vagaries of French politics and Qinghai province exports. I’ve been invited to share innumerable homemade delicacies, from Muslim chicken recipes to marinated tofu to moonshine strong enough to make the eyes crinkle and the throat tighten. Trains are no more or less than the Chinese experience, distilled and concentrated into a sinuous line of cars rattling along a winding, lonely track.
I’ve been living the train life recently, taking trips from Beijing to Nanjing to Zhuzhou to Hengshan to Changsha to Lanzhou to Xining within the past ten days. Three of these were overnight sleeper trains, two were impossibly crowded local trains and one was a gaotie, China’s new high-speed train. And despite inevitable comparison, it’s impossible for me to say which was best. Each form of train has its’ advantages and drawbacks. The overnight trains are perhaps the most comfortable, and the best for group activities (truth-or-dare, card games) and making friends, but can be extremely long; the sanitary state of the toilets also rapidly declines as the hours pass. The local trains, due to enforced proximity, are the best for random conversation, but are painfully crowded and often slow. The gaotie is truly awe-inspiring for its speed (307 kilometers per hour on my train), but its businesslike atmosphere and pretensions of luxury stifles conversation.
It is said that, at any given time, 10 million people are traveling on Chinese trains. Some, especially those who have never experienced the mayhem of the Chinese train station ticket line, may find this figure staggering. Others, myself included, find that it undersells the Chinese railway network. For Chinese trains, and the experiences to be had within their carriages, encompass a whole universe of being. They encompass the good (the goodheartedness of people), the bad (the food, the music, the announcements) and the ugly (the bathrooms). They include the ridiculous (spontaneous karaoke) and the surprisingly enjoyable (instant noodles). They are one of those institutions that are memorable simply because they encompass nothing more or less than the entire absurd comedy of existence. For what are we all doing if not riding on a train, a compartment alternately filthy and clean, with fellow passengers of every imaginable diversity, towards destinations unknown yet – with curiosity, excitement, joy, wonder – soon to be discovered?