First thing we do in the morning is go to the train ticket office. Traveling by train here is not the easiest logistically. You can’t buy tickets in advance online for the entire itinerary. You can only buy tickets in the city that the train departs from, at a ticket office or at the train station. Sometimes for a fee your hotel will book it for you. So you have to wait until you get to a specific destination until you can try to go and buy tickets to continue.
The ticket office, just like in Russia, is a small window in the wall on some street, with a grouchy and tired looking woman employee of the rail service peeking out. She does not speak a word of English, but we have all the train numbers, dates and times written down, so we just point to the one we want. There are different levels of seats you can buy: seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. We want the soft sleeper which is a regular train compartment for 4 people, with all of the normal western amenities. The hard sleeper is a step down with 6 people to a compartment and seats are the cheapest and least comfortable way to spend a night. Turns out, since we are booking for the same day, none of the trains we want have soft sleeper seats available. She shows us her computer screen, where the only thing we can understand is train number and ticket price. By the price of the tickets we see that only thing she can give us are 2 hard sleepers, but we have no option but take them. We figure, how bad can it be?
After checking out, we spend some time in the business area with free wifi doing research and planning further destinations, and then we go to walk around the muslim neighborhoods once again.
This time we start out early, so we can spend some time exploring the neighborhoods. The area is a mix of various ethnicities and various cultures, all kinds of food, sweets and junk being sold from street vendors or little holes in the wall type places. It’s not clear what ethnic background the vendors come from, but most are not Han Chinese. Some look kind of Mongolian, boys selling fruit and sweets wear little white hats that look almost Uzbekistani, butchers and meat shops sell what looks like hallal cuts of meat tended to mostly by women in head scarves. This neighborhood is the most authentic market we have seen so far in all of our travels. There are clashing elements of centuries old back street markets serving as a backdrop to modernity exemplified by cars, scooters, motorized rickshaws and middle class Chinese shopping for dried fruit.
We get lost in the alleys, and walk around for a couple hours. The people and vendors do not have time to harass tourists and offer them useless souvenirs. They go about their regular business of butchering meat, cooking soup, or grilling meat skewers. They can’t afford to not tend to their business, which makes it interesting to walk around and take photos, and it becomes not such a sanitized experience.
A couple memorable elements stand out among the vendors. Dark, dim and dirty shops with rusty metal tables sell organs piled up high and strewn about right on the floor. It looks like whole cow livers and cow hearts. Similar shops sell cow bones and tendons piled up on the tables and right on the floor on cardboards. The meat is old and tough and grey. Some small food shops have huge metal coal burning stoves set out on the street, and they cook or stir fry in the open, while the steam clouds envelops the cook and pressurized sprays of fire bursts out from a side pipe every 10 seconds. Dried fruit stalls overflow with all kinds of Chinese and Middle Eastern offerings. Muslim boys in white hats grill up meat skewers and loudly advertise their offerings to the entire street. Little dried up women tightly wrapped in cotton jackets and shawls sit in dimly lit metal shops offering cast iron skillets, pots, stoves, knives, scissors, and 1950’s bicycles. There are steamed apples, rice or tofu cakes, fresh coconut or sugar cane drinks and steamed buns. All of this and much much more can keep you wandering and shopping for hours.
When we get back to our hotel the front desk tells us they can’t call a cab, and that it’s hard to catch one on the street or will be really expensive. Fully expecting another difficulty getting back to the train station, we eat really fast at the same crappy Singapore restaurant next door due to lack of time (and by crappy we mean by our current standards, it’s still better and much cheaper than most American restaurants.)
Even though we were ready for a problem with the taxi and even were ready to offer more money, we catch one with no problem right outside and he even turns on his meter.
So we wait at the train station for two hours since we are so early, and then board our train.
So remember we have two hard sleeper seats for a 16 hour Train to Shanghai. The train arrives already half full from a previous destination 20 minutes late. Now we find out what hard sleeper really means. A narrow corridor with thin tables and fold away seats is filled with locals sitting and eating, while on the left are 3 story bunks with no doors and no space for any of your stuff. All of the overhead compartments are full with bags, but they wouldn’t fit our big suitcases anyway. There is trash all over the place on the floor and tables and cigarette smoke is drifting in from the bathroom. We have the middle bunk and the top bunk. We put one of the suitcases on the middle bunk, and leave the second one in the hallway. The bunks are shorter and obviously have less headroom than regular double bunks, so there is very little space to fit in with the bags with valuables and comfortably sleep. The top bunk on the other side is occupied by a man who is snoring like crazy and would continue like that all night. In an hour or so everyone comes down, the trash is thrown away by the train stewardess and the last smoker goes to bed. Amid the snoring and people talking in the end of the train we drift away, then briefly waking up N. sees that the bag that we left standing in the hallway is gone. Someone stole it!!!! But after a jump from the second story and a mad dash up and down the train to find the stewardess, it turns out she moved it into someone else area in between their bunks. So having recovered the bag and put it under the table in our area, the rest of the night goes by ok with some loud snoring and uncomfortable position on top of the small bags.
In the morning the train starts making stops and some people get off and others get on. The new people basically sleep in the unmade beds of the people that slept there before them. Not sure how often they change the bed sheets, but the beds seemed new for us when we got on. The morning is spent sleeping some more, since there is not much place to get down and sit around. The people on the lower bunks have more freedom to sit on their bunks, and eat at the table. Sometimes we catch curious glances towards us, but after a while they lose interest and go on hanging out and eating. Unlike the cliché about Russian guys drinking on the train Chinese don’t drink at all, not even beer, but they they consume insane amounts of various noodle soups and processed foods. By the way the grocery stores here are also 80% various processed foods such as packaged dried fruit, sweat cookies, isles of dried noodles, chips, pretzels, packaged hotdogs and chicken feet snacks, etc. some of the new passengers that got in the morning are a couple in their 40’s with a small child probably about 12-14 months old. The little girl ran around non stop up and down the isles, most likely because she was jacked up on sugar and processed carbs. Over the course of the morning we watched her eat 3 packages of cookies with tea, some dumplings, some fried cakes, some fruits from a box sold on the train and some kind of chips. Also it was obvious that the child was a girl, not because of how she was dressed or how she looked. Almost all children under a certain age wear pants with a slit cut in between the legs and no underwear, so when they move around their bare behinds are constantly exposed. We assume this is so they can go to the bathroom without taking off their pants, but we are not sure exactly and it’s unclear how its not cold at the current temperatures.
Somehow our train is running almost two hours late after making a number of long stops. But finally after 16 hours (it was supposed to be 14), we see the suburbs of Shanghai. Along the rail road we pass some of the worst slums we have ever seen. People live in houses that are falling apart and holes in walls or roofs are patched with tarps or metal sheets. There are piles of trash right outside the houses, and little children running around and playing among the refuse. Right next to the dump there are makeshift gardens in between the railroad and the highway growing vegetables. For many miles there is a highway overpass being built by Mongolian looking workers, with nothing more than shovels and wheel barrows. These same workers live right there on the spot, under the overpass being build, in makeshift tent tarps.
The closer we get to the city, the more high-rise apartment buildings and skyscrapers keep coming into view. It becomes obvious that New York or London is nothing compared to the span and population density of this twenty million city. The train station is modern and civilized, with a regular taxi stand and no haggling. We take the taxi to the center and our hotel, getting a nice view of the sunset over skyscrapers and construction cranes. This is the largest and most upscale hotel we have been in. We are right in the center, next to a famous pedestrian street, restaurants and shopping malls. It’s like staying in a 4 star Times Square hotel for $70 a night.
We are so tired from the train ride and our bodies are hurting and muscles cramping from lying in awkward positions all night, that we only have the strength to go walk down the glitzy pedestrian street and a Korean restaurant in one of the shopping centers.
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.