24 Hours to Beijing; Standing Room Only

Shenzhen is at the southern edge of China. If you went any further south, you’d fall in the water. And then a short swim later, you’d be at Hong Kong.

Beijing is in the north. It’s in the name, even. Bei Jing: North Capital. Nanjing, better known as Nanking, is literally “South Capital”.  “East Capital” was already used by another city, so China didn’t get that one: DongJing. The locals pronounce those same characters ToKyo instead of DongJing. If there’s a XiJing, a West Capital, I haven’t yet heard of it.


From south, as south as China gets to North, most of the way to Mongolia with Siberia just a little past that: That’s the journey from Shenzhen to Beijing. It’s 24 hours by train.

I buy my ticket the day beforehand. I show up at the counter with “Shenzhen: 18/7/2013; Beijing: 19/7/2013; Hard Seat” written on it in the best Mandarin characters I can manage. The attendant looks at it and answers back in clear English: “No hard seat left. Standing only.”

Well, this will be an experience. 24 hours across China, standing room only.

2PM, the next day, the train departs. Our car is packed. Most chairs have someone standing between them, and four of us are clustered at the back, by the locked door to the baggage car. There’s a bit of room here. Some folks have brought tiny fold-out chairs. I sit on my briefcase.

It’s not so bad. It’s not so good. It’s sociable. Having a westerner in the Hard Seat car draws smiles and no small bit of amazement. People want to talk. My Mandarin is still poor and only a few of them remember any English from their schooling. Every few minutes we wedge to the side to let the conductors get into their rest compartment, the luggage car, or the electrical room.

Where am I from? We wedge to the side to let a train worker into the electrical cabinet. What do I do? We wedge to the other side to let the conductor into his rest compartment. Why did Snowden do what he did? We wedge back against the side to let the conductor back out. How long am I in China? We wedge to the side to let a train worker check the luggage car behind us. Is Snowden still in Russia?

Things get a little gross as time passes. Spitting is acceptable in Chinese culture. People will just hawk one up, loud as they can, on the sidewalk. The back of the train holds the trash bag, which is the place to spit on the train. So people come back, hock, and spit, every few minutes. Meanwhile, we shift to the side to let another train worker past, this time to check the luggage car or twist another knob in the electrical cabinet, or take a 10 minute nap before they’re called back to duty again.

It could be worse. The end of the car is normally also the place where people go to smoke. Blessedly, smoking is shut down for car end. I don’t know why, but people are constantly coming back to our section with cigarettes and being turned back by the people around me. It’s hard enough being in the spitting section. Being in the smoking AND spitting section would be a bit much.

Thursday, August 8th, 2013 Journals

3 Comments to 24 Hours to Beijing; Standing Room Only

  • Alan B says:

    Such experiences build character 😉 But–you’re traveling with a briefcase? I choose to visualize it firmly handcuffed to your wrist.

    I remember the spitting.

    • Sam Brown says:

      That’s actually the model of satchel I have: It’s the same one movie prop managers use when they want to handcuff an important briefcase to a character. I get that comment face to face a few times a year. “Where’s the handcuff?”

      Oh, and the Great Firewall has locked down, as we feared it might. I’m almost, but not entirely cut off of Facebook again. I can post still, but that’s about it.

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