The worst journey of my life came when I was travelling during the Chunyun period, the largest annual migration of people in the world. The people of China were either headed home for the New Year to visit relatives or heading back to the cities for work. Whatever their reason for travel, they were far more accustomed to the conditions than I was. Thousands of people swarmed outside the stations like bees around a hive, concealing the tarmac beneath their very feet and masking the entrance. I made my way through the crowd slowly, following the current of bodies towards a roaring mass of passengers waiting to board their rides out of town.
Within moments of stepping on to the train from Xi’An to Shanghai I was heaved face first into an elderly gentleman's groin as more and more people squeezed on to the heavily congested carriage. The air above was polluted with cigarette smoke and fumes from the poorly maintained toilet and the floor covered in cockroaches and grime. I was stood in the aisle next to the toilet, stuck shoulder to should as tightly as possible with roughly two inches of space either side of my left foot where I could wriggle myself around to relieve any discomfort. However minuscule the move may have been, it made all the difference during the sixteen hour journey ahead of me.
A sea of dark hair was all that was visible and within an hour I was almost drowned is despair. I feared for my sanity as claustrophobia began to settle in, but I had little choice but to accept things as they were. The lack of space was made worse every time a passenger attempted to dismount, causing the rest of the us to squeeze tighter together as they pushed passed. I could feel sweaty limbs slide against mine and foul breath warming the skin on the back of my neck and shoulders. There was no escape from the thousands of irritating little factors which accumulated into an overwhelming panic, unless of course you fancied stopping off somewhere in rural China.
The warms drops of sweat on my skin, the sting of smoke in my eyes, the smell of urine, faeces and food, the screeching of brakes and screaming in mandarin terrorised my senses. Clouded thoughts of frustration caused me to grit my teeth as powerfully as I could, trying my best to drown out any negative thoughts for the rest of the journey. The only rational thing I could do to keep me occupied was fantasize, think about the next destination and all the wonderful things that could possibly happen.
By the late morning I had made it to Shanghai, mentally exhausted and with swollen ankles I managed to drag myself to the closest taxi rank and find myself somewhere to sleep.