China Train Travel – Hard Seater Class (Jinan to SuZhou) – It’s not such a pain in the ass afterall….
They say if you really want to experience a culture when traveling, travel like the locals. Take the local trains and buses, hike / backpack on the street, hop on a bike and just explore. That’s exactly what Gisa and I did (although not exactly planned) on our 9 hour train ride from Jinan to SuZhou. Thanks to new advanced train booking systems, you can now book train tickets 10 days in advance in China. This is great if you have the foresight in planning a trip. This absolutely sucks if you are a last minute traveler like me. So all Soft Sleeper (4 beds in a compartment), Hard Sleeper (6 bed in a compartment) and Soft Seater (larger comfortable seats) were all sold out. All that was left was the barebones Hard Seater class. I guess we should have considered ourselves lucky because there’s actually a class of travel that is even more hardcore than the Hard Seater class : the No Seat Class. Essentially this is a ticket to get you on the train but you basically have to fight for whatever horizontal surface you can sit on. I did this once with my friends many many years ago traveling 13 hours from DaTong to Beijing settling on a nice comfortable spot on the floor between the trains next to the WC!
Plate Of The Day To The Rescue!
Should you ever find yourself needing to take a Hard Seater or No Seater Class, here’s some necessary supplies we found extremely useful for the trip:
1. Fang Bian Mian or Instant Noodles – Hot water is readily available for free on the trains so you can make yourself a nice comfortable bowl of noodles whenever you like. The trick is getting through the mobs of people sitting on the floor next to the water machine.
2. Crackers – I’d recommend some good old Chinese digestive crackers to help you stomach the trip.
3. Sunflower Seeds – more for passing the time than for nutritional value. Also it’s bonus points for trying to blend in with the crowd. They are also great for sharing with your fellow travelers and can also be used in general bartering for other goods such as fruit, magazines, and newspapers (Spitting shells on the floor is optional)
4. Peanuts – Same concept as the sunflower seeds. Try to get the unshelled ones for added fun and entertainment. We couldn’t find any that day.
5. Packet of tissues – As you may or may not know, most public toilets in China don’t supply toilet paper. BYOTP yo!
6. Sanitary Wipes – upgrade for the above item. Also a great way to wash your hands since most public sinks don’t provide soap either.
7. Water for obvious reasons
2. Beer (Blend in with the locals)
3. Bai Jiu (Chinese grain alcohol) – blend in with the locals, make friends, pass time, and prepare for a nasty hangover the next day.
4. Playing Cards – careful not to lose all your money to the locals
5. Ipod / MP3 player – the Kenny G soundtrack they loop on the trains gets rather annoying after 10 mins.
Most of the above you can buy from vendors on the train, but you never know. There is also a restaurant car on the train usually but this would involve leaving your valuables unattended so we didn’t get a chance to do this unfortunately. I’ve done this on the Beijing Shanghai ride and the food is awesome. There’s just something about watching the landscape speed by your dining table while chowing down on basic food.
In the end, we were both a little bit disappointed (yet relieved) that the train ride wasn’t as hard core as we had anticipated. I guess times have changed. Smoking was not allowed in the seating area of the train nor was there much spitting in the cars. There was also Air Conditioning and flat screen TVs showing the news and short comedy clips for most of the ride. What an upgrade from what I experienced 5 years ago on the trains! Well I guess it’s all in the name of progress. Every time I visit China I am astounded by how quickly things advance. Did you know that the high speed train that links ShangHai and Beijing features private cabins with your own individual bathroom, TV and high speed internet? They are also building a new high speed rail (300+ Km/hr) that will cut the travel time by half down from Beijing and Shanghai down to 6 hours to be completed by the time of the Olympics. Amazing isn’t it? It still takes me an hour+ to get from JFK to Manhattan on the A train!