Notes from Hard-Seat

Last Wednesday, I made a visa run down to Hong Kong – one of way too many over the past six months. This time, I got to the train station too late to go through the exit procedures necessary to ride the sealed, soft-sleeper, Hong Kong-bound half of the Beijing-Hong Kong train, and ended up riding hard-seat on the Guangzhou-bound half. These are the notes I took on my phone and e-mailed to my parents while on the train; any typos are to be blamed on the iPhone keyboard and/or on the fact that I was slowly developing gangrene of the arse as the hard seat cut off circulation to my toches and all points south. It may be worth noting that all of this was basically the high point of the trip for me.

I was going to try to edit this together with notes from some of my other train trips down to HK for a more polished blog post, but this is not likely ever to actually happen. 人貴有自知之明 and all that; I’m opting to just post what I’ve got instead.


We’re sitting at the northmost end of the hard-seat car. Guys from behind us, unable to wait, light up before they pass us on their way to the smoking area between cars. It’s not bad — some kind of air vent above the sinks, which is where most of them congregate to smoke, seems to separate the air in the car from the air where they stand, but there’s still a tang of flue-cured tobacco smoke in the air, sharp enough to cut through the MSG and reconstituted space-beef smell of cheap ramen. Am lucky to have gotten the seat; if I hadn’t, I’d be standing in between the cars right now, next to the inadequate and frequently disregarded ashtray.

4:30 - boxed meals look even more dire than usual. Debating whether to try my luck with the dining car later or just go without until Guangzhou.

5:05 - the guy sitting next to me, who has been sleeping quietly with his head down on the table since the start of the ride, gets up and says “excuse me, may I pass” in shy but pretty decent English.

5:15 - somewhere between Linzhou and Xunxian, according to Google Maps. On the bench behind and across from me there’s a young (?) monk with a Jiangnan accent talking about the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and dogs’ Buddha-nature or lack thereof.

5:37 - this is the talkingest fucking monk I ever did see. His seatmates – well, at least the young man (Henan accent?) across from him – seem to be getting into it. He has now progressed to talking about meritorious deeds.

6:12 – we pass through Xinxiang station. The engineer seems as eager to get through the place as – well, as one would imagine. Am reminded of the game I played with Michelle on the way back from Qingdao to Beijing last April, based on the realization that there exist people for whom Xinxiang is the Big City.

6:15 - they switched off the air. It immediately — seriously, within ten seconds — becomes uncomfortably warm and close. The monk is still talking behind me.

6:48 - Zhengzhou. I’m now charging my iPhone back up off laptop battery, and have loaded a few Cantonese lessons on it for good measure, on the offchance that I decide to improve myself.

6:53 – guy sitting next to me gets off. Now have the bench to myself.

About 8:40 - the monk sits down with us and begins talking to the Beijingnese guy across from me and the Zhengzhounese guy next to me. My headphones are in and I am missing out on the Good News about Sakyamuni.

Around 9:30 - the Beijingnese guy strikes up a conversation with me — I suspect in order to keep from being the chatty monk’s sole audience. (The Zhengzhounese guy isn’t holding up his end.) This guy is Beijingnese, and he has met his conversational match — pretty impressive! The conversation is actually pretty nice — the Beijingnese guy is a pleasant conversational partner, and the monk (from Shanghai) talks a bit about having studied Sanskrit and Pali in Sri Lanka, and how he worries his English won’t be good enough for him to move to Canada.

About 10 - The sight of a Chinese-speaking gringo has drawn a crowd – many of them smokers who linger on in the sink/bathroom area after they finish their cigarettes. This is fine, except that one of the guys who sticks around is a practitioner of Falun Gong, and he wants to debate the monk (“I know about Sakyamuni. Li Hongzhi extended his teachings!”) and get support from me (“but you can establish a new political party any time you want in America and Taiwan!”) in his arguments. He claims to have been at the demonstration outside Zhongnanhai that got the Jiang Zemin regime freaked out about FLG in the first place. (“When my friends and I left, we took every piece of garbage with us! That part of Chang’an Jie was the cleanest part of Beijing! Think about it – when the PLA soldiers do anything they scatter their shit all over!”) This is really interesting and special, but the crowd is only growing and I deeply do not want to be near, or perceived as involved in, this conversation.

Neither does anyone else: the Zhengzhounese guy has gone completely silent; the monk is looking very uncomfortable and making the point, several times, that no matter what one believes, one has the responsibility to work within and not against the system of whatever country we live in. (I agree, probably too vigorously.) The Beijingnese guy does a neat trick of comparing people’s different faiths to different types of tea, and while we’re all agreeing he gets up and heads to the other end of the carriage to fill his tea jar.

The FLG guy is now sitting across from me, where he is boxing in the monk and talking about doctrinal issues. (“The Eight Trigrams are Buddhist, right? What about the, you know, the tadpole? The Yin-Yang tadpole sign?”) The Beijingnese guy is playing cards across the aisle (“Looks like you guys could talk for days!” he called over a moment ago.) I have absented myself from this conversation by typing on my phone, very rudely, this past record. Now I am done and will put in my headphones and attempt sleep.

11:26 - The FLG guy gets up and leaves. I resist the urge to press my palms together and say “Amitabha deliver us.”

15 thoughts on “Notes from Hard-Seat

  1. good to read an excerpt of you marathon train seat ordeal. This is when having a phone that emails comes into its own. Very much enjoy reading your insights into their conversation. So wish I could grasp as much of the chat.
    I second the rest – more blogging!

    My only hard seat experience to date. Pingyao to Taiyuan on Hard seat. Only a fairly short connection but never have I been stared at so hard in this country. I must have been the focus of fifty pairs of eyes. I struck up a friendly chat with doubtful teenagers opposite and offer them my phrase book for interest (and a distraction). Unfortunately the crude chat-up lines they immediately turned to and read out loud did nothing for my international relations.

  2. Great stuff. You write a little like Paul Theroux – full of dry quips and sly observations. It would be nice to see more posts like this!

  3. Nicely written. I’ve had several long-term hard seat experiences, but without the same level of language skills none with quite as much insight. Most of mine have involved lots of card playing and dominoes with, after the first 20 or 30 min, little left to talk about that I have the vocabulary for.

  4. I used to travel exclusively by hard seat. Beijing Urumqi, Shanghai… Chengdu Kunming Guangzhou… I’ve been on more of those trains than you I think. No iPhone here. Love your blog though. Keep writing.

  5. Dear Brendan,

    My name is Jiaqi. At the moment, I am a MA student in Chinese Studies, of which includes Practical translation from Chinese to English. I am very interested in culture and language.

    This is actually my first time to think of writing to you,through I’ve heard about you for years now. I have read most of your articles and your stories about your adventurous life in China. However, it seems you rarely write about how you developed your Chinese language skills. It would so so so great if you could share your tips with me, perhaps many others language learners.

    I knew many westerner and ppl from Asia who can speak very good Chinese. However, none of them is as good as you. I have been learning English for years now and it is still not satisfying, especially my written English – hopeless\(╯-╰)/ . I really want to know how your written Chinese is this perfect. Please share your secret tips with us ^:^.

    Thanks a lot.

    Best wishes
    Jiaqi

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