On the evening of March 5th we rode our first overnight sleeper train from Beijing to the historical/tourist town of Pingyao. We've taken trains in the US, Europe, and in Japan before for half-day/day journeys, but never slept in one.
We'd been warned about how crazy Chinese train stations would be. They were indeed teeming with people running in each and every direction. Having taken the trains in Japan, that didn't bother us so much. (I remember it being hard to deal with at first in Japan, though.) The main thing we were paranoid about was getting our stuff stolen. The one unique thing was the waiting area. We had an hour before the train left so we poked our heads into the hard seat (lower class) waiting area, and it was stuffed to the gills with people. There didn't seem to be seats (maybe they were along the wall), and the floor was so crowded with people that I don't think we could have worked our way through the crowd, if we wanted to. They were crowded up to the entrance of the room.
We weren't sure about the food on the train, so we decided to get food in the station while we could. The guy in fast food nation must have been right, because I was irrationally attracted to the warm inviting breast-like shape of the golden arches. (It's funny to hear them say 'I'm loving it!' in Chinese in their Chinese commercials.) Disappointingly, they didn't seem to have anything special on the menu except for a red bean filled pastry. Marisa wanted something healthier, so she ended up getting food from a chain called 'California Beef Noodle', funnily enough. I tried to avoid the stares and acted like an ignorant foreigner when I brought my double cheeseburger and beer from a convenience stand into the California Beef Noodle seating area. No one said anything to us, so I guess that played to my advantages of being white, goofy, and tall.
After dinner we went to check out the soft seat waiting lounge. We (well I, maybe not Marisa) had thought we'd bought the higher class soft seat tickets, but the woman manning/guarding the doorway to the waiting lounge took a look at our tickets and shook her head, so we didn't get to see the inside. Marisa told me later that she had been pretty sure she knew we had bought hard seat tickets. Psh.
The train ride itself was a new experience since we'd never ridden in a lower train class, especially overnight. Since we bought hard-seat, we were in a train car with an open aisle running the length of the car and rows of doorless rooms lining the aisle. Each room contained a pair of sets of bunk beds stacked 3 high (so 6 beds to a room). There were two squat toilet bathrooms (no soap), which through the night got progressively more disgusting, until at the end of the journey I would have preferred my trip to the bathroom was a nightmare rather than something that would leave real manifestations on my shoes the next morning. Luckily the McDonald's and California Beef Noodle ingestion did not cause any secondary effects. (To be fair about the toilets: Despite my predilection for potty humor, Marisa thinks I'm pretty squeamish, so maybe the toilets weren't so bad, and I'm just a baby.)
People on the train were very friendly, considering that no one else spoke English except for one guy who knew how to ask where we were from. He was excited to learn we are from America, as most Chinese people seem to be. (Or perhaps they're just being polite.) Surprisingly, when we say, we're from "the US" or "the United States" or "California" some people often have no idea what we're talking about, but they sometimes do know "America". So this guy with the limited English skills kept trying to talk to us about something. We think he was trying to offer for us to switch bunks with him so we wouldn't have to take the top, which is considered to be the worst. He had the middle. That didn't make much sense because then Marisa and I wouldn't have been able to sleep across from each other. In any case, clearly the language barrier was somewhere between asking where we are from (easy) and negotiating whatever he wanted to negotiate (hard).
The bunk itself was tiny, but luckily we'd bought the top bunk (which are also cheapest), so my feet could stick out into the aisle over people's heads as they walked by rather than tripping them as they walked by. Luckily its dry and cold in China, so my feet don't smell. There was about 2 feet of air between the bunk and ceiling, which was not enough to sit up, but was enough to flop around. Marisa didn't seem to have any problem with the size of the bunk.
The train left at around 7:30pm. Before getting in their bunks everyone made themselves at home and sat around shooting the shit on the bottom bunk. (It sucks to be the person whose bunk that is...) The only other seats were small fold-down chairs in the aisle next to the window that Marisa and I latched onto like little clams. We figured we were due that because it was impossible to sit up in the top bunk anyway, whereas the bottom and middle bunks are possible to sit on. Conveniently for everyone else in the car (who were all Chinese) sitting in the aisle put us in a prime spot where they could all stare at us and observe our every move.
We sat around and read for about 60-90 minutes, which was made slightly harder by the youth behind us who announced to all in the car how hip (and wealthy?) he was by playing music on his iphone with no headphones. It would have been more distracting to us, except it was in Chinese and we couldn't understand the lyrics anyway.
We got in bed around 9pm. Technically lights out were at 10pm, but other people seemed to start going to sleep around that time as well. I wrote up some of our Beijing experiences in bed -- I didn't want to use the laptop outside the bunk because I was afraid about someone stealing it, although that may have simply been paranoia given that no one jacked iphone-boy. (Although I didn't check if he still had the iphone in the morning.) Even though lights were out at 10:00, at 9:30 the middle-aged gentleman in the bunk beneath me started grunting and smacking the bottom of the bunk, which I took to mean he wanted me to stop typing. As confirmation, the smacking and grunting stopped when my typing stopped. Luckily, he had a reward for my cooperation: heavy snoring for 6 hours that prevented me from falling asleep. Marisa normally finds it much harder to fall asleep than me, but she was OK because she had earplugs. I didn't want to wear earplugs because I was sleeping with our bookbag of electronics, passports, and money and figured I should have my wits about me. (I slept with my arm through the strap.) The bag also decreased the already small amount of space in the bunk, but I prefer to think of that as simply making it more cozy.
I was impressed with how quickly everyone else seemed to fall asleep. I guess these folks were used to communal sleeping on trains. People also made themselves comfortable really quickly. One guy in the bottom bunk had a 5 course spread of chicken in a bag, noodles, tea, etc.
Overall we thought the train was pretty comfortable, especially for the rock bottom price. Despite feeling like I hadn't slept, I wasn't that tired the next day. We got up around 6am and sat watching the scenery go by. We were quite worried about missing our stop, but that was an unnecessary worry because the conductor came around to wake up people who weren't ready to get off. Next time we'll probably spring for a soft sleeper, though.