How to (not) take a train in China, from Beijing to the deserts (part 3 of 3) – Travel Diaries

Part 3: Lanzhou to Dunhuang, Wagon 16, Unreserved Seating

This is to date the most memorable train ride I’ve had (wait till we get a bit further along in our trip – may Coco not kill me before then).

In the previous post I described the 24h lead-up to the events here narrated.


At our departing station, Lanzhou, Wagon 16 has steadily filled with people, perhaps amounting to twice the allotted amount of seats. Most people on this train carry the same tickets we do, aptly named “unreserved seating.” A few fortunate ones have designated spots, and kindly ask the intruder to move over, or to sit on the edge of their seat. In some cases, this generosity even extends to letting the less fortunate stranger peacefully sit, at least for a while.

Wagon 16 is governed by ethics unknown to us. Solidarity, do they call it? Add a pinch of that.

We feel lucky. Only one of us has had to give up a seat, so we’re still sharing one for two, which is better off than the multitude of people patiently standing in the aisles, be it for an hour, three, or fourteen.

Some hearty passengers have brought along tiny folding seats; “Are they really going to sit on that for the next ten hours?”

The fact that both Coco and I look Asian, though by no mean do we look like locals, undoubtedly helps. People’s (negative) pre-conceptions are somewhat tamed.

Hence our first two hours are spent comfortably, one might say. We meet Boss, who’s sitting across from us, and has a decent handle on English. He’s wearing quality fake brand clothes, such as his Hugo Boss T-shirt and a Dolce Gabbana belt. At times, Boss offers his seat to a stranger, takes a stroll.

Most of the other passengers are country folk, on a long journey home, to deliver goods bought in the city back to their desert towns.

Sitting to our right, the ‘Provincial Princesses.’ Small-town Fashionistas by the look of it, soda-can-sized heels, colored bangs, twinkly, glittery cell phones. They’re in the middle of a chuckling, clucking conversation, which is going to last about ten of the next fourteen hours (only interrupted by their sleep).

They have two boys – it’s not clear whose is whose – who are restlessly, playfully fighting in the cramped aisle, knocking each other into people’s boxes, elbows and babies. I can’t blame them for their agitation, as the passengers keep pouring in at every stop, and despite the cold of the winter and mountains, the wagon’s temperature has steadily risen.

Perhaps more surprising, nobody seems to care, let alone complain. It seems women and their children, often of very young age, are given a free pass, part of the ethics of solidarity I am discovering in Wagon 16. Thus the Princesses, despite their Unreserved status, are for the most part left alone to chit-chat.

Eventually though, one less complacent man firmly orders the boys to rest, which they do so grimly. The Princesses chatter on, as unnoticing as they are ostentatious.

After about two hours though, a new passenger comes in, and points to the seat we had occupied. We begin our motion to stand, much obliged to cede to him his rightful due, but the young man refuses, to our incomprehension. He politely stands in the aisle, which by now has become so crowded with people and packages that one must wade from one end of the compartment to the other.

I can’t help but imagine there’s some kind of respect, or compassionate understanding, for the woes of foreigners trapped in such dire straits as those of Wagon 16 – but this explanation may be entirely unfounded. There’s undoubtedly a tacit code of conduct, as passengers stand and sit, stand a sit, in a perpetual wave of discomfort and relief.

A few brave, rugged souls stand continuously, as the proud mates on a ship’s observation deck. Other more opportunistic beings rat their way from one seat to the next, spying the next available opening from afar.

Yet never does any argument arise, and always do the owners of a seat get their due, while never abusing of their power.

In the minute corridor that separates the wagons, heroes and dejects stand alike, piled like vertical carcasses, inches away from the ravishly clean toilets – to these Elysian fields we’ll come to eventually.

Even after many hours spent there, the ethics of W16 remain a mystery to me, just as the unfathomable justice of prison may remain unbeknownst to the innocently incarcerated.

Periodically, a conductor walks through the compartment and orders the packages to be somehow jammed onto the crammed luggage racks. How the carriers ingeniously manage to do so I ignore, but NASA could surely call upon them to increase their storage efficiency. Sometimes a food cart makes its tremulous way, as people squeeze their buttocks onto the faces of others.

Feeling guilty, I eventually insist that the young man take his seat. Even then, he kindly offers that Coco splits the edge with him. “Take it, we need to spare our energy.”

It’s been a few hours, maybe half of which have been spent standing, and the heat has grown unbearable. Beads of sweat trickle down the faces of all. In the rows of six seats, eight to ten people huddle together, piling into a few minutes of sleep. The windows have fogged opaquely, freezing cold as it is outside. Beyond, the desert night watches blissfully.

Boss gets up again, asks me to sit down. I politely, foolishly refuse. Luckily, he insists. I’m still wearing my coat, and he suggests I remove it, pats me on my breast pocket – right where I’m keeping an envelope thick with Chinese currency. Did he notice?

Only a minute or two after does he do the same gesture, and pats the envelope again. I don’t like that, ill at ease as I am already, watchful of others as we trek deeper and deeper into unknown provinces. Pretexting a bathroom break, I later discretely remove the envelope into the pocket of my jeans, and when I return to the area, gladly remove my coat.

Boss smiles: “You took all your money out?” I’m irked. Fortunately, he doesn’t mean any harm. At the next stop, he leaves, and with him so does our last friend.

The hours drift by, slower and slower. Coco and I have moved about a dozen times already, gradually mimicking the movements of others, seeking as we can a bit of rest, be it the edge of a seat, or, an even rarer commodity, an entire seat to share for the two of us.

Inexorably though, as the train ceaselessly continues to fill, even at this late hour of the night, we are asked to move over, and left to the mechanical use of our fledgling legs, already worn by 36 hours of commute.

Though grateful for each moment of respite that we get, perhaps even more cruel of a torture – and a proven, tested method I believe, in many of the inhuman legal concentration camps out there, including one Cuban location – is it for us to doze into a minute of gleeful sleep, only to be awoken the next, and set back onto our feet.

Fatigue isn’t the first of our worst enemies though. It’s the heat. The burning, irrational heat, which makes one twitch and ache nervously, till our globular eyes resemble those of maddened beasts, in search of water and prey (seating in this case).

Yet, surprising as it is to us, all of our fellow passengers have remained impassibly stoic amidst the incessant commotion. Even the rowdy boys have coiled near their mothers. They too are beginning to succumb to fatigue.

As Coco says, “They’re used to the fact that there are far too many people.”

I now realize I have no clear recollection of the sequence of events. The fatigue, stress and overall strain of the ride have caused its memory to lack a linear narrative, but by the same token, to be concentrated only on the blubber of its feelings.

A more appropriate account would consist of an inconsequential list of onomatopoeia, glimpses of cloistered sensations: cough, rumble, elbows, cart, cry, sweat, heat, seat edge, dust, smoke, cold…

Midnight has been left lying dead in the desert dust, and the slow hours of night have lost their meaning. Heat, fatigue and general stress have gradually eaten at our will. Coco valiantly stands on in the aisle; she even opens a book, an atypical stance in this partly illiterate crowd.

I look at the Provincial Princesses with a growing sense of disgust. I care little for my own discomfort, after all I have been seeking such conditions, shamelessly wished to experience them, in order to express them afterwards – but Coco? Will someone lend her a seat?

Seven hours into the ride, the last four spent mostly standing up, our wills cave in and we move over to the cramped corner where the toilets are. At any given time, a dozen countrymen occupy the corridor, their grey faces sucking at the cherry of their cigarettes.

The restroom’s door swings open indifferently, revealing a brown and yellow hole unassumingly carved into the metallic floor.

I’ve begun to envy the clairvoyance of the poor lads who knowingly brought their palm-sized folding chairs. Many of them have fitted themselves in corners near the restroom; uncomfortable as they may be, at least they’re not constantly bothered into switching seats.

I’ve given up smoking but gladly bum one and puff away into the thick, smoky air. The nicotine wards off my fatigue, momentarily, buys me a few minutes of livelihood.

This also results into us getting rapidly noticed; the questions turn to stares, mumblings. We regain the main compartment of Wagon 16 under the curious, watchful eyes of a hundred people.

Our respective climaxes come at a slight interval.

Coco has found a temporary seat and is reading her book. Across from her, a gruff woman occupies much of the row – this by reason of a baby cradled in a thick wool blanket, resting by her side. It’s a tough life growing up here, and the baby’s cries have resounded through the wagon periodically. Only recently has he taken to slumber.

A humbly befitted man in his fifties sits next to Coco, his face characteristically unexpressive, stoned in the unconditional, unchanging acceptance of whatever is, and what may be.

The sad baby awakes, resumes crying. The mother lifts the bundle and inspects it with her coarse hands. She rapidly unwraps the blanket, and holds up the baby facing outwards, a yellow stream of piss aimed straight at Coco and the other guy.

Shocked to the point of instinctive reaction, Coco shrieks as she jumps up.

The man’s droopy eyes vaguely consider the damage: some droplets on his pants’ legs. He brushes them off with the back of his hand, uncaringly, while a small, lukewarm puddle oozes at his feet.

With that, Coco’s tolerance reaches a new threshold. Even years later, as she recounts these events: “And the guy, he just brushed it off, like it was nothing…”

After that, she’s happy to read her book standing in the aisle.

Another hour passes, perhaps more. It must be two or three in the morning – we’ve been enduring this for the last nine or ten hours.

To make things worse, since the incident with the baby, we haven’t sat for more than two minutes before being asked to move. I’m beginning to think the locals are making a game of it. After all, we’re clearly the intruders here. Fatigue doesn’t help to make any more sense of it.

The train stops – the larger town of Wuwei perhaps? – and for the first time since our departure, Wagon 16 shows signs of emptying. I gladly collapse in what seems like an empty seat, invite Coco to join.

Enter the Little General: a pudgy, proud, little man wearing a suit and spectacles. The General doesn’t deign to ask us to move, he rudely motions us to move aside.

Suspecting foul play, having all but lost patience with these rigged musical chairs, and enervated to the marrow by the man’s pretense, I resist: “I want to see his ticket.”

The self-entitled man screams in the entire compartment, compensating impotence with a good sense of theatrics. The crowd laughs at the foreigners and the General. At whom in particular it is not clear.

Coco stands. I remain seated for a few moments, take a deep breath, well aware that the battle is uneven. I give in and move down the aisle, ruminating murderous thoughts. All eyes are on us; some more menacingly, others with a hint of compassion.

Whether because the wagon has slightly emptied, or because some passengers feel we’ve been unfairly treated by the General, a couple of people move over for us. We’re grateful, and unceremoniously fall asleep, for almost two hours straight.

From time to time, the song of the conductor resounds through the compartment, a Chinese voice mixed with a guttural, Arabic accent, which will forever remain engraved in my recollection of these hours.

When I awake next, the train has become freezing cold. I pick up our coats from the coat racks and wrap Coco’s around her slender shoulders.

I’m slightly worried about the altercation with the Little General. Could this feisty man have been wounded in his pride, and seek some unwarranted retribution?

In fact, the Little General is standing dejectedly in the corridor near the restrooms. Surprised by this, I check it out for myself. The pride on his face has all but vanished, and I notice the back of his suit is covered in dust, as if he’s been pinned to the ground.

I imagine that during our sleep, he’s been punished by the others for having so wildly screamed at the foreigners. Frankly, I have no idea. Maybe he was a little bit crazy in the first place. As for me, I’m most definitely exhausted, paranoid.

I fear this train may be headed all the way to Urumqi, just a few miles East of Kyrgyztan. This fear is enough to keep me up and aware; I’m not about to sleep through our stop and ride on for another fourteen hours.

Finally, the brakes of the train are heard, the wheels begin to screech. We’re coming to a stop.

I’m left with a last, paradoxical impression: never mind the pee, the muddied aisles, the sweat of generations poured throughout, each passenger is very careful to remove the seat covers before standing on the seat to retrieve their packages from the luggage racks.

We step off Wagon 16, incredulously, as after a lively, exhausting dream – or nightmare.

The shawl of dawn lazily unravels across the skies, revealing Dunhuang’s brand-new train station: a monumental arch of concrete incongruously erected in the middle of the desert. We walk on the platform and the air wraps around us coolly. I do my best to forget about the Little General, the baby’s piss, the brown and yellow hole in the ground, the last fourteen hours, and to remain aware of our surroundings.

Where are we now, will I find what I sought? A mere vision… How senseless the fool who seeks the soothing, liquid soup of one’s sentiments and dreams in the grainy, quantized fabrics of reality… or is he?

Dunhuang, I implore, may you be the oasis of peace you have been for the travelers of all ages!

Next up: a short video to illustrate, if only partially, this rocky train ride.

8 Responses

  1. Difficult to comment from such a comfortable armchair, but that was well worth the read! A tale of survival in an alien environment, except for the common threads of humanity. It felt as if those understandings, assumptions and mysteries were what got you through! Phew!

  2. Experiences like that make us realize how fortunate we are – or how spoiled? 🙂

  3. Salam . It’s a touching story and your detailed narration made it vivd in my mind as if it took place in front of my eyes. May Gord reward you for your ordeal =) We muslim are taught that a traveler’s dua, suplication is answered by God becuase travel is piece of torment in other words for the pain he endures when travelling =)

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Hi, I’m ooa revo. I like to create using different media including Film, Photos, Writing, Animation, Videos, Drawings, Painting, Poetry, newer media such as XR/AR/VR/360, and more! Many stories and work on OOAworld are inspired by world travels, as well as a Movie / Documentary asking people I met along the road: "What's your philosophy in life?" Follow the adventure on OOAworld and social media or by signing up to email updates!