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By the time I got onto the train to Kunming, I was exhausted– exhausted from lugging a backpack and two suitcases around the Guangdong Railway station while looking for a bank, exhausted from getting offers for overpriced services, and most of all exhausted from from sleep deprivation. In the end, though, I did manage to get done what needed to be done. I changed my HK dollars to RMB (losing 100HKD to a slight of hand artist first), I made it from Guangdong Railway Station to Guangdong East Station via the subway for 4RMB instead of the 50-100 that taxis kept offering me, I got my ticket and I stayed awake long enough for the train to arrive.

When I was finally able to board the train, it was an immense feeling of relief. I stowed my luggage, climbed up to the top bunk and fell asleep before the train even started moving.

An interesting travel companion

One man I shared a compartment with was particularly out-going. At first after hearing all the r sounds in his Mandarin, I thought he was a northerner or maybe from Kunming on his way home. It wasn’t a terrible guess since he had, in fact, spent the first ten years of his life in Beijing, but after that he’d lived only in Hong Kong. As far as I could tell, his Cantonese was the same as a any other Hong Konger, but he’d never felt the need to alter his “standard” northern Mandarin into the heavily accented HK version. I suppose that’s pretty understandable. Anyway, the guy was full of stories. He told me about a ruthless gold-digger from Guangzhou. He talked about how he got into EFL teaching dispite having questionable English skills himself. Most surprising were his plans for after he got to Kunming.

On Chinese Police

“Be careful about Chinese police,” he told me. “They aren’t like Hong Kong police. You really don’t want to make them angry.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Well, there’s this one time I was on a train. It was a long distance one like the one we’re on now. In one of the compartments, there were four or five off-duty police officers, and they were smoking!!!”

I didn’t understand. “Lots of people smoke on the train,” I answered. “What was so bad about them?”

“There was a no smoking sign! They were police! I went into the room and said, ‘How dare you!!? It is your job to uphold the law and you break it yourselves! Have you no shame?”

“Uhh… what did they do then?”

“They continued smoking! And they spoke to me very coldly and told me to leave.”

“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe this guy. I wouldn’t ever talk to police like that in any country.

His plans for Kunming

“So, what are you going to do after you get to Kunming?” he asked me.

“I’m going to look for a visa-granting Chinese school for foreigners. I’ve got a friend to stay with. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m just traveling. I’m going to get a hotel room and go the supermarket to buy some paper underwear.”

“Paper underwear??!”

“Yes. It is available.”

Unlike my last train ride in China, this one was boring once I got on. The soft sleeper was air-conditioned, clean and smoke-free. My roommates on the train were all tech professionals whose companies had paid for their tickets. We had a pretty good conversation. They were pretty curious about my life in Taiwan, and they loved the kids book I showed them. They’d never seen zhuyin before, and one of them hadn’t even heard of it. “What’s this weird stuff next to the characters?” she asked. “It looks sort of like Japanese.”

Though the train was a bit more cramped in terms of sleeping space (you can’t hang your feet over the end of the beds), I slept well and was ready to go when I rolled into Shanghai at 8:00AM. Not knowing quite where to go, and having lost my cellphone earlier, I decided to look for the hostel Micah had recommended to me earlier.

He was right. Mingtown backpackers was a good hostel… a really good hostel. So good, in fact, that it was booked full and about 20 people were milling around in the lobby, waiting to see if a room would open up. I dropped off my bags, put my name on the list, and then headed out with a couple of Mexican guys and a Frenchman that I’d met on the way.

The two Mexican brothers were hard-core. Despite the fact that they currently live in my home-state in the US, and that this was a cheap vacation for them, they’d taking the hard seat train all the way from Xi’an to Shanghai. It was a trip of over 20 hours, the train was far my crowded than my 普快 hard sleeper had been, and they didn’t have a bed. It cost less than 100RMB.

We wandered around the city for a few hours, checking out various hostels, and bargaining aggressively. Eventually, we found one that seemed to be an ok deal, after a 40% price drop, and it didn’t look like it would fill up. We made a note of the location, had some lamian for lunch and then checked back on Mingtown.

It was really, really tight, but we managed to get rooms. I ended up paying 55RMB a night, and I had three roommates. When I walked in the room, I was shocked. There was a Chinese girl from Shenzhen was staying there. I couldn’t believe it! They put foreigners in the same rooms as the locals! After chatting with her for a while, I found out that they even charged us the same price. Right, on!

I shouldn’t publish it on my blog and drive even more travelers there, and in turn drive up the prices, but Mingtown is a nice hostel. The rooms are air conditioned, there’s a free washer and dryer for everyone to use, and the staff is super helpful. If I ever go back to Shanghai, I’ll definitely consider the place. The crowd was pretty different at Mingtown than it had been at Leo’s, in Beijing. Other than those two Mexican guys, I didn’t see any hard-core backpackers. There weren’t any groups of hard-drinking joie de vivre types, either. Instead, there were more English teachers, who lived in other parts of China. They could pretty much all speak at least some Chinese. One girl had done the CET Hangzhou program, and could speak and write far more Chinese than I could. There were also a fair number of Taiwanese tourists, too. It was a nice hostel, but the experience wasn’t all that bloggable.

I just got of the longest and most uncomfortable train ride of my life. I’d been warned. When I messaged John from the train station on Thursday, saying I’d bought a 普快 ticket, he told me it would suck. He told me that the train would stop and every insignificant little town on the way from Shanghai to Beijing, and it did. I listened carefully to his description and plowed on and took the train anyway, since all the other tickets for trains to Beijing that day were sold out.

I was in a cabin for six. Beds were to the left and to the right, a low bed, a middle bed, and one close up to the ceiling. I had the middle bed. There wasn’t enough space between it and the top bed for me to sit up or move much, but it was enough space for sleeping. Unfortunately, there was no air-conditioning, so it was pretty sweaty and gross.

The other passengers on the train smoked nearly incessantly, and quite a few also spit on the floor inside. It was disgusting, but strangely facinating seeing people with no qualms about spitting indoors. It wasn’t anything like the stories my old roommate Andrew told me about his train rides in China several years ago, but it was definitely a sight that I’ve never seen in Taiwan. Did the Taiwanese used to do that, too?

As difficult as sleeping was in the sweaty, smoky environment, it was still easier than conversation. Two of my neighbors were from Shandong, and had weird accents. I could only understand about half of what they were saying, and we mutually gave up our attempts at conversation after an hour or so. The third was a young man from out of town, who had been working in Shanghai for three years. He asked me a little about where I was from and where I was going, made a little chit-chat, and then he got into full gear, telling me about his hardships.

I’m on my way home to visit my family for the first time since New Year’s. I came to Shanghai because I could get a better job than what I had back at home. It’s still not that good though. I work hard every day, and by the time I’m finished my skin is black with dirt. You don’t understand what it’s like. I wish I could go visit Beijing like you are, but I only make 1000RMB a month. You don’t understand. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a house. All I’ve got is my own two hands, and that’s what I’ve got. I envy you. You can just come here and go to all the famous Chinese places, but I grew up here and I can’t.

What can a person say to that? I made some lame reply about how China’s improving really quickly, crawled back up onto my bunk and tried to sleep.