We had arranged to meet our friend in Chendgu, and as we planned to spend the greatest part of our time in China in the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, we wanted to get to Chengdu as quickly as possible. We tried to book tickets for either a hard sleeper or soft sleeper while we were in Hangzhou, but every single bed had sold out. We would have to wait four days for the next available sleeper train tickets, which would cut into our plans for the main part of our China trip. So, we reluctantly decided to go forward and buy a 'hard seat' ticket. These words in combination with '18 hours', induce all kinds of horror.
"It won't be so bad," we said. "The seats will have some kind of cushioning," we said. No, no they did not. We boarded the train in Xi'an in hopeful spirits, greeted with the blue covers of the seats "they don't look that hard," I said. They were that hard, solid as a rock, straight as a plank, not one bit of give. We had one saving grace, there were very few people on the train - so we thought we could get some sleep by laying out across a three seat row. That plan was quickly scrapped. Within an hour we arrived at Baoji station, a place which we later found out is a huge gateway, connecting several parts of China by rail. At this station our train carriage was immediately swarmed by what felt like thousands of people, who appeared to be carrying all their worldly possessions in great big sacks. They all seemed to be accompanied by a number of babies. Babies who looked like they had all been rolling around in mud while waiting for the train.
This crowd seemed to take assigned seats very seriously, so Ben and I were separated. I ended up sandwiched in the middle of five men (one of whom did not take assigned seating so seriously, and took my window seat!) who appeared very confused by me. Ben had the worst luck and ended up in the midst of several mothers and their many, many babies.
The seventeen or so hours that proceeded this were long, uncomfortable and in a lot of ways eye-opening. Most of the many, many people who boarded the train were of a Chinese ethnic minority group (I'm not sure which one). This is the first time I had closely encountered a large group of people of a Chinese minority, it was quite fascinating. Although they were all Chinese citizens, from China (we got talking to one person who spoke some English and told us more about them) they speak a completely different language, although my Mandarin is very basic, I could tell that whatever language they spoke sounded nothing like Mandarin at all. They also look very different from Han Chinese.
An interesting fact we learnt from this train journey - the one baby per family rule enforced by the Chinese government only applied to Han Chinese, families from ethnic minorities were allowed to have two children during this time. Which may explain the amount of babies everywhere.
The guy who could speak some English told us that most of the people on the train had just finished a stint of labour work in the North of China, they return to their home town (I think somewhere towards Tibet) during the winter, as the conditions are too brutal to do outdoor work in the Northern provinces during this time.
At first, when all these people descended on the train, I was genuinely quite scared - it was like a scene from the news of refugees evacuating. I couldn't help but imagine two travellers visiting England, who happen to find themselves on a train which gets invaded with football fans post match. Our fear quickly melted away in this situation, however I think as a traveller to the UK, landing yourself amoungst an invasion of British football fans would be a thoroughly traumatising experience.
Once the chaos had settled down, it was evident that these people were genuinely interested in us. Despite the language barrier (even my classic line "wǒ shì yīng guó rén" (I am English) which usually goes down a treat, fell completely lost on them). They showed us kindness, shared food, and once someone who could translate a little bit of English was found, had many questions to ask us, and likewise us for them.
Aside from the huge amount of discomfort, 0 hours of sleep, and copious amounts of urine on the floor (..babies). It was certainly an interesting, memorable experience.