Travelling on trains in China is a necessary (and semi-reliable) means of transportation. Especially living on a volunteer’s budget means taking an airplane, or even high-speed rail when you can find it, comes out of your own pocket. There are four different types of tickets: standing only (zhan piao), hard seat (ying zuo), hard bed (ying wo), and soft bed (ruan wo). For short journeys a hard seat is perfectly fine, but 10-12 hours is about my limit for me personally. They aren’t exactly normal airplane or bus seats. They actually do have a cushion of some sort, so they aren’t plastic or anything, but the seats are more of a bench creating 2-6 seats facing forwards and backwards. Since they cannot be leaning in either direction the backs are unnaturally straight. I don’t believe humans were made to sit in chairs like these for long train rides, so I hate them. You might still be able to get a little comfortable or even some sleep on an overnight ride if they actually turned down the cabin lights but they don’t. So even if you do manage to get some sleep, as soon as a jolt, bump, or noise wakes you up it will take awhile to get back to sleep.
Alright, enough ranting about the hard seats. I always manage to deal with it by looking at other people who have taken hard seats sometimes over 30 hours. Or the people who can’t afford a seat ticket or did manage to buy one in time so they have to stand. They can take short breaks by grabbing someone’s seat for a minute while they go to the bathroom or stretch their legs, but otherwise they sort of lean against the end of a seat.
I personally like hard beds best. The beds seem almost the same to me as the soft beds, except instead of having a room shared with three other people the entire train car has beds down one side stack three high. Plus it is much, much cheaper. A thirteen hour train ride might cost 200 RMB for a hard bed, but well over 300 RMB for a soft one. They both can be just as noisy since there are always families and kids travelling on the train. As for food I haven’t tried the dining car but I heard it is expensive but decent, perhaps 30+ RMB per plate. Usually I just buy some noodles before I get to the station (three RMB) because if you buy them from a cart on the train it might cost you up to 10 RMB. Same goes for water, but in every car there is a hot water dispenser.
Once I was heading back to my home from Chongqing which is about an 8 hour train ride if I was lucky. I had a seat so I had to stay alert for my stop since they don’t tell you unless you have a bed. I couldn’t leave until 7pm so I just read a Vonnegut book the whole way: Player Piano, a great story but very long, especially for Vonnegut. Even when it was almost 3am I saw a man carrying a box of noodles trying to sell the rest of them off (not the train worker carts, but some average guy). Probably on his way home somewhere in Southern China and decided to make some money on the way to help pay for the ticket. Every twenty minutes he would be coming back through my car selling some spicy instant noodles. When I finally got back to Tongren I was so happy I walked all the way home instead of grabbing a cab. I just couldn’t stand to pay the extra 2 RMB they add to the fare after midnight.