A Travellerspoint blog

The train ride from hell

Fifteen hours of the worst experience possible

If we have learnt one thing from our travels it will be this; never, under any circumstances, even if someone gave you one million pounds (oh alright maybe then), chose the seated option on a Chinese overnight train. We’d thought we’d gotten a bit of practice in having done sleeper trains in Australia but nothing prepared us for the fifteen hours of trauma we experienced on this train.

We should really have guessed what it would be like before we even stepped onto the train from the attitude of the lady who sold us the tickets. Sunshine and smiles she definitely was not. She looked incredibly pissed off with us for daring to interrupt her staring into space and when we inquired as to the train times all we got was monosyllabic growls in reply. When we requested a hard sleeper she grunted, “No, hard seat.” Assuming that there were no hard sleepers left we asked her for clarification a few times only to receive a nasty stare back. Seated section it was then.

So we arrived at the train station with a few hours to spare due to our over-cautious prep for our first time travel in China. These few hours before the train journey were an experience in themselves. To start with Rach decided they were in need of a treat so went off to find some chocolate and returned successful. We tore open the wrappers in excitement and took our first bite, then nearly spat it back out again. It had the consistency of tar and tasted like cardboard. Fair to say we didn’t finish it. Our mouths had barely recovered when the gates to the platform opened and all chaos broke loose. To put it mildly the Chinese don’t queue very well and people were literally ramming each other, pushing, shoving and climbing over benches to try and get through. Carnage barely describes it. We managed to get pushed right to the back and it took us a while to get to our carriage.

It was when we got inside that our hearts dropped. We had imagined rows of maybe two or three seats facing the same direction with plenty of leg room and adjustable backs after having been spoiled on the Japanese bullet trains, but we were totally wrong. It was rows of three seats but facing each other in groups of sixes (imagine plane seats turned round). This meant that there was no chance of putting your feet up against the seats in front of you, instead there was six people's legs all trying to cram in the same tiny bit of space. We knew at this point that sleep was not going to be easy, if at all possible.

Not only were we destined to be physically uncomfortable but the people around also made us feel uncomfortable. Being white and in Rach’s case blonde, made us stand out immediately and made our neighbours very curious about us. It started with our books; we’d gotten them out to read and Alex became aware that the guy next to him was staring over his shoulder at the book. Feeling a little weirded out we then decided to do some reviews so Rach got the notepad and started writing. Only two sentences in she glanced up to find she had an audience and they were all watching her. Once the guy opposite started trying to read it out loud she soon stopped. Our final plan was to play some card games which turned out to be even worse. Not only were our immediate neighbours watching (and again peering over Alex’s shoulder) but the people on the opposite side of the train were staring and Rach glanced back and noticed the people behind our row were actually standing and leaning over to watch. We played as long as we could but the stares soon became too much so we resigned ourselves to attempting to sleep, aka staring in to space.

At around two am Rach had managed to briefly nap but now was wide awake. The fact that they don’t turn off the lights hadn’t helped and she now needed the loo. Having climbed over all the bodies sleeping in the aisles she made it to the toilet. It’s a Chinese style loo (hole in the ground) and not only was there wee splashed all around the floor but the flush wasn’t working so there was just piles of poo mounted up. (The picture below was taken well before this, so you'll have to imagine the piles of human excrement.) Desperate she went anyway only to find there was no loo roll and the water tap didn’t work. Having remembered seeing a tap in the corridor she headed back only to find someone sleeping in the sink so she had to lean over his snoring body to wash her hands.

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Utterly defeated we had another seven hours to go and sat there waiting for that glorious moment when we could finally get off the damn train.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • It may be a lot cheaper but unless you are truly desperate we strongly advise going for a bed.
  • Take anything you can to knock yourself out.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re buying chocolate, unless it’s Cadburys, you’re not.
  • It can be a free for all for seats, but if you have got the right ticket make sure you get the ones you've reserved. The inspectors are good and will help you out, as will most people around you.

Posted by rexontheroad 10:37 Archived in China Comments (0)

Stranded in Shanghai

Museums, phlegm and the founding of Communism

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Two days ago we stepped off the Japan-China ferry and dove headlong into a culture shock of epic proportions. We had been previously warned by several people that we had met on our various travels that China was not the most savoury of places to be and that people with white skin and blonde hair (Rach) would be stared at incessantly. So we had no-one to blame but ourselves when we still managed to be surprised on our short walk from the terminal to the hostel, and in fact ever since. People stopped and stared at us in the street, not even trying to cover up the fact that they were doing so and on various occasions during the past two days there have been many attempts to take photos of us ranging from the subtle to the all out blatant. It has been very strange. Another thing to mention about the Chinese on the street is the spitting. Everyone, and we mean everyone, from the meanest looking guy to the cutest looking girl, will start coughing and straining trying to hawk up as much phlegm from their throats as possible. Then they will let fly with the most disgusting, large wad of sputum. And it does not matter where they are be it a shop, in a queue surrounded by other people, in the subway; they will discharge this stuff anywhere.

So, gingerly stepping around the still warm piles of snot and spit, we have actually braved the cameras, the stares and the language barrier and gone out and done some sightseeing. The Bund is an area of Shanghai famed for its architecture and as it was only a short walk from our hostel we ended up going several times. It is a pleasant walk, during the day or at night, and the promenade gives a lovely view of the city skyscrapers on the other side of the river. We learnt a lot about the area from our lonely planet guide and it is essentially the area where the European settlers came to Shanghai and built a lot of the grander buildings. As there weren’t a lot of buildings that we could go into, or many signs giving information about the various histories, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time there.

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So we have spent the vast majority of our time in Shanghai doing some good old museum hunting. The first place we went to was the Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. It is actually a really interesting place and many of the signs are in English so we got to understand the vast majority of what was being shown. There was however some amusing Communist sentiments being shown such as the sign that read “Since the British invaders launched the Opium War in 1840... the Chinese people had repeatedly made arduous attempts and launched heroic struggles to overthrow the rule of imperialism and feudalism”. Hearing the British referred to as overlords and as oppressors was definitely a different experience! Taking all the Communist panderings with a pinch of salt we had a good time and learnt a lot about the formation of the current Chinese communist state.

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Another massive dose of Chinese history came in the form of the Shanghai Museum in the People’s Park. We only managed to cram in a half a day here before we had to head off to catch a train. As a result we missed out on the majority seeing only one floor out of the five in total. Luckily on our China tour we’ll be coming back again and so will probably have to go for another visit as it was a brilliant place. The first exhibition we saw was to do with coins and currency through Chinese history. Anywhere that can make this sound interesting has to be brilliant and it certainly was. The highlight was probably seeing a rare coin that had been minted during the reign of Genghis Khan! We then moved on to the stunning jade exhibition showcasing jade carving through the millennia with pieces from as far back as 6000BC. Sadly this was all we had time for and we can’t wait to come again.

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We’re now sat on the floor awaiting our first overnight train. We’ll let you know how it all goes but we are pretty nervous about it as we are the only non-Chinese people we can see. Still, a little bit of staring never hurt anyone, right?

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • Don’t accept leaflets off vendors in the street. We have seen with our own eyes the leafleters taking discarded ones out of the bin and handing them back out again.
  • People spit in China. A lot. Be prepared to be grossed out at regular intervals during your day.
  • If you are a typical Caucasian or have generally pale skin, or worse blonde hair, you will be stared at like you’re an alien.
  • They are tough on security. Every museum, train station, and subway station thus far has had security and baggage checks. A bit of a pain on a sightseeing day, a massive pain with all the rucksacks and luggage.

Posted by rexontheroad 18:40 Archived in China Comments (0)

I’m ferry bored of this ship

Sea, more sea and sniffer dogs

Today was the day that we set foot on dry land once again after two days aboard the ghost ship that was the ferry from Japan to China. There are no words to describe how joyous an occasion the sighting of land was. Just a couple of hours after boarding in Japan cabin fever had set in and most of the journey passed in a semi-conscious, listless, bored state. There was nothing to do with only four different rooms to explore, there was nobody to talk to with us being the only English speaking people on board (not that there were many passengers, around forty all told), and it wasn’t long before we were contemplating throwing ourselves overboard. Not to commit suicide you must understand, but simply to find a way of livening up our time.

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How did we end up on this ship of dreams you may ask? Back in 2011 when we were planning our travels with our superhero in disguise; travel agent Matt, he’d informed us that flights across from Japan to China would be an expensive option, nearly £500 each. Considering he’d managed to get us eight flights for around £1300 we were shocked at the price. However Matt as always had a few tricks up his sleeve and told us that there are ferry crossings between the two countries for much cheaper.

So a few weeks ago, having had to apply for our Chinese visas in advance, we’d had to provide the authorities with details of how we were entering the country, where we were staying and how we were leaving etc, so we did our research and found there was indeed ferry crossings between Osaka and Shanghai and for the dates that we needed. It certainly was a cheaper option but not an experience we’ll be repeating anytime soon.

Once we’d docked we practically ran down the gangplank with our bags and raced through the terminal. Land! We were on land once again! There was another reason we were racing through immigration though. We’d discussed it beforehand and decided we were going to risk trying to smuggle it through. We’d never tried to bring anything illegal into a country before and we were scared but thought it was important enough to try and sneak it in. Our hearts pounding, our foreheads sweating and trying to maintain an air of innocence we passed the guards, made it through the scanners and foolishly allowed ourselves to relax believing we had foiled security. That’s when we saw the sniffer dogs. Uh-oh, this could be trouble. We laid down our baggage and acted nonchalant. Rucksacks; ok. Hand luggage; fine. Aldi food bag; good. We breathed sighs of relief until the dog went back for another sniff of the Aldi bag. And another. Our hearts started punching holes somewhere in the region of our Adam’s apples as the guard motioned for us to open the bag. He reached down with a gloved hand and started sifting through our items. It was then in the tense silence that his movements ceased and a brief ecstatic sneer crossed his face at our Western impudence in thinking we could simply fool the security. He knew it and we knew it, the gig was up. His face stilled any protests we might have uttered and, with an atmosphere that couldn’t be cut, he stared us straight in the eyes as he pulled out the illicit contraband. He then waved it about for all to see and witness our shame before tossing it aside and begrudgingly letting us pass. We stared back at it knowing that we would never see it again, never cry at its opening and never enjoy its succulent taste. We took one last fleeting glimpse as it rolled on the floor before we rounded the corner and lost sight of our precious onion.

Rex’s Rules of the Road

* The ferry company we used was the Shanghai Ferry Co.. They were really good at helping with our inquiries in English and the food was pretty good!

* Take things to keep you entertained, a lot of things.

* No fruit, veg, meat or human blood allowed through immigration apparently.

Posted by rexontheroad 10:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

No dancing in the club, please

Castles, clubbing and mayo

We’ve had our last three days of Japan here in Osaka and whilst it is a great city the days have been tinged with melancholy. Our first day there was also our last full day with the tour group. We spent it going to Osaka castle which was a really nice place to go and see and definitely the most impressive castle we’ve seen - although like all castles in Japan it has been burnt down several times! The gardens were definitely the best feature as they were teeming with life and people but unlike the rest of Japan no-one was rushing or getting in each other’s way, it just seemed like a lazy day in the park for most.

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As the sun set we made our way back to the hotel, picking up a thank-you card along the way for our tour guide, Keiko. This task was made a little harder by all the cards being in Japanese (and why would they not be?) but we eventually got one and got togged up to go out for our last meal together as a group. We had a lovely meal where both of us had cuttlefish with soy noodles that was presented to us on a hot plate, almost like a bbq, in the middle of our tables. It tasted brilliant and was even better with the Japanese style mayo. And no this was not our British tendencies coming out, but a suggestion by Keiko. After this delicious meal had come all too soon to an end we went for a short stroll along the streets to a bridge that was so brightly lit by advertisements that it felt like daytime.

We were just saying goodbye when, showing an example of Japanese friendliness, we were accosted by a young Japanese woman who it turned out wanted to play a game of rock, paper, scissors. Slightly confused as to why, we obliged and she then said thank-you and left leaving us slightly stunned and the rest of our group laughing at our expression. It was a good note on which to leave some of our group as they headed back to the hotel for an early night before they travelled home the following day. The two of us, Steve, Daniel and Barbara decided that we’d go out with a bang and went off in search of a club. After a lengthy wander around we eventually found one with a decent entry price, although we did get a little lost in the process. Slightly more worrying was that outside of every club that we had looked at there was a sign saying “Dancing Prohibited”. Seeing the looks on our faces one bouncer told us that it was a law in the City of Osaka that there was to be no dancing in clubs. What?? He then went on to assure us that every single club completely ignored this rule and that we were free to shake it; his words, not ours.

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So, after making our choice, we went on inside and shook it. It was a brilliant time and there wasn’t much difference between that and a club in the UK aside from the people being friendlier and talking to us. The boys went crazy when One Direction came on and danced like lunatics whilst Rach and Barbara were more excited by the bubble machines that poured endless amounts of bubbles on to us. We left the club at about two the following morning although we did find out the next day that Daniel had stuck it out until five.

Our last two days have sadly been not filled with much useful sightseeing, instead spent wandering the streets feeling a bit lost without Keiko to guide us, or sorting out things for our onward travel and doing a bit of window shopping (actual shopping being too expensive). It was however punctuated by some interesting events such as the stay in the capsule hotel. Our attitude to capsules is that we’ve done it once and now we never have to do it again. It wasn’t a terrible nights sleep but it wasn’t far off.

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As a treat for our last night we decided to go out and stumbled across a gem; an all you can eat pizza/pasta/curry place. Absolute genius. The food was brilliant and the toppings done in Western and Japanese styles. There was even a pudding pizza with marshmallows and choc sauce that sounds disgusting but was actually lush. A better way to top off our time in Japan than this meeting of Western and Asian we couldn't think of. It has been a brilliant time and definitely very far from what we expected from the country. We're really glad we did the tour as we would not have done half the stuff we did without Keiko, and although it has been the most expensive of all our tours, we would definitely do it again.

Rex’s Rules of Road

  • Many clubs in Japan include free drinks with the entry price and entry for women is usually half the men’s price. Be aware though that due to the cost of a ground floor location in the city, many clubs are hidden away on the upper floors of city blocks, so keep an eager eye out.
  • Try a capsule hotel once if you can, just to say you’ve done it.
  • Tours are great way to do it if you’re short on time as it helps with language barriers, gives someone to answer questions, and as in our case can actually work out cheaper than doing it yourself.

Posted by rexontheroad 01:39 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Monks on fire

Spooky graveyards, mediation and spongy tofu

Yesterday we left Hiroshima so early in the morning that it made our eyes water and headed for the hills. After a lengthy travel via bullet train, regular train, funicular railway, bus and foot we arrived at our home for the night. A monastery high in the hills by Osaka in a little village called Koyasan. After leaving our bags in our tatami (straw mat) floored rooms we set out to visit a cemetery. It is one of the most sacred places in Japan as it contains some of the remains of the man who brought Buddhism to Japan from China. It was a beautiful place to be with lots of shrines both very old and very new. The old ones were elegant and moss covered some having been around for close to two millennia. The new ones were just as amazing although for slightly different reasons. As it was one of the most famous graveyards in Japan it costs a lot of money to have your ashes interred here and so only the rich can afford it. Therefore many of the shrines of remembrance lent more towards the ostentatious than the respectful. There was even a grave for a family’s dog; some people have too much money.

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We rushed back to the monastery to make it back in time for an evening meditation session. One of the monks spoke excellent English and talked us through their style of meditating. We sat cross-legged on the floor and breathed in and out through the nose, counting each breath from one to ten and then repeating. The session was half an hour and whilst we were good at it, there were some around us that coughed and fidgeted.

Stretching out our aching limbs we made back to our rooms to change into our robes for dinner then headed to our dining room. It had been set out beautifully and had some tables on the floor at which we had to sit cross-legged. The meal itself was a monk’s typical meal but not one that we particularly enjoyed. They don’t eat meat so there was a lot tofu which neither of us are particular fans of. We did manage to get most of it down though, only taking exception to the spongy one that leaked with water every time you prodded it.

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After the early start most of the tour group were tired and headed straight to bed but we thought we’d try out the hot baths. Much the same routine as the ones in Hakone (Naked in the hot springs) here however there was only one bath. We’d planned to meet up again after a couple of hours but the water was so hot we were both out in about fifteen minutes! After chatting to our friend Steve for a bit we headed to our room for a comfy night on the Japanese futons.

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Our monk activities were not quite over yet though as we had a few ceremonies to attend this morning. With an early rise of 6.20am we headed to the main temple and watched two monks chanting for over half an hour. How they kept it up we’ll never know but it was non-stop and incredibly beautiful to listen to. We then moved on to the second ceremony; the Fire ceremony! As one monk chanted and banged a drum, another went through a long ritual to make a fire. He had to throw certain powders on it and liquids and he burnt sticks of wood that people had written prayers on. Although he seemed somewhat clumsy and kept dropping things, the ceremony was fantastic to watch and the fire was absolutely mesmerising. Now we’re all monked out it’s time for us to head on to Osaka, the last place on our tour!

Rex’s Rules of the Road

  • It gets very cold up at Koyasan, make sure you have lots of layers. Our monastery kindly gave us heaters so going to bed was quite toasty.
  • The accommodation this tour provides is fantastic and a great change to hostels. If you can get on one in Japan with a stay in a monastery it’s well worth it. See Rach's review of the monastery here.

Posted by rexontheroad 09:40 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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