John and Rowan from YPT embarked on an eight-and-a-half hour train journey from the high-tech city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province to a small, off-the-beaten-track city of Hengyang in Hunan province.
We made this particular trip as the peak of Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year) was about to hit, which is most famous for being the largest migration on the entire planet solely within China. Over 2.99 billion trips are made – 2.26 billion trips by road, 413 million by train, 73 million by air and 43 million by boat according to Chinese state-run media.
We do this kinda stuff because we enjoy it and you guys won’t.
Here are our tips on how to survive a standing train ticket in China.
If you’re not up for the challenge, you can find the conductor who is able to upgrade passengers to any last-minute carriages attached to the train or to any beds/seats that were left over by people missing the train or getting a refund. The sooner you can find the conductor, the sooner you’ll secure your ticket. They usually shuffle up and down the carriages making announcements for upgrades. Remember to have some cash on you, because not all can accept WeChat or Alipay payments.
Finding prime real estate
With a Chinese standing ticket you’re only assigned a carriage number. Anything within that carriage is up for grabs (excluding the seats already purchased by other passengers). So it’s key to find a great spot, Here’s our favourites in order:
Near the carriage door and in between the carriages
Here you’re able to place your luggage down and use them as a makeshift sofa. You can lean your back against a wall and people move between you, rather than behind you. The only real annoyance is needing to move when the train arrives at a station and the conductor needs to shift you out of the way to allow passengers to alight and disembark.
The washroom area
I don’t mean inside the toilet, oh God no. I mean the washroom area where your fellow passengers wash their hands, the ladies do their makeup and old men hock their spit. There’s enough room for you to plonk down your luggage nearby and to use the washroom bench as a seat. There are a few annoyances with being here such as someone needing to wash their hands or the stench of the toilet nearby, but it sure beats the below.
Leaning against a seat
Okay, so 1 and 2 are taken. Your only option left is shuffling down the aisle in between your fellow standing passengers. Your next best move is to find a seat to lean against. The widths of the hard seater are actually quite wide and it isn’t so bad to learn your body against it. Do a friendly check to the two passengers with their backs against the seats of what you’re laying against and lean away! Don’t forgot to look above the seats for a spot to store your luggage. Leaning and holding onto your luggage isn’t ideal.
Squatting between the seats
If all the good leaning spots are taken, your last resort is to lay/squat between the seats. It’s not ideal if you’re a big lad like me, but sometimes there can be some extra space between the legs of the passengers on the seats which allows you some room to park your butt on the floor.
When a seated passenger stands to go to the toilet, it’s gonna take them a good 20 or so minutes to squeeze passed all the standing ticket passengers, wait for the toilet and then to squeeze back again. So this is your chance to take their seat! When they’re back, give them a smile and let them know you kept it warm for them.
Drink baijiu (Chinese white wine)
To make the journey a little more pleasant, a bottle or two of Baijiu will help the train go a lot faster. It also helps open up conversations with your neighbours so you may learn a thing or two on your way! A typical bottle of Chinese baijiu can go for 10RMB and is usually 50% alcohol. Make sure to bring some water and snacks to level it out and always remember to drink responsibly!
Bring playing cards
A good way to earn you a seat with a group of people is owning a deck of playing cards. If they don’t have any and are looking for a good way to kill time, there’s a good chance of them squeezing over and allowing you to sit with them.
You’re all in this together. Patience is key. Be helpful to people walking past with large luggage; don’t be afraid to give them a hand. Chinese kids will probably want to practise their English with you. Old people may ask you to take a swig of their home-brewed moonshine. The more you smile, the more the locals will appreciate your understanding.
Good luck everyone!