China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Elsewhere in Asia: The Hard-Sleeper

August 18th, 2011

The cot is thin and narrow, maybe twenty-eight inches wide, and set so close to the ceiling of the train car that there is barely room to crawl into it, much less sit up. Until I’d actually seen it, I was convinced that I’d purchased a ticket for a “soft-sleeper” car, one with cabins of just four people with doors that can be locked for safety and thick mattresses. Clearly, I was wrong.

In the eleven years I’ve been traveling to China, this is the first time that I’ve ever taken a long-distance train. It wasn’t that I was avoiding them—in the US I’d almost always rather take a train than deal with the discomfort and hassles of air travel—it was just that I’d never had the time before to travel around the country. Then, a few weeks ago, my friend Ari invited me to go with her to Chengdu while she photographed a story for Saveur. After spending two weeks in the US, Josh and I were too broke to afford a plane ticket, but we decided that I should go by sleeper train, a twenty hour-long trip.

The problem is, I’d waited too long to buy my ticket. The first day that I’d intended to go, we discovered that our home phone had suddenly stopped working and that the company that we relied on for potable water had moved, without any notice, out of the offices they’d occupied in the bottom of our building. By the time Josh located their new place, a few blocks away, and I’d explained to them where we lived, my day was shot. The following day I was waylaid once again, this time waiting for the plumber to come by and snake our pipes for the fourth time in two months. So by the time I got to the train station, it was the day before I needed to travel, and my options were limited. I purchased the only sleeper ticket available for that day and hoped for the best.

Unable to sit up in my berth, I commandeer one of the eight inch-wide seats along the far side of the wall as the train begins to move. I’m glad that I packed myself lunch and dinner the night before. I’m glad I’ve brought an enormous bottle of water and a couple extra books since I won’t be able to plug in my computer and work all day as I’d hoped. And yet, while the trip will be less physically comfortable than it would have been in a soft-sleeper, I somehow feel safer in a car full of people than I might have in a locked room with just a couple unknown roommates. I settle in and watch my fellow passengers. A middle-aged woman with dyed red hair rearranges her luggage. A young woman wearing an outfit of full camouflage, from her t-shirt and cargo pants to her cropped jacket, listens to music and stares out the window. In the bunks next to mine, a family with two sons, aged about ten and thirteen, play cards. At the far end of the car a small child of about two years old with a shaved head and split pants dances and sings in the aisle, shaking a large bowl of instant noodles as if it is an instrument.

We pass fields of corn and sunflowers, a couple of horses grazing outside an abandoned building and a small herd of cows walking, unattended, down a dirt road, villages full of red brick houses that looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries and others that looked like they’ve all been built from scratch just a few months ago. I finish a novel and started another, take pictures and write in a notebook.  Train attendants come in and out pushing trolleys full of fresh fruit or bottled drinks. When lunchtime rolls around, most of the passengers make their way to the hot water dispensers at the end of the car to make instant noodles. The boys in next to me wrestle in their bunks while their mother peels herself grapes. The father comes over to sit next to me and looks over my shoulder at my notebook, then informs me that he can’t read English. “Well,” I tell him, “I can’t really read Chinese.” I hear the boys debating whether the device I’m taking pictures with is an iPod, and I show them the photos I’ve taken. A lunch cart comes by for those who didn’t bring their own, its aluminum trays full of rice, pork with peppers, and shredded stir-fried potatoes, all of which is scooped onto disposable trays—a mobile cafeteria steam table, minus the steam. I eat some sliced apples I bagged up that morning, dipping them into peanut butter, and everyone stares while I eat, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the peanut butter, or the fact that I’m eating with my hands, or that I didn’t peel the apple that has them so riveted. All of these things are very un-Chinese. When everyone is done eating, they lie down for a mid-day nap, and I lie on my bunk to read.

The train climbs into the mountains, and by mid-afternoon we are making our way through a series of long, dark tunnels. When we emerge from one, I look down, out of the window, straight into a gaping valley. With a jolt of vertigo, I remember the train that crashed and fell off of a tall trestle bridge just a few weeks ago. I climb down to look.

We hug the mountains, steep sharp valleys on one side, corn crawling as high up the hillsides as it can get on the other. Everyone who’s awake watches the windows, waiting for each break in the tunnels’ darkness. The snack carts come by again, along with an attendant with a broom, sweeping up any detritus left from lunch. For the most part my fellow passengers have either forgotten about me or simply don’t care too much that there’s a foreigner in their midst. All except for one little boy, a couple bunks over, who offers me some candy he’s been clutching in his fist all afternoon, then occasionally pops his head around the corner to wave hello.


Toward evening, we creep into the large, industrial city of Zhongshan, crawling along at a snail’s pace for ten minutes before stopping at the train station, then reversing direction and moving backwards, the other end of the train leading. We edge back down to larger valleys and wide, flat fields, but the crop of choice is still corn, just as it was in the mountains. I had no idea that this part of the country was so blanketed with it. They eat plenty of corn in China, but not nearly enough to justify this. They must be growing feed for every pig in the country up here. It’s like riding through China’s version of Iowa, but with scraggly pine trees dotting the hills.

The sun sets as we eat, casting golden shadows worthy of Tuscany on the countryside. The food cart comes by again, the trek to the hot water dispenser repeats itself, and I pull out a pasta salad. “Where did you buy that food?” one of the boys next to me asks. “I made it,” I say. “It’s American food.” “Wah!” both boys gasp, in unison, and bounce up and down on their bunks. “American food!” the younger one tells his mother, and it occurs to me that for all the foreigners they must see wandering around Kunming, this might be the first time they’ve ever seen American food that doesn’t come from a McDonald’s or a K.F.C. I wish I’d packed a fork instead of chopsticks so that they could get the full effect.

When it gets dark, everyone turns in early. I read for a while longer, but at exactly ten minutes after ten, the lights in the train car turn off, and I’m left in darkness, glad I’d climbed up into my bunk a few minutes before. The bunk itself feels quite narrow, and once I’m lying down, I realize that it’s short enough that my toes are hanging off of the end, but the cot, covered in pleather, isn’t as hard as I would have thought, and the linens are clean, so I doze off, my computer stashed underneath my pillow and my purse tucked against the wall, next to my ribs. I wake a few times throughout the night when the train stops on a siding to let an express pass or when passengers who are not going all the way to Chengdu disembark, having reached their stations at two or three in the morning. But I sleep enough.

In the morning, the lights come back on at 6:30, giving me just enough time to glimpse some small farms filled with apple orchards, lotus beds, and loquat trees before the train pulls into the city, a little after 7am. We all look a little groggy and worse for wear as we file off the train, our clothes wrinkled and the marks of our pillows still impressed into our cheeks. As I lug my suitcase onto the platform, I feel a shooting pain in my neck and realize that a night on the hard sleeper has taken its toll. Maybe next time, I tell myself, I’ll take the soft-sleeper. But even as I contemplate the prospect of a soft bed and room to roll over on my next trip, I know that it won’t be nearly as much fun.

Photos: Georgia Freedman (7)