July 3, 2016
The night train from Wuhan to Urumqi was one of the best (and absolute worst) experiences of my life. There were no seats left, so I had to buy a standing ticket for a 36 hour trip from practically east to all the way west. Locals warned me beforehand: “it’s not what you think it will be, are you really sure you want to do this?”
After entering the train, I lowered myself to the floor in frustration after finding the train completely packed like it was a Chinese New Year migration (I had already traveled for 18 hours straight with little rest and not enough food). People kept walking back and forth; some gave me stares. I got punched and pushed around as I sat there on the floor for at least an hour and I was thinking to myself:
“I’m getting off at the first stop.. I can’t do this anymore”
..But then a man noticed how much I was struggling and offered me half a seat as he stood up. “We’ll switch places when I get tired,” he said. It wasn’t just because I was foreign; as I looked around, people were giving strangers temporary seats everywhere and started talking to their neighbors and offering each other food. “We’re all having a hard time, it’ll get better once we get to Xi’an tomorrow around noon”, the man told me. The rest of that night I stood/sat on the floor and occasionally took an empty seat for 5 minutes…
Word got ’round that I spoke Chinese. “Everyone on the train is talking about you, the foreign girl with the big eyes” a passenger said. From thereon the adventure began. I ate noodles squatting on the floor, I got offered smokes, as you do, and “smoked” disgusting Chinese cigarettes on the toilet together with some factory workers from Urumqi, as we complained about the trip together. An old man from Gansu province proudly showed me pictures of his granddaughter and spoke about his travels in China throughout the years. He had been everywhere but abroad. I told him it’s never too late to travel. He laughed and said: “Young girl, I’m 87. China is big enough for me.” Later on I talked to a bunch of men about foreign cars, specifically German (the only thing they knew about Europe). And one young man majoring in English who made it clear he really wanted a foreign girlfriend, specifically Dutch, more specifically me.
None of these people ever left the country. Most of them came from the countryside or were factory workers. The first morning, the entire train came to see me. They asked questions about literally everything ‘foreign’. Because obviously I knew everything about every country. At some point they wanted me to show them what the Euro looks like, but they had also never seen money from HongKong and didn’t know anything about Taiwan (besides that it belonged to China) or what it was like to have a visa or to travel abroad in general. One guy gave me some cash from Vietnam, asked me to inspect whether or not it was real money. I was the all-knowing foreigner.
At the same time, some people were spitting on the floor and later threw their sunflower seeds into it, some were gargling into the trash can. Teenagers were sleeping on the sink or on the luggage racks. 6 chairs were occupied by 12 people sleeping on top of each other or underneath the chairs. Some kids got sick all over the floor. There were CocaCola bottles filled with pee and cigarettes hanging from the luggage racks on a string and there were mothers from the Nanchang district (apparently, I was told) screaming over everything and hitting their children for no reason; it was normal, my neighbor told me.
Up until then it was actually all bearable.
At the end of day one (19 hours in) I started feeling sick. I lived on little food or water, the windows were not allowed to open, so the only thing I breathed in was the smell of smoke and puke/urine. I took out a plastic bag and sat down on the floor near the toilet areas, preparing myself to throw up. One employee and another traveler sat together and clearly saw I was sick and dying. Then they decided to question me: where I was from, where I was going, why there, how come I speak Chinese, where I learned Chinese..all the while I sat there feeling completely miserable with a plastic bag against my face. Then as I was busy throwing up, one guy took out his phone to take a picture. “Come on, smile, I want to show a picture of the pretty Dutch girl to my friend” one of the men said… I think I kind of lost it there. I didn’t smile.
I got severe stomach cramps and a headache after throwing up. An Uyghur girl I made friends with took care of me. The cramps got really heavy around midnight, and I was unable not to make a scene. I had to stand up and grab my stomach every now and then because of the pain. If I wasn’t already interesting then, I was now. Everyone on the train just stood there and watched me, the only foreigner, for some the only foreigner they ever spoke to, and she was dying; of course you want to watch.
Then came a lot of negotiating with employees and people trying to get me to the nearest hospital, handing me random Chinese medication and like 15 people claiming to know medicine touching my stomach to see where it hurt.. they meant well, they really did. I know if was just any Chinese passenger, they probably wouldn’t have tried so hard. In the end I got what a I wanted though: a bed. Alone. I guess I couldn’t do what they do on a regular basis.. but I tried. Kept it up until 25 hours in.
I met the weirdest, sweetest, craziest, most beautiful people from all over the country and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable at the same time. Everything was so incredibly shit and yet so weirdly amazing. It was a way into a certain kind of Chinese life I would otherwise never experience.
I traveled from Hong Kong to Urumqi by bus, taxi, subway and train. It took me 3 days. It was insane. A lady came to pick me up in Urumqi and hugged me like she was my mother.
Everything’s going to be fine