Happy birthday Hayden (day 72)

So I am 28 years old today. I don’t feel so different. But I guess age is one of those things you don’t really notice. Like recessed lighting.

We celebrated last night with a few drinks (and why not at less than a dollar a beer? in fact, why not even if the price were a whole lot higher?) and some excellent Central Asian inspired food in Xian.

I also had the terracotta warriors to wish me the compliments of the day. To be honest with you I was not that impressed. I think there were two reasons. One was because they are so hyped up, so when you get you expect towering figures and you see five foot tall clay guys. And two is because the view is always from above. You look down on a field of exhumed warriors, and from that angle they don’t look nearly as impressive. Far better, it would be, if you could get down amongst them, even at a safe distance to protect them from careless hands, or even be slightly below them. Then a casual tourist (one who does not really appreciate the artistry or complexity of making an army of individual figures from clay) might better appreciate the true majesty of this silent army.

A little sleep in was appropriate, I thought, after seeing one of what China considers to be the eighth wonder of the world (although the whole wonders of the world thing seems a bit overdone anyway – I am sure there are far more than eight).

And the rest of the day rest of the day and night will be spent on this 30 hour train ride to Chongqing, where we pick up the five day cruise down the Yangtze.

The ride didn’t start so well. Rides often do not. We could not get hard sleeper seats (they are not hard, but that is what they are called) so we grabbed hard seat (they are more appropriately named). Hard seat is the cheapest class of travel on Chinese trains. And that is very cheap. There are people with reservations for seats, like us, and there are people without reservations for seats, but who nevertheless have a ticket for the train. They can sit themselves anywhere that is free. And they do. On the seats, in the aisles, in the vestibules, on their luggage, on other people’s luggage, on laps. Anywhere and everywhere.

It is like a running race to get on the train with an unreserved seat. The gates are barred, so people wait noisily but usually good-naturedly, already formed into a queue. In Beijing I saw queues 10 people wide and at least 60 deep. These are big trains.

Then the gates are opened and the race is on. The teeming masses race towards their carriages. A mistaken turn at this point could be crucial. You must know where your carriage is at all costs. Leap on board. Not as easy as it sounds since the queue that was 10 people wide now has to get through a space designed for one at a time. And you have to get all your luggage, children and older relatives on board as well. And then you have to find a perch.

The train we got on started somewhere else. So the carriage was packed to the gunnels when we entered. The guard wanted us to take our seats. I thought he was kidding. The press was so great that I could not even take off my bag, let alone make any forward progress. Besides which, what would be the point? Someone would be sitting in my seat anyway.

But it turned out that things did not work this way. It was not appropriate for someone who held a seat reservation to stand. So our bags came off, and were hoisted to an appropriate spot. Our tickets were examined and helpful hands led us through the parting throng to our seats. Yes, already occupied, but quick negotiation with the seated ensured that the people who really needed to stay sitting down (the old ones and the young ones) still had room and we shared our four seats with four others. And everyone was cheerful, helpful and happy to have some gwailo on the journey with them.

After three hours some hard sleeper seats were available, so away we went. At first I thought my bunk was terrible (on the third level, so a huge distance off the ground), but it is working out well since it gave me my own ‘room’ to hang out in, which is useful given the comparative lack of privacy in Chinese trains (and in Chinese travelling in general). At least it means I can catch up on my diary.

It is another full day from here to the boat. And then 5 days on the river to Wuhan. This does not leave much time to get to southern China. I could extend my visa, but then I am sacrificing time in Russia. Perhaps I will need to come back to Yunnan another time. I should have left Beijing earlier. Oh the difficulties of travelling.

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