Elyana grabbed Sarah and I by the hands as we staggered off the train, compressed beneath oversized backpacks and huge fabric bags full of the books we had bought at Chengdu’s hidden Christian book store. “Ladies!” she cried, her voice nearly drowned in the din of the station, “we are officially Chinese!” A throaty, gurgling sound issued from a tiny granny hobbling beside us along the platform. All three of us deftly stepped aside as granny spat vehemently on the sidewalk and hurried on. We had just survived the slow train from Chengdu to Lanzhou traveling “hard seat” during May Holiday.
There are five kinds of tickets you can get when you travel by rail in China. The most expensive and cushiest way to travel is “soft sleeper.” A soft-sleeper ticket puts you in an air-conditioned compartment with 4 cozy beds. Tickets then work their way down through “hard sleeper” and “soft seat” to “hard seat.” A hard-seat ticket puts you in a crowded car with small plastic benches and tiny, two-foot by half-foot tables. The only thing worse than traveling hard seat is traveling on a standing ticket. Travelers with standing tickets crowd around those with hard seats, squatting in the aisles, and sometimes resting their tired limbs by squeezing onto someone’s more expensive bench. May Holiday in Sichuan province feels like summer in Lanzhou—it is hot, muggy, and there is no air-conditioning in hard-seat. To get from Chengdu to Lanzhou on the slow train takes twenty-five hours.
The three of us had nearly lost our nerve the previous afternoon when we hauled ourselves onto the sweltering train car, nearly suffocated by our own luggage, clutching the only tickets we could get: hard seat on the slow train. The car was packed with people. I had once seen total strangers on a London subway helping to hold one another onto the train when the doors opened. Without help, people would have spilled out the door and onto the platform, pushed out by the raw pressure of so many people massed together. The slow train to Lanzhou reminded me of that London subway—every seat was filled and the aisles were packed solid with bodies. People were crowded onto stiff, narrow benches and stood over one other, dripping with sweat. But this was no thirty-minute commute. This was a twenty-five hour journey. But there was no other way to get home and, as Elyana cheerfully informed us, no better way to bond with our host culture.
It was gratifying when, as we stumbled off the train the next day, our stiff limbs almost doubling after being cramped for so long, the conductor and almost all of the passengers in our car waved out the windows and called out good-byes. We had made a lot of friends in those twenty-five hours. We had also given away a lot of instant noodles, lost a deck of cards, taught a lot of Chinese people how to play “old maid” and “hearts” and how to sing “I will survive,” learned how to sing “ni shi wode mei gui” well enough to elicit applause from the next train car, slept a little, and shared the Gospel.