Sauna-train Shanghai

04:59 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

One of the benefits of only teaching at the weekend is that I have plenty of time to travel. In some of our abundant free time, five friends and I took a trip to Shanghai. In the spirit of adventure we decided to take a sleeper train but unfortunately, we could only get tickets for a 4am departure.

In a sleepy daze we waited at the train station for our departure. The conversation was heated - "What is your favourite chocolate bar?" I plumped for the classic Kitkat.

At 4am we crept onto the train and found our bunks. At first, I was excited by my first proper experience on a sleeper train. I had taken a chaotic sleeper train in India during the day but this was my first at night. I was scared I wouldn't actually be able to sleep. The bottom bunk was mine, luckily. None of my friends have gymnastic experience and it was funny to watch them struggle up to the third bunk. Legs, arms and arses everywhere. I put my head to the pillow. The noise of the track beneath me was loud but the rocking of the carriage began to lull me to sleep.

Chinese folk wake early. There were already milling about at 6am. At 7am, birdsong and Chinese string music was pipes through the carriage speakers. With the morning light I could see how old the carriage was. There were no chai-wallas, no hustle and bustle. Efficient but a little charmless. How I wish the rest of the journey had remained just as unmemorable.

The rest of the journey would easily be described as the worst of my life. An arduous 12-hour marathon in a relic sleeper carriage without air-conditioning or water.

The excitement had evaporated by the time I woke up in a pool of sweat. It was hot even at 8am. I climbed out of my bunk and tried to open the carriage windows. They were locked. I found a train guard and gesticulated until she understood my pathetic mime. The first window opened easily but we struggled with the second for 10 minutes. By the time I attempted to wrench the window open, a crowd had gathered to watch. I couldn't open it. We'd have to survive with a stream of air from a gap in the window no bigger than a letterbox.

I spent the next few hours dosing, reading and trying not to move. Every half an hour I'd have to turn over the soaked bedding. The air was stifling. Living in China will undoubtedly change a man. Despite all my British reserve, I had no apprehension to sitting in public carriage in nothing but a pair of shorts.

It approached lunchtime and the six of us gathered for a packed lunch of bread, fruit and instant noodles. The sun continued to heat our carriage. By this point my skin was clammy and beginning to blotch with crimson. We were slowly marinating in our own sweat. The banter over the dinner table provided some respite but we were soon groggy again. I feel asleep listening to music. I'd wake with a shock every time whenever we hit a bend or someone clambered up the bunks. Every time I woke, I realised I was still in the nightmare of this journey.

I stepped off the train in Shanghai's Central Station like a dehydrated refugee. The fashionable Shanghai crowd marched to the metro. I, in my soaked clothes, dragged my sorry arse like a broken man. I had never been so relieved to reach a hotel.

After the epic sauna-train, our little crew had spent too much energy and bodily fluid to really make anything of our first day in Shanghai. We had a lazy stroll around the French Concession and ate western food. In the afternoon I visited a mall, crammed with five floors of fake designer products. The pressure to buy was incredible. The market was aimed at tourists and the prices were ridiculous. I saw a nice pair of shoes on the ground floor for 750RMB. If you managed to fight your way to the fifth floor, you could find the same shoes for as little of 150RMB. I wouldn't have paid more than 80RMB though. I did manage to find some fetching Rayban wayfarers for 35RMB which I were pretty pleased with.

Hawkers, in perfect English, would harass you to look at their watches. I wanted to see what their scam was, so eventually I agreed. I was taken into a small area at the back of the shop. A wall of shelves was moved by the door and we were locked in. The English speaking hawker was left outside and I was with someone who could only speak Chinese. The old intimidation-confusion scam. A set of tacky fake Lolex watches were rolled out in front of us. With a smile I shook my head at the hawker and left empty handed.

For the rest of the trip, we visited a few museums and shops. I was exhausted from the journey and nothing exciting happened. We visited Xintian Jie, a really fashionable and glamorous bar area. Evidently, it is possible for Chinese to be refined and suave, so why do 99% of the population waddle round with their beer gut out or totter on stupidly high, luminous high heels?

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