Monday, November 16, 2009

24 Hours of Squalor

Spent our last days in Xi'an tooling around the Muslim Quarter, eating mutton served by Chinese men in skull caps, and popped down to the Tang Dynasty Paradise Theme Park which inspired James to croon, "Your body is a Tang Dynasty Paradise" ad nauseam. Ugh, John Mayer.
At 6 p.m. yesterday we left the hostel for what we thought would be an easy overnight train, arrive in Chengdu at 11 a.m. the next day. What followed was hands-down the filthiest 24 hours of my life.
We bought hard sleeper tickets - 6  bunks to a compartment, no doors - despite warnings from family and friends. The price was right, and Lonely Planet didn't have DIRTY in caps when it described hard sleepers. I thought we'd be fine. Ho ho...
I was also feeling bold because of all the traveling we did in Taiwan: bus, plane, train, taxi, boat. I thought I could handle it. But everywhere in Taiwan has a basic, tenable level of cleanliness that China sometimes lacks.
If you want to see glitzy, rising-power China, the flagship areas and tourist attractions deliver. If you want not-quite-there China, look no further than Xi'an train station.
The trashcans were all overflowing, there weren't nearly enough seats so people squatted on floors and slept on windowsills. Aaaand then our train was delayed three hours.
I passed the time watching a 2-year-old who was banging on a teapot, yelling at his friends, and generally having a fabulous time. It was all adorable until he whipped out his baby penis and pissed on the floor. His mother re-aimed him so he'd miss a man's shoes. But that was it. No clean up action. A man wiped his nose and threw the tissue in the pee puddle. Because, why not at that point, right? Around 10 p.m. James and I made instant noodles for dinner. Another man seated next to us took off his shoe and sock to pick his foot while we ate.
I felt relieved when our train was finally called at 11 p.m. (snow storms were the cause of delay). But that relief only lasted from platform to carriage, as our bed-pod was equally disgusting.
There weren't any lights, but we had to roust the people sleeping on our bottom beds and send them to their top ones. Apparently our bunkmates graduated from the "fuck it" school of hygiene: We picked orange rinds, half-empty pepsi bottles, chocopie wrappers and used tissues off the sheets. Surprisingly, we weren't sharing with feral children, just adults who couldn't be bothered to drop their snot rags on the floor instead of our beds. There was a mountain of trash on the shared table. The overhead bed creaked when the train came to a sudden halt and my first thought was, "If the overhead comes down and breaks my neck I will go to heaven and not have to be on this train for the next 16 hours."
I laid my sweatshirt over my pillow, slept on top of the blanket, and tried very hard not to touch anything while sleeping. The ride was closer to 18 hours (ugh, snow). Our bunkmates weren't any more enjoyable while awake. The woman in the middle bunk chewed sunflower seeds from her bed and spit them into a bag on the lower table, occasionally missing the bag. They also took time out to clean their ears and clip their toenails, charming people. Did I mention there was no flush on the toilet and the sinks ran out of water?
By the time we got off the train and to our hostel, it was 6 p.m. - the journey took a full 24 hours.
The takeaway is we'll be buying soft sleepers from now on (only four to a pod, doors that lock) though they cost twice as much. We had to make our own mistake, it was an experience. And I now know just how far my spirit of adventure extends.

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