There is no training for this.
What a train ride.
Sweet Jebus, what a train ride.
There is so much to say about it, but unless you were on it, I am not sure you would really understand.
Firstly, we were on the slow train. I don't think the train itself actually goes slower than most other non-super-train trains. But it stopped at nearly every town, and out on the tracks and just about anywhere else. Just sat there and waited. Not sure why.
Secondly, we were in hard seats. The seats had some foam padding on them, but they were benches, and couldn't tilt back. On our side of the train each bench sat 3, and on the other side they sat two. The benches were paired, so that each bench faced another bench and there was a small table between them.
Thirdly, it was jam-packed with people. Every seat was taken, the aisle was jammed, and any open space had more people crammed in there as well.
Getting to the bathroom, was an ordeal of squeezing out of your seat, stepping over the people sitting at the edge of your benches (they buy these tiny little stools to sit on), pushing past the people in the aisle and gouging your way to the line up at the toilet. I didn't drink or eat much so I only had to go once. I went early in the morning, and really, given everything else, it wasn't that bad. Stinky and covered in a pool of urine, but not that bad. Morag went a couple of times and said it was really gross by the end of the day.
Fourth, there is no privacy. None. Everyone is talking to and about everyone else. Needless to say, Morag and I were a big draw for attention. No one else spoke any appreciable english, and I am sure no one appreciated my faltering attempts at Mandarin. The man beside me (the smiling jack-ass was my name for him) had a translator on his google phone, and I had a phrase book on my ipod, so we managed a bit of information exchange, but it was minimal. No one believed that Morag was my daughter, someone called the conductor on us at one point and we had to show our tickets (only us, no one else in car 18), and Morag says that when I was asleep and snoring people were video-taping me (yes smiling jack-ass, I am speaking of you.) It gets a bit tiring being stared at for 23 hours.
Fifth, the noise! Oy the noise. Everyone has a cell-phone, everyone has every tone on their phone turned to maximum volume. Most people stare at their phone for at least two rings before answering it, and nearly everyone has different tones for text messages, and it is a bit like being in a huge arcade. There was one person at our end of the carriage that had this little chirp sound for texts or something, turned to the max, that went off at least three times a minute for the whole time we were on the train. I am not exaggerating. I couldn't see who it was, which was just as well, because I would have smashed the fucking thing, but it just kept going off. Plus people were playing music off their phones, there was music playing over the intercom (Guy Lombardo era big band tunes for the most part. Auld Lang Syne, Silent Night etc), and several people were watching movies or playing games on their laptops. Add to all this the general volume of that many people crammed in that little space and you have cacophony galore. By the last quarter of the voyage my brain had given in and I started hearing the babble in english. I kept looking around to see who might be speaking english, but really none of it made sense, it was just my brain being tired.
Sixth, the train was running late, and lots of the stops weren't on the map, so I didn't really have a sense of where we were, and most of the stops didn't have signs up that told you where they were, or if they did they were only visible as you were already leaving the station, so I was stressing out a bit that we were going to miss Sozhou and end up in Shanghai. I think they were announcing the stops over the intercom, but I couldn't really hear it above everything else. Thankfully nearly everyone got off at Sozhou, and some of the people who had been staring at us let us know that it was our stop. Even the conductor came by to make sure we knew to get off.
From the train station we caught a cab, it was the middle of the night so no busses were running and got back to Morag's residence. We were so tired we fell into our beds, and I slept for 13 hours straight.
I wouldn't trade the experience, and we were lucky to get any train ticket out of Xi'an at all (let alone seats). I enjoyed watching the people interact, and was happy to see that even "one child policy" teenagers are sullen and rude to their parents, but I don't think I will ever want to do that again. If I am back in China when Jemima is a University Student i think we will book soft sleepers well in advance, or maybe fly between cities.