The Overnight Train

February 29, 2008

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As we raid a local convenience store for snacks, my mind is full of thoughts about what the overnight train ride is going to be like. I’ve taken public transit in Europe and back home, but this will be a new experience. We arrive at the train station fairly early, along with the rest of Beijing, to stake out a spot to wait for the train. I’ve never seen this many people in one area, ever. It seems like every square inch of space in the station is occupied by people or baggage. We’re the only foreigners in sight and I can definitely feel their stares. They’re not hostile stares, more of interest and curiosity, and then the camera phones come out. I can’t believe I’m having my picture taken by so many Chinese, now I know I would hate being a celebrity. (Just wait until the Beijing Olympics!)

I’m not sure how so many people fit on one train, even with the bunks that are stacked three high! So I make the poor choice of the top bunk… no head room, but at least people can’t walk by and stare at me while I sleep. After exploring around the train and eating some noodles, I go to sleep even before lights out, but wake up at 4am again.

The train arrives in a city that I expected China to look like. It’s crowded, hazy, and a little run-down. Welcome to Xi’an. As we get off the train, we’re surrounded by locals, pressing in and asking for our train ticket stubs, offering hotels etc. It’s kind of claustrophobic feeling. The night’s sleep was actually pretty good and after a shower and breakfast, it feels like a new day.

First stop, the Muslim Quarter. Xi’an was the end of the Silk Road trade route in China that connected the East to Europe, which is why Xi’an has a small Muslim population. Time for food experiments! The street food is so cheap, that you can just try whatever and if you don’t like it give it away, since you’re spending all of about 20 cents on it. Rule #1 of street food: Make sure it’s hot, watch them cook it and then buy it. My favorite is a yam treat that tastes like honey. After a few hours of wandering, and with a belly full of new and strange foods, I head to the bank to change some Yuan into Yen for the boat to Japan. Chinese bureaucracy at its finest, an hour later, I have some Yen and about 20 copies of my passport signed and stamped.

Dinner is my first Sichuan food experience, apparently they just use more spices in that province. The verdict… not so great, a little hot for my taste. After dinner, we head back to the hotel, and like the rock stars we are, go to sleep at a respectable 9:30pm, while agreeing that we need to go out when we get to Shanghai.