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The Hard Seat Experience

The fun of Chinese hard seat trains!

The words “only hard seat available” makes many westerners cringe in pain while riding trains in china. Regardless of your social rank or connections, there comes a time when you get stuck in the hard seat cabin of a train. For those of you who have not had this experience, I will give a quick description. First, there is no seat assignment on a hard seat train and there are also no limitations about how many tickets are sold. The boarding experience is intense; everyone pushes with all their might to get on the train, hoping to find one of the limited seats. Once aboard, even if you are one of the first on the train, it seems as though every seat has been magically filled. Traveling in groups almost always results in being separated from your traveling companions or trading who stands and who sits. Then the smoking and spitting begins. Therefore imagine a sardine can filled with smoking, spiting and unwashed people then add yourself into it for multiple hours.
I try as hard as I can to avoid hard seat tickets. There are times, however, when it is impossible to avoid riding the hard seat. Though I have spent the last paragraph describing the horrible experience, some of my favorite memories in China have been while riding in a hard seat train.

My first hard seat experience was on a trip to Inner Mongolia during October break in 2005. Some friends and I went to the train station planning to take a soft seat from Hailaer to Manzhouli. Unfortunately, our trusty guidebook had not warned us that the only train that ran this trip is a hard seat train. With no other option we purchased the tickets. Pitted against the veteran Chinese hard seat traveler, we did not stand a chance. Because it was our first time to ever ride a hard seat train, we made every mistake possible. The four of us stuck together when an individual could maneuver the masses much better. None of us pushed our way to the front. We were also too scared to approach groups of people and just sit with them. In the end, we all stood for the first three hours of the journey and got to sit for the last hour only because other passengers left the train.

Because I was clearly a foreigner, and because I did get to move around a little bit, I got approached frequently. I played games with two brothers and pair of older women said I was the first American they ever met. They also told me that I was much nicer than the Russians they meet most of the time.

Even though the trip was not a complete disaster, I decided I would avoid hard seat trains. Like anything in life, however, you never have complete control… this is especially true when it comes to the Chinese rail system. Needing to get up to Beijing from Tianjin, I went to the train station. To my chagrin, I learned at the ticket window that no soft seats were available until much later that evening. Since I needed to be in Beijing that afternoon, I bought the hard seat ticket. A shudder went through my body remembered my trip to Manzhouli.

Learning from my mistakes, I pushed my way to the front of the train and sat down with a group of Chinese men. Once the train began, I removed my coat and sweater and started to read. Then I felt a hand grab onto my arm and start to slide up and down its length. I look up to see a man from across the aisle. The man lets go of my arm, rolls up his sleeve and shows me his lack of arm hair with a huge smile. His buddies and I proceed to have a great conversation in Chinese. I was the first foreigner they ever talked too. They did not even believe me when I told them I was American. I had to be Canadian because I have brown hair and brown eyes.

Due to that train ride from Tianjin to Beijing, I now have a completely different outlook on the hard seat experience. The next time you have a short train ride and you know a little Chinese, think about taking the hard seat. It is a great way to meet people who you would not usually interact with and have a great cultural exchange.

Posted by Lavafalls 12:25 Archived in China Tagged train_travel

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