Stepping into a train station in China can be intimidating—they are crowded, loud, and often dirty. Because train travel is still the cheapest form of long-distance transportation for China’s 老百姓 or “average Zhous” , they draw a certain crowd: middle- to working-class Chinese, often from the countryside. That being said, all of these factors drive away finicky tourists and reward the intrepid traveler with a slice of unfiltered China.
Sleeper trains are cozy, all narrow hallways and compartments with six slim bunks, three to a side.
Everyone has a different opinion about which bunk is the best: top (上), middle (中) bottom (下). I personally prefer the middle bunk, which affords more privacy than the bottom bunk, the designated communal sitting space, and is less claustrophobic than the top.
For better or worse, you’ll be getting cozy with your bunk mates for the duration of your ride, so you might as well be familiar with them.
1. The Chatty One
This is the guy that finds out you’re interested in Chinese culture and talks your ear off. He may not let you get a word in edgewise, but his advice is usually solid. (This guy was so animated I couldn’t even sneak a clear photo!)
2. The Curious Kiddo
This little guy probably hasn’t had much experience with foreigners before, and certainly not this close. Part cultural exchange, part 老外 (laowai, foreigner) petting zoo.
3. The Obnoxious Snorer
If you encounter this guy, you better hope you have earplugs/headphones. You may never see his face, but you’ll DEFINITELY hear him.
4. The Party Berth
That’s right, it’s time to break out the pijiu/baijiu. Remember, you’ve got a long way to go, so it’s best to avoid getting into a drinking contest with your new Pengyou.
5. The Snack Attack
This person comes prepared. They have an amazing assortment of fruits, chips, seeds, and various other snacks. Some appealing, some…not so much. (*sidenote: the selection of train fare is sparse and expensive, so these guys have the right idea, even if their snacks might not be your personal palate pleaser.)
6. The Adoptive Family
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a taste of Chinese hospitality via temporary adoption (although it might not be clear who is adopting who…). Expect lots of pictures and maybe even to wechats with these folks.
(Other honorable mentions include the aloof but curious observer, the security personnel, and your travel companions.)
With a little flexing of your Mandarin muscles and curiosity, train rides can provide one of the best environments to break down the “laowai barrier” and see a very genuine side of Chinese culture.
Train travel may not be your idea of traveling in style or comfort, but the interesting people, the stunning scenery just outside your window and the sense of adventure you’ll get from the experience make it all worth it.
No matter who you meet on the train, you’re sure to have an interesting ride and a story to tell by the time you disembark. Be sure to make some 朋友s and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride!
What kind of people have you met on overnight trains? Leave a comment below and let us know!