By train from Xi’an to Tianshui, a fairly slow, but comfortable way of traveling in ‘soft sleeper’ class.
As we had a train to catch, we did not linger around too long in Xi’an, and made our way to the railway station. We had purchased ‘soft sleeper’ tickets to our next destination, a place called Tianshui, about seven hours from Xi’an. China being a socialist country there are no classes, not even on the train. But as the old party bosses soon realised that travelling with the masses on ‘hard seats’ was not really in line with their self-appointed status, they introduced ‘soft sleeper’ for themselves, and in order to keep the lower party ranks happy, ‘hard sleeper’ for the lower party ranks. Well, I am not sure whether this is historically correct, but the fact is that one can choose between ‘hard seater’, ‘hard sleeper’ and ‘soft sleeper’. The difference between hard seater and hard sleeper is a truly hard seat in a usually overcrowded compartment, compared with a bunk in a half closed compartment of six. The bunks are vertically stacked three high; everybody sits on the lower, which gets pretty filthy pretty quickly, and nobody wants the upper bunk either, where you have just 30 cm headroom and a continuous struggle with claustrophobia, so the fight is on for the middle bunk. Even so, all bunks suffer equally from heavy smoking and from loud debating anywhere in the carriage, due to the half open nature of the compartment (did I say half closed, earlier on?). Chinese are generally either smoking heavily, or debating loudly, or both. The luxury option is the soft sleeper, a bunk in a compartment, which can be closed, with four beds only, i.e. only two beds above each other. In the better trains each compartment has a fan, train stewards fill the hot water bottle regularly, and the little table has a small table cloth and a vase with plastic flowers: very comfortable. In the lesser trains the carpets are filthy, windows do not open, and are dirty, and especially when you have a cabin near the end of the carriage, the sounds of spitting may be overwhelming, at times, as the area between carriages has been declared a free-for-all. But you learn.
The ride to Tianshui was fairly uneventful. The train runs, slowly, through cultivated areas, with people working the fields, predominantly using hand tools and oxen, baby either on the back or left under a parasol. At every station mobile food stalls populate the platform, sellers trying to vend their snacks, soft drinks and warm beers. The idea of cool-boxes has not yet caught on in China, despite soaring temperatures in summer. Somehow, the timings of train arrivals are such that, almost always, two trains from opposing directions pull into the station at the same moment, two or three platforms away: this keeps twice as many food sellers at work.
Continue: In Tianshui (1)