The perils of bunk number four

Not all beds are created equal. And, given the amount of time you spend in them in the course of your ordinary life (or on your train journey from Shanghai to Kunming), it is probably worth a little extra expense to get a decent one.

Sadly in this case I had little (read: no) choice in the place I rested my head. I bought my ticket so soon before departure that there were only top bunks left. And, horror of horrors, I got bunk number four. “Surely not bunk number four”, you say, aghast. I know, I know, terrible, dangerous, evil, but true.

Third-class on Chinese trains comes in groups of six bunks, partitioned off from each other by thin walls. They are stacked three high on each side of a little central space (not wide enough to turn around in with a backpack on) with a table in it.

Lower bunks have the most space, the best view, the handiest access, and the use of the table. Your bed can often be used as a chair by others, but that is all part of the thrill. Middle bunks have a bit less head room, and the window is at a less convenient angle. Top bunks are very close to the ceiling (I can not sit up), very close to the air-conditioner (it is often freezing cold), and require rappelling equipment to get into.

On the plus side, top bunks have the most privacy. If you just want to sleep or you feel like pretending you are not actually in China, then they are perfect. And prices fall with height, so you can save a little money by going up top. Not much. But some. And Chinese train tickets are not exactly cheap (unlike almost everything else in China).

The chief evil of the top bunk though, is one I have not touched on as yet. Yes, the loudspeaker that noisily broadcasts emetic muzak (nastier if you recognise the tune being played on the pan-flute) or (worse) screechy Chinese opera, or (worst of all) unintelligible Chinese comedy shows that seem to involve two men shouting and making funny noises. From when everything wakes up (around 7 or 7:30am) till everything shuts down (10pm precisely).

Of course, normally it is okay. Because there are only two loudspeakers in each carriage. So the odds that you will be subjected to the barrage are quite slim.

But, and this is the key point, so watch closely, bunk number four is directly opposite one of the loudspeakers. And the top bunk is the most directly opposite. And it is already very loud (because there are only two for the whole carriage). And the shape of the wooden upholstery that surrounds the bunk makes it even louder. And the fact that I can not comprehend a single word of anything that is said or sung makes it the kind of unbearable, impossible, repulsive, sleep-depriving, madness-inducing noise that gets right inside your head and echoes around. Minute after minute. Hour after hour. Song after song after radio show after opera. Every note an exquisite torture invented by some Macchiavellean sound engineer to cause untold pain, preventing sleeping, reading or any kind of coherent thinking.

There is a switch that brings relief. But as often as I turned the radio off on the first day, some bored fellow traveller, missing its dulcet tones (they don’t seem to deal well with silence, my fellow travellers), switched it back on.

Fortunately on the second day my switching went unnoticed. Or perhaps everyone else had got sick of it too. And I could fill up my trip with the kind of half-somnolent day-dreaming and reading of low-grade literature that is the best way to fill in time on Chinese trains.

I dropped my bookmark once. Actually I dropped quite a lot of one of the books I was reading. For this I blame the guy who gave it to me, who had managed to destroy much of the binding, meaning that many of the pages were just hanging out between the covers of the book until they found somewhere better to go. But they were quickly picked up and given back to me. So the bookmark is much more interesting.

It fluttered down of its own accord and landed, as if a participant in some tragic made-for-TV comedy, right on the groin of the man sleeping in the middle bunk opposite. There was no hope of recall. Had it been just resting on some unused part of his bunk, or even lying on his arm or near his foot I could have attempted an instant recovery. But my bookmark had chosen well. In that particular spot, I did not dare to tread. Or reach, which is more to the point. What would I have done if had woken up with my hand on his nether regions? What if he liked it?

Now this man (let’s call him bookmark recipient man (BRM)) knew how to sleep. He had slept all the previous night. Now he slept all day. My bookmark was hardly enough to wake him if he could sleep through the radio.

So I waited. And I checked up on the bookmark from time to time. BRM did not move for the longest time but then, suddenly, when I was unfortunately engaged in my reading, he must have rolled over towards the wall, and bookmark made its way out of my sight, wrapped in the sheet that serves as a blanket on Chinese trains in the summer.

And I never saw it again. I figured I could repatriate bookmark once BRM had left the train. He did not get out till I did. But I cagily waited around and searched through his erstwhile bedding. To no avail. Either he had taken a fancy to bookmark (and I can see the attraction of a used Mongolian train ticket myself), or bookmark had decided to find himself a new home.

Perhaps it is now living with my other bookmark, a yellow and brown creation from Smith’s Bookstore in Christchurch, which I left behind (by mistake) at a campsite in Mongolia. Where do lost bookmarks go, do you think?

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