Real China on the Rail: Sit Hard

From Kunming to Chengdu, September 15-16th 2010

When I stood in line to get onto the train, I watched the other passengers. I watched the way they dressed. I watched the stuffs they brought in their hands. My dream of a sweet night dream on a cozy seat in the train faded further away.

This is a shot I made with my cellphone. I looked at the result on my screen. It looked just like the photo of hard seat I had seen in the internet. I couldn't believe the difference between the actual view I was facing around me and the view on my cellphone screen. How can I capture and make it look just the way it is? Probably the internet hadn't been cheating either.

The seats weren't hard as board. They had some foam. But the ones right next to the window were the worst ones. So bad that you can feel a significant step between one seat and another. Hours later I understood why. When the train is not fully occupied, the passengers will move to the seats right next to the window, stretch, eat or sleep. So the seats right next to the window are ones most frequently sit on.

The back seat stood almost ninety degrees upright. All the three seats on a row are attached together and cannot be switched into any direction.

I use to sit with my legs up and cross-legged. It didn't feel comfortable as the seat wasn't wide enough. My legs are actually short. But sitting cross-legged left no space on the seat for one third of my legs from my knees. I pulled my camera backpack and let my knees rest on top of it. I had extended the width of the seat with my camera backpack.

Without knowing, I had given 1 ticket to Yudi which turned out to be a seat that faced forward and just next to window. My seat faced backward and was just next to the alley. The beautiful view of big China on the way from Kunming to Chengdu was also on Yudi's side. A slight regret crept inside me. If only I knew, I would have taken that ticket.

Suddenly Yudi looked at me and said, "Do you want to sit here and take pictures?"

I hesitated. I was too proud to accept his offer. But when he said he wanted to go to our friends' compartment that had hard sleepers, I gladly took his seat -- and took pictures.

Quite awhile later Yudi returned and sat on the seat where I had sat, facing backwards. I slightly hoped it would last until morning. But suddenly again he came to me and said he felt dizzy because of facing backwards. So we switched seats again.

Luckily sitting facing backwards has never ever made me feel dizzy. Rather than the backwards move, I wanted the window side much more. If I could lean half of my body on the window, I would be like sitting in corner. By sitting in a rather diagonal position, there would be more space to put my up-crossed-legs.

Until that moment I had always thought that I can sleep easily even while sitting. I was proud that I thought I didn't need a place to lay flat that would make me asleep. I didn't know that if the seat wasn't wide enough, I would be uncomfortable. I didn't know that my standards of comfort were still quite high. I saw the other locals being in perfect comfort. If they can, why can't I?

I started to count down the hours left of the more than 19 hours journey. I made myself visualize in mind the conditions of banged up travelers abroad which I had seen on television. After that, I opened my eyes and looked around me, feel the air condition,  and realized that I was actually safe. It made me feel much better. I just imagined that those travelers being banged up in a dark room or even dungeon, would give anything if they were offered an escape by train like the one I'm riding on now.

When I finally got out of the train and stepped on Chengdu Railway Station's platform, I felt exactly like described by an American traveler from Urumqi to Beijing by train for 48 hours in The New York Times here.

"I sat by the window to get in a few final pages of “Dead Souls,” and came across these apt words spoken by Gogol’s itinerant hero: “To have a look at the world, at people’s daily round — no matter what anyone says, it’s like a living book, a second education.” So just before noon, I arrived at Beijing West Station, an unshowered but happy graduate of the T70 University of Chinese Studies."

I have made it, too. I have graduated from K114 University of Chinese Studies, also.

On my next post, I'll tell you about the people in this K114. It's still another story of the real China I had experienced, firsthand, on the rail.

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