Had I bothered to think about it logically, when I first heard that foreigners were not allowed to buy fourth class seats on trains in China, I would have realized there was probably a very good reason. Instead, this incited my rebellious streak. I set off to show a country of billions that no one tells this experienced backpacker how to travel. Pride goeth before a fall.
What were the Chinese hiding from foreigners that they didn’t want us to see? My mind imagined reasons ranging from secretive Communist meetings to the condescending belief that fat Westerners needed cushy seats to travel long distances. Curiosity killed the cat.
Admittedly, there was a financial impetus as well. Fourth class travel was considerably less than third class. I begged a stranger who spoke English to purchase the passageway for me. He tried to convince me that I was making a mistake, but I would hear none of his argument and thanked him. Penny wise, pound foolish.
Ticket in hand, I felt rather superior and wanted to scream, “Look at me! I did it!” Boarding the train, I passed the upscale second class section complete with fluffy pillows and comforters and a shabbier third class, arriving at the fourth class segment. A bit early, I grabbed a seat by the window. Rather smug, I longed to find a high-ranking official and show him that this frugal traveler could handle anything the Chinese could dish out. I mean, really, “How bad could it be?”
As it got closer to departure, more people arrived. Sure, the wooden plank seats weren’t something I’d like to be riding on for hours, but this would be a short trip. Our first stop was in the countryside; many rurally-dressed Chinese got on. One man sat next to me and immediately lit up a cigarette. I pointed to the universal “no smoking” sign, a cigarette with a red line through it. He blew his cigarette smoke into my face, said something in Chinese and laughed. His friends took it as a cue to all light up and blow smoke in my face. This would have been bad enough, but I heard a sound like a faucet and turned to see a mother holding her child up as he urinated down the aisle where a large pile of wrappers and trash were already forming. You get what you pay for.
Soon our compartment was at capacity. Men let the pregnant women stand and the entire section was thick with cigarette smoke. When another child did number two, the stench beat my stubborn streak. I grabbed my purse, leaving my heavy backpack behind. I went to stand in second class where the aisles were clean. Maybe because I was white, the conductors didn’t bother to ask me for my ticket. When I sheepishly confessed my journey to a student beside me, he couldn’t believe it. “I won’t even travel third class.” he confessed with a slight smile and informed me that this trip was thirteen hours, not three. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Almost there, a conductor finally caught me. Returning to fourth class, the compartment resembled a dumpster with piles and piles of trash. The haze hurt my eyes and the horrid smell offended my nose. Retrieving my backpack, I got off the train a wiser person. I’ve long since forgotten the names of the towns, but not the journey. A picture is worth a thousand words.
While other parts of my trip to China were marvelous, during my only fourth class experience, I got more than I bargained for.