I checked my watch, only another 30 hours until we reached Guangzhou.

It had been two hours since we left Chongqing and the train’s squat toilet already was heaped with runny shit. Passengers knocked past each other in search of hot water for noodles. Others tried and failed to sit up in their cramped bunks. Previous passengers had scratched graffiti onto the walls — like criminals doing time. I wondered whether the gold stars on the staff’s blazers were awarded for services to filth.

The plastic table cloths in the restaurant car smelt of old meat. The pegs along the walls were filled with officials’ black hats; their owners occupied the tables nearest the kitchen — where they shouted, smoked and drank. The waitresses saw to the officials’ needs, ignoring the rest of us, so I left in unnoticed protest.

At 11 p.m., the lights snapped off and I breathed in the silence.

It didn’t last long.

When living in China the spitting is inescapable. At the end of the carriage a man hawked up phlegm and spat it out. This reminded another man to clear his throat. The domino effect gathered momentum and soon the carriage had a guttural soundtrack, its rhythm swept along by the sound of spit hitting floor.

When I woke up the next morning, everyone was talking over each other. It sounded like a school playground, only much much louder.

I got up and moved to the window, resting my forehead against the dirty glass.

In the free world, frost-beaten bamboo fields glittered in the sun and the scenery passed by in a colourful blur.

Inside the prison, a warden patrolled the corridor, a plastic bucket banging against her chest. The handle was fixed round her neck and the bucket contained razors. She picked one up and delivered a presentation about its benefits. Her audience was literally captive, so almost every man bought one. Some shaved whilst sitting on their beds, others compared their purchases, one man — without so much as a dot of stubble on his face — had bought two.

For the rest of the day, we only stopped long enough to get out of the train once. On that occasion, everyone charged toward the glowing lights of a nearby supermarket. Happy to distance myself from the filth of the train, I followed them inside.

The supermarket seemed to only sell instant noodles. There were plastic pots of noodles everywhere; so many in fact, I couldn’t even see the walls of the building, which gave the impression they were built of noodles, too. All around me, Chinese passengers made dents in the foundations by throwing plastic noodles into their plastic baskets.

Back on the train, I joined the queue for hot water. It was prime-time for this commodity, so the queue was long. Having filled up my pot noodle, I passed scores of other people eating pot noodles. It felt like I’d landed in a noodle commercial — although the backdrop would have doomed the marketing campaign.

As evening approached, passengers pulled heavy blankets over their bodies and attempted to sleep their way to Guangzhou. Everyone was coughing, sneezing, sniffing or spitting. It resembled a giant hospital ward and, like everyone around me, I too felt like giving up. I pulled my hospital blanket over me and hoped that by the time I woke up we would be in Guangzhou.

Early the next morning, the lights snapped on and the soundtrack to Titanic blared. In that moment, I would have preferred to have been on the Titanic than on that train.

In the corridors, everything was happening fast: teeth brushing, face washing, shaving, noodle eating and phone call making. As I waited to use the bathroom, I nearly was knocked over by porters who hauled bedding away for cleaning. I don’t know what shocked me more: The fact that the bedding actually got cleaned or the state of the bathroom. The metal basins were heaped with rubbish and the taps no longer dripped water. In the opposite bathroom, a woman crouched without bothering to shut the door.

Two hours later we still hadn’t arrived in Guangzhou, but the “cleaning” continued. An attendant mopped the corridors, spraying water as she went. The floor was so dirty that she created a muddy pool that swayed with the rhythm of the train. The river of filth swished into the bathroom to pick up more dirt before returning to the corridor again — where passengers spat and hurled debris into it. Elsewhere, coughing babies cried into the rancid air and a teenage boy spewed orange vomit onto the floor.

“Someone has to do something,” I thought as I scrolled through my phone contacts. At that point two things became clear: I have a lot of phone numbers for English takeaways and I do not have a direct number to the United Nations.

Realising there was nothing I could do to end this humanitarian crisis, I focused on survival. I lay in bed with my headphones on, ignoring everyone, and holding a T-shirt over my face to ward off the germs — not the kind of travel image you see on Instagram.

Then, just when I had given up hope, salvation came.

With one last desperate sigh, the train wheezed into Guangzhou station and stopped with an unceremonious jolt.

Some people almost fell at the last hurdle; as they rushed to escape the train they were nearly crushed in the melee. That would have been a sad way to go: Imagine surviving such a soul-destroying trip only to be squeezed to death between two old women right at the end.

I watched mothers carry their child casualties toward the exits. It didn’t feel like we had survived a train journey; it felt like we had survived a war. Perhaps we would meet up in the future to give talks about our experience to make sure it never happened again.

Or perhaps, even then, it still would be too raw …

Originally published at on December 3, 2018.




I'm British but live in the Czech Republic. I like to write about travel, living abroad and cultural differences.

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Tom Czaban

Tom Czaban

I'm British but live in the Czech Republic. I like to write about travel, living abroad and cultural differences.

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