The Scrum on the Beijing-Shanghai Train
|Our Correspondent||May 10, 2007|
The elderly Chinese man in the small booth behind the thick glass waved his hand and shook his head. I didn't need to know a word of Chinese – I know exactly 11 – to understand there were no beds available for the Thursday night train from Beijing to Shanghai.
I looked down at the pathetic sheet of school-issued stationery on which my student had written, in Chinese characters, my train ticket request. My allergy-induced irritated eyes conveyed my helplessness. I had a Friday morning rendezvous with a college friend, Ted Albrecht, a 24-year-old St. Louis businessman who sold cheap handbags in America that he bought cheaper in China. It was imperative I be on that train.
The Chinese people in line behind me became irritated – more with actually waiting in line than with my inability to purchase a ticket. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so, quite naturally, I squatted. I assumed, correctly, that this was the international symbol for "are there any hard seats available?"
There were, and, 186 yuan later, I had made one of the most ill-considered decisions of my life. But hindsight is 20/20 and with the advancements in Lasik surgery is that even good enough?
I had heard countless horror stories from fellow travelers about their all-night miseries but they had gone in one ear and out the other. I am tougher than them, I thought as I approached train T 109 and my prison -- I mean seat -- in carriage two.
Carriage four was packed tighter than a retired Italian Mafioso into a Speedo. This must be for the working class I rationalized, until I walked by carriage number three, which was even more crowded. A tremor of fear reverberated through my body.
I entered my carriage and had to step over the passengers already claiming first dibs on the aisle floor. I checked my ticket. I was seat 109, which, coincidently was the same number as the train. I mistakenly foresaw this as a good omen. I scanned the numbers below the luggage rack to identify my seat.
Very quickly, since my seat was near the train's entrance, I found 109 and confirmed with my ticket that this was in fact my seat. The Chinese man sitting in it, however, seemed determined to differ. I panicked. I am a man who usually avoids confrontation and so I walked past my seat, as if still looking, to buy myself more time. I came to a conclusion. I had two options: A) Be a man and confront the freeloader and claim what was rightfully mine or B) Wimp out and spend the next 13 hours cowering in a corner.
Nine out of ten times I choose option B, but at that moment, every square inch of conceivable space had already been claimed, so there wasn't even a corner in which to cower. So, I mustered up some bravado and presented the man with my proof of ownership. He looked at my ticket and, quite surprisingly, moved.
Adam: one. Train: zero. The tides would quickly turn.
When I first purchased my ticket I had been apprehensive that they would not have enough seats. Ah, how naïve I was. Not having a ticket that correlated to a seat didn't inhibit anyone because the aisles were seats, the tables between official seats were seats, the laps of other passengers were seats, even other people's luggage were seats. My feet rested on a mountain of that luggage as my knees knocked against the girl's across from me. It is ironic that my friend sells Chinese-made handbags since the majority of these Chinese travelers toted their belongings in shoddy plastic bags. An hour into my odyssey one such bag, containing bottles of a mysterious liquid, broke open and soaked my book-bag, which contained my clothes for the weekend.
The score was now tied.
About midnight my eyelids became heavy and I was ready for the lights to dim, some jazz music to come on and my date with Ms. ZZZZ to commence. But, like hell, the room remained bright and hot. I tried to persevere and was even able to wriggle into a sleeping position, which left my neck so crooked I tempted paralysis.
It is here I must make a confession: I have a small bladder. It is a curse that has defined my life. I dehydrate myself before embarking on perilous journeys (I define perilous as any time I do not have complete control over bathroom breaks). The man next to me drank a Coca-Cola, a bag of milk, an Afternoon Tea and a bottle of water and over the course of 13 hours he didn’t move once – not even to
stretch. Finally, at 3:02 a.m., threatening internal combustion, I maneuvered over and around my sleeping, umoving neighbor, and made my way to the bathroom.
It was at this time the train stopped to let off passengers, thereby locking the bathrooms. While I waited patiently in line, happy to simply stretch my legs, small Chinese ladies wriggled their way past me like National Football League halfbacks eluding defenders. Although I could barely see these women through the dense cloud of smoke created by the incessant chain-smoking.
After five minutes of waiting, angry shouts could be heard from the other end of the carriage. Chinese, with its various tones, can be an aggressive-sounding language and, with my 11 words, I often mistake joy for anger. Not this time.
A fistfight had broken out, although judging by the viciousness of the blows it would be more aptly described as a pillow fight. The conductor, in an athletic feat rivaling anything that will occur during the Beijing Olympics, sprinted down the cramped aisle, hurdled sleeping passengers and terminated the donnybrook in one swift motion.
The action died down. The cigarette smoke did not. It made downtown Beijing look like the headquarters for the environmental movement. My father is a smoker so I was well seasoned. The guy next to me was not. He violently vomited first in his hand and then on the floor.
The train took the lead.
It was then that the conductor opened up the bathroom stall, which, if the guy hadn't already thrown up he would have now. Its contents were beyond literary description. The conductor promptly closed the door and opened the other.
It was occupied.
The spunky old man who had cut in before the small ladies and me, didn't care and forced the door open. Now, a Chinese train bathroom is not the Ritz Carlton and there are few places on earth where I would want to spend less time, however, three grown Chinese men were congregated inside this tiny bathroom. It was like they were having a party and all of our feces were invited. Turned out they were stowaways who were immediately escorted off the train.
It was then, after I finally used the now vacant bathroom, I concluded that the train had defeated me and the philosophy of my sleeping neighbor was the creed to live by: if you get a seat on a train, don't move.