No place like it.

04:00 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

On the train platform, waiting for the sleeper to Shanghai. It's late, well early, and the cold creeps past your clothes and into your bones. The train arrives and you and everyone else pile into the carriages. Identical cubicles, stacked bodies, no lights, no bunk numbers. You climb over suitcases and trip over carry bags. Someone behind you tells somebody else that this is cubicle number five and six. You are in 20. Stumble on. Finally, you find your bunk, throw your bag beneath the bed and wrestle off your jeans.

In the darkness a ticket inspector asks for your ticket. After a brief examination, he returns the ticket.
"thank you" you reply.
He flashes his light suspiciously into your eyes.
"Ahh" he sighs "laowai."

Sweep the chicken bones and orange peel off the bed. Sleep. Sometime in your slumber you remember turning your phone off, so it wouldn't disturb the other passengers. You needn't have bothered. People chatter and devices whistle throughout the night. Despite Olympian effort, you cannot must more than a few hours languor. All that Chinese chirruping could rouse an anaesthetised rhino.

Waking on a sleeper train in China is like waking in a strangers living room. Someone's got the telly on, another is munching a packet of crisps and everyone is nursing a cup of tea whilst watching the sleeping foreigner in the room.

You rustle and yawn but nothing averts their gaze. With their full attention, you wrestle on your jeans, grab a box of noodles and make your way to the water boiler. Breakfast. Just in time to watch the train pass over the Yangtze River. You are on your way to Shanghai, to see your best friend and his girlfriend, and things couldn't be better.

You arrive in Shanghai and make your way to the hostel. You've stayed there before, with your new friends from your new job. But that was the sweltering summer and this is the cusp of winter. Turn the corner and see friends you haven't seen in eight months. Your head is no longer in Shanghai, it's in the University of Leeds halls of residence, it's in the Royal Park pub watching the football, it's spinning across a dance-floor on Call Lane. You think to yourself; Shanghai feels so different with your old friends here. You think to yourself; the city isn't concrete and it isn't permanent - it's ephemeral, it's fleeting. A state of mind. Your brain fills with ideas about how its supposed to be the same but always different. But you don't say any of that. You say,
"Alright. Good journey?"

To Pudong. You go together, to see the skyscrapers teasing the clouds and to look down on the world from the World Financial Center. Daylight gives way to twinkling streetlights. Shanghai's magnificent cityscape. From the luxurious rooftop bar, you see a sea of neon lights bubble hundreds of feet beneath you. But here, sharing a pint with your friends, you couldn't be more at home.

You take a train to Hangzhou; it may as well be Headingley. You take a train to Suzhou; probably something you once spoke about, out of your head at the Dirty Disco.

You are living in China, teaching English to children. Friday arrives and you return to your town to teach. A bit of a dump, your little corner of China. A long weekend of work claws at you before you meet up with your friends again. Old friends and new friends, together for food and karaoke. It's 4am, you're the last to leave. Singing songs you sang years ago, drinking like there's no tomorrow. A killer hangover in the post. Good times.

To Beijing, on the bullet. It may as well be Burley. You visit the sights and see the shows. You know what you'll always remember though; that little kickabout in the park with the Maths teacher from Fujian. So far from home, couldn't be better.

Together, you visit temples and gardens. You try all the food that China has to offer and you all agree that Sichuanese is the best. You spend the evenings in that little warm sitting room in your hostel. Drinking beer, playing cards. Everyone you have ever met has different rules for Shithead. You play Spoons too, but now its called chopsticks. The game is tense, no one wants to lose, grabbing chopsticks and giggling into the evening.

The last evening. Tomorrow, everyone goes home. Your boozy bravado makes a suggestion;
"One last game, for the whole of Beijing"
You play, you swipe and you hopelessly miss. You hate losing. Time for bed, time to go and on the train home, you think to yourself; if I could have just one more game,with my friends.

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