After an hour-and-a-half wait at the station we embark on our very own journey through Dante’s inferno. As we only have standing tickets, we literally have to fight our way onto the train and through five carriages already overflowing with people, before finding any place at all. We end up in one of the little hallways, right by the place where the train bends, and not even in any protected corner, but smack in the middle.
The first six hours are a bit of a nightmare: there is nowhere to put our backpacks, we eventually have to lay them flat on the floor and kind of squat on top of them. Unfortunately, people are endlessly pushing trolleys with food and drinks through the aisle and each time we have to lift all our luggage and make ourselves as small as possible. The hot-water trolley, which passes every two hours, is the worst as it leaks water and oil, covering the floor in a disgusting black sludge, in which we have no remedy but to put our packs down again. To make matters worse, in its wake, the hot-water trolley is inevitably followed by a horde of pushing and shoving Chinese, anxious to refill their thermos, or jam-jars, full of tea. It’s this continuous, heaving mass of people, fighting to get past you, while you struggle to keep your balance and defend your patch, that really tires you out and wears you down.
The scenes we observe around us would have been best described by Dickens, as coming straight from the work-house, debtors’ prison or mental asylum. Everywhere you look the carriages are spilling over with people: there are 5 or 6 passengers to each bench, people down the aisles, crowding the halls, pressed up against, or even inside, the toilets, you name it. Luggage is piled up as high as the ceiling, as well as suspended from metal hooks: there are massive sacks, held together by ropes, primitive bundles, plastic bags, haversacks, heaps of sandwiches and thermoses.
Close to us there is a peasant family with three kids, probably triplets, a phenomenon most unusual around here. The three little dwarfs, as we call them, are identical and look like stuffed sausages in their multiple layers of clothing, like most Chinese children in wintertime. Their reddish, full-moon faces are barely visible between their scarves and woolly hats. The poor parents have propped them up on a couple of jute sacks and have to remain vigilant the whole night long, to make sure they don’t fall off. From time to time the sorely tried father has to take one of them to the toilet, no easy task, given the crowded state of the train, which takes him at least half an hour. Apart from when nature calls, the little dwarfs – again like the majority of Chinese children – are extremely docile. They never cry or protest and only seem to liven up when they are allowed to devour yet another shiny red apple; and they get through quite a few!
After six or seven hours of this torture Adam can’t stand it any longer and gets up and starts stretching, staring into the carriage ahead of us. That’s when we are saved! First Adam is spotted and called over by a bunch of rowdy Chinese guys who make a bit of space for him on their bench. Then they see me and manage to find me a seat too: on a window ledge, next to the hot-water tank, opposite a little cabin and toilet used by the train staff. Some of these guys seem to work for the railways in a semi-official capacity; they aren’t wearing uniforms, but they have the keys to the cabin and toilet and help with the water distribution. Sometimes being a ‘foreign devil’ has its advantages: they even allow us to use the staff toilet, while refusing their fellow Chinese.
And then night falls. To entertain our ‘hosts’ and keep our seats Adam teaches them some sentences in English and even sings ‘Rivers of Babylon’, while I pass my Swatch round. Our Chinese phrase book and Lonely Planet are also circulating. Incredible as it may seem, I even manage to get a couple of hours’ sleep on my ledge. There is a Chinese man next to me, literally curled up inside the wash basin, another one between my legs, perched on top of my backpack, a third flat out on the hot-water tank, his head resting on Adam’s pack, and luggage all around us. Once again we admire the Chinese’ incredible capacity for endurance and their stoicism.
Our semi-express train seems to spend most of the night standing still, letting other, faster trains go past, and the 18-hour journey eventually takes 22!
When we eventually manage to wrestle our way off the train in Lanzhou, we find that our bottoms are soggy and covered in black muck, dripping down from our packs .. yuck.
Not to worry, a half-empty bus nº 1 takes us to the Friendship Hotel, where cosy carpeted triple rooms with 24-hour hot water and real toilets go for 10 Yuan a person. We get straight into a huge bathtub, fully dressed at first, to wash our entire wardrobe and have a good soak at the same time.