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China, November 30, 1999

Oh No, Not A Train Ride!

Be sure to take ear plugs on a Chinese train

Hey, get back here and carry my luggage too!
The Beijing-West station
Will all the people who snore board the train first
At least the station is clean
Haven ridden from the Atlantic to the Pacific on all manner of Iron Horses, including a few in my home country, I'd like to think of myself as an expert on trans. With the 10,000+ kilometers of experience, including a stint on the Trans-Siberian, I feel qualified to say that Chinese trains are the most annoying I've ever traveled on.

Now its not because they are old or ill maintained, on the contrary, they are second only to the Warsaw-Vilnius train in modern amenities and plush surroundings. The trains are much newer and better maintained than any Russian train I've ever experienced. Like the Russian trains, they are also very punctual (too punctual if you ask me!), leaving and arriving exactly on time. Oh and unlike any train in the West, the restaurant car in a Chinese train is worth every quai.

No, it's the Chinese on board and the policies of the conductor that gets my goat. First, unlike and self-respecting Russian, the Chinese seem completely incapable of shutting the doors between train cars, so all the noise, dirt, and cold air sweeps through the cabins. Then, they smoke everywhere, with ashes and butts dropped casually on the floor. Finally, there must be a questionnaire filled out before they buy a ticket, cuz somehow loud snores are heard form at least one person per compartment.

If it were only the ill manners of the people, I would adapt and accept the Chinese train experience, but then the conductors have to play God and really piss me off. They turn on crappy Chinese music, and I mean so bad even the Chinese wince, the second the train starts to roll, never turning it off until they turn out the lights. Yes, the conductors turn out all the lights, throwing the whole wagon into darkness at exactly 10 pm, whether you like it or not. They know your bedtime better than you do, apparently.

It's not bad enough that they tell you to sleep so early, they turn on the lights and the music at the painfully early hour of 6:30 am. That's when the real fun starts. Everyone crowds around the toilets and the room with two sinks for washing. The toilets are simple 'Asian' toilets, with a convenient handle to keep ya from falling in. The sinks are a little trickier since they train onto the floor, with the water sloshing around until the train turns a bend, and it can escape through a hole in the floor.

Luckily, I've only taken three trains in China, though each was an overnight train, and I don't plan on returning to experience any more. I'll leave the Chinese train experience to the Chinese, who seem to endure it a bit better than me. I'm outta here for the joys of Thailand's trains, which I'm sure will be even more intense.

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Before my recent trip to China,knowing full well that I will have to endure 2 overnight train journeys, I checked on a few websites, and horrible toilet tales were the order of the day! But what a pleasant surprise awaited me when I boarded the train from Urumqi to Dunhuang, and again from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou...... clean sitting toilets, with wood toilet cover, were the standard for today's Chinese trains. They even had a special (3 wash basins) room for passengers to clean themselves !I told myself after this trip, not to believe what you read on the net, especially out-of-date and sometimes biased reports.

I am glad you enjoyed your two overnight train rides. Chinese trains, especially the new ones, are sweet. As I said in my post, they can be 'second only to the Warsaw-Vilnius train in modern amenities and plush surroundings.' Its just too bad they are filled with Orwellian conductors and hacking passengers, which after a dozen or so trips, really start to bother.

For a change, take the train from Xian to Chengdu, where a coal-fired steam locomotive pulls ancient carriages through breathtaking mountain valleys terraced in corn and wheat. There are no three-sink marble master suites on that train. Only the breeze to tickle your bum as the tracks pass beneath the hole in the floor.

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