Following my time in Hong Kong, I decided it would be best that I see some of the New Year celebrations in Beijing as well. My original plan was to take an 8 hour bullet train from Hong Kong but as it turned out all tickets had been sold out given the amount of people traveling to meet with friends and families. The only other available alternative within my budget was a grueling 25 hour train ride from south to north.
From Kowloon I took the train as north as it went, to the border with China. After going through immigration and crossing into Shenzhen I entered the massive cross-country train station only a few meters way. Admittedly, the better choice would have been to look around and buy a few snacks or any meal but I didn’t know what I would be in store for.
During Chinese New Year, almost 400 million people leave the cities to visit family in the countryside. In effect it is the single biggest human migration in the world; in the process roads, airports and trains are all put to the test as waves of people attempt to get home for the holidays. Countless Chinese films have been made focusing on this event and dozens of movies come out during this time specifically for its money generating capacity. As it turns out though, trying to travel during this time is pretty strange for foreigners to do as I’d find out when I boarded the train and discovered I was the only non-Chinese person there.
Soon enough the train departed, carrying several hundred people cramped into the hallways and triple bunk beds. As we steamed past vast green countryside one could see middle aged farmers with wide bamboo hats, young children laughing and playing in the distance, for a brief second I was able to see a glimpse into the daily life of those strangers which I would never know. I stayed sitting and staring out the window for a long time, simply taking in the view of towering mountains, vast flooded rice fields and now depopulated urban cities as we slowly made our way further northward. The crimson, almost bright blood red of the 福 (good luck) banners plastered across the country stood out amid grey and white buildings while the yellow tiled roofs of buildings adorned with “Chinese-hats” were seen in the distance, the setting sun’s reflection beaming off of them indicating the arrival of night.
Being the only foreigner on board a crowded train does have its perks even though I got a lot of awkward lingering stairs. The family of five, staying in the same cabin as me was very curious and got to asking me all sorts of questions, which I answered to the best of my Mandarin abilities. Naturally they thought I was from India given my darker skin but I explained to them that I was from the U.S. but had Mexican heritage, which in turn bred more questions. The oldest lady inquired 你吃了吗? (have you eaten?) as she handed me some apples and a bowl of noodles; this was good given that I was dumb enough not to have brought food. To be fair even if I was Chinese I’d probably have been given the same hospitality given that Chinese people can be very hospitable but they are especially so to foreigners do in part to their curiosity about them. Regardless of the reason, I was grateful to have been offered some food and tea to drink after the long day alternating between sitting, standing and staring out windows.
When night came I tried to use the toilet, only to find it was a squat toilet, something I’m not used to nor do I think I ever will be used to. People in China must really have some good leg muscles because trying to do one’s business on a moving train while squatting is a serious challenge; luckily I was successful but not without some close calls. At night the fields were dark, the only visible thing were thousands of stars shining brightly in the night sky and brief dark silhouettes of trees as we passed by.
By the time that I woke up, most people were already up preparing water for tea. The hard cot like bed that I slept on had made me sore and so I walked around the train for a bit, encountering the staring of curious travelers likely eager to arrive home. Finally we arrived to Beijing where we were greeted by empty streets as most people had gone off to visit relatives outside the city. As I exited the train I thanked my fellow cabin family for their hospitality and I was embraced by a gust of cold piercing wind in the close to freezing temperature of Bejing’s winter, in contrast to the moderate temperature of Hong Kong. 25 hours later and possibly a few kilos lighter, I headed off to explore Beijing.