Life on the Slow Train: Views of a Vanishing China
August 24, 2020 4:27 PM   Subscribe

First built in the 1950s, the iconic green trains are a relic of another age, differing in almost every way from the sleek high-speed rail cars replacing them. Tickets are dirt-cheap. The carriages are crowded, chaotic, and stifling in the summer heat. It can take hours for the lumbering locomotives to chug between cities. Yet Qian can’t stop riding. Since 2006, he estimates he’s traveled 150,000 kilometers by “green train,” accumulating 490 ticket stubs and 200,000 digital photographs along the way.
posted by Tom-B (12 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
So great! Thank you! One one the most sublime experiences in my life was taking an ancient and slow train across from Mérida to Valladolid in the Yucatán. It might have cost 6 dollars? Mostly Mayans riding. Took forever and when the sun went down it was dark in the train cars, so when we passed through little towns, the cars were lit by the fires on the ground outside.
These trains, I believe, no longer exist on this route.
posted by Glomar response at 4:36 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Great find! One of my favourite train journeys was the ride from Wu Yi Shan to Fuzhou. We caught a train very similar to those depicted in the photos. Probably took us about 5-6 hours to reach our destination. I loved it though. So many highlights including:

+ Buying freshly cooked corn from a platform vendor
+ Sharing fruit with other passengers
+ Drinking some warm beer served from a trolley cart
+ Watching a young guy move from carriage to carriage selling socks - to show how robust the socks were he used them to hang from the roof of the carriage (inside) and tried to burn them with a lighter
+ Seeing field after field of white ducks on farms

There was also a hectic argument between two women that almost came to blows - people rushed to get a look.

The toilet wasn't a toilet - it was just a hole cut into the floor of the cubicle.

The great thing about the trip was the slower pace - it really gave you a chance to look at the countryside and spot things that maybe you've miss on a high-speed train. That said - I don't think I could make it through more than half a day. I could see how it would get pretty uncomfortable.
posted by awfurby at 5:03 PM on August 24, 2020

Oh, yay - I was hoping this was going to link to a collection of photos. (Is there a blog these are taken from? I didn't see a link in the article, other than the wonderful Chinese on the Train link.)

The woman in the red coat with the red and pink flowers - gorgeous.

Fascinating stuff.

Thank you for posting this, Tom-B!
posted by kristi at 5:07 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

This was thought provoking. China, understandably, is just so huge and contains so many different levels of life experience and diversity. This was a different perspective to what I am used to seeing and that I kind of would like to experience myself, if not for the totalitarian fascist regime and human rights violations.

This diversity includes, apparently, the coming of the anti-christ (2nd to last image, young boy with 666 shaved into his hair). I can't wait to see what he'll get up to! I wonder what his social credit is at so far.
posted by mephisjo at 9:16 PM on August 24, 2020

Hey there, just as a point of contrast I want to share my video about getting on a modern bullet train at Beijingnan Railway Station. I have ridden these fast trains all over China, really incredible the massive and excellent infrastructure they have here... As for the "Green Trains", they remind me of Europe :) And never ridden one, who has the time?
posted by Meatbomb at 11:01 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is literally my hell, because I am soft. But I love the photos!
posted by dame at 2:19 AM on August 25, 2020

This diversity includes, apparently, the coming of the anti-christ (2nd to last image, young boy with 666 shaved into his hair).

You might already know this, but the number 6 is considered good luck in Chinese culture - so 666 is more likely to be a good luck thing than anything else.
posted by jdangeresque at 3:32 AM on August 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

More on 666.
posted by trig at 4:01 AM on August 25, 2020

Thanks for the information, I did not know that.
posted by mephisjo at 6:49 AM on August 25, 2020

There are a couple of slow trains that got quite a bit of media coverage a while back with "Pigs On a Train"-esq headlines. The other thing that grabbed people's attention is that ticket prices for these trains stayed at 2RMB for 50 years. (That would be about 30 cents in USD.) They go through Daliang, a mountainous region in the western parts of China where a lot of Yi people live, and they use the trains as mobile farmer's markets. The trains perform a great public service, and are of course operated at a loss.

I can't find articles in English about these trains, but here are a couple with nice photos. (Warning: the second one has pop-up ads.)
posted by of strange foe at 8:04 AM on August 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

This reminds me of the China I visited on two around-the-world trips I took in 2004 and 2006. The train stations were a sea of people pushing and shoving to get on board. Trying to buy a ticket was a days long process, especially if it was near a holiday (I managed to get stuck in China during the huge October holiday travel period on multiple occasions). Tickets were not available on the internet much back then (definitely not in English) so you had to stand in line at the foreign ticket booth in each station. Often times tickets would sell out for days on end when scalpers bought them up to resell. I found myself stuck in towns I didn’t want to visit for days because there were no onward tickets and I bought whichever ticket I could get to get me part of the way.

Backpacking alone for 6-14 months at a time, I was quite budget conscious and often took sleeper trains to travel longer distances while avoiding paying for a hotel for the night. I chose my cabin class depending on the country norms/safety and price, usually getting a hard sleeper (less fancy but with a bunk) in China. I loved how at the end of each train car there was a nook with a giant old fashioned metal hot water jug for people to use for tea and could always buy instant ramen in paper bowls at each train platform. The coolest part was the ramen accessories available — aged eggs vacuum sealed and so on. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if there was a dining car because I never left my seat except to go to use the toilet because I couldn’t leave my bag for long for fear of theft. There was a whole community on these trains, people sharing food and playing cards. This was before cell phone were common (before the iPhone was invented) and I traveled without a phone at all. When I ate my ramen someone in the train usually came by and dropped an egg in it or added something to my meal. If I was sick someone gave me medicine. People took care of each other and in China in the early 2000s if I was in public I was being watched. Since I stayed away from the east coast I was often the only westerner around.

The only overnight hard seat (not sleeper) I took was a 12 hour ride from Urumqi to Dunhuang. It was part of a long, two day trip from Urumqi to Lhasa by train, taxi, bus, and train. I tried to get a sleeper from Urumqi, but every day I went to the train station tickets were sold out. After days of trying I gave up and booked the hard seat. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was nicer seats than I figured (yay for seat covers) but the seats were set up like a booth—two seats facing two seats with a table in the middle. This makes sense with people in China often traveling as families but was not cool for a solo traveler. Every time my seat mate wanted to get up or a new passenger boarded to take the seat next to me I had to move. People were constantly getting up and walking around so I spent the night worried about my bag getting stolen, and someone always was playing a radio. The lights were left on in the hard seat car all night, so no sleep was to be had. Most passengers in this car were not traveling the entire route.

When I finally arrived in Dunhuang in the morning I wasn’t actually in Dunhuang because the train dropped you off a 1.5 hour shared taxi ride away. We arrived in town later than I hoped and missed the one morning bus to Golmud so I walked around in a sleepless haze all day, waiting for the night bus. At least train stations had baggage checks back then even though I carried my smaller bag with computer, SLR, and all the heavy stuff with me all day. Chinese sleeper buses are fascinating, with tiny metal bunk beds that were the exact width of my hips if I slammed myself hard into the mattress while laying perfectly flat on my back for the 10 hour ride to Golmud where the train to Tibet stopped. As we were arriving in town very early a man meekly approached me to practice his English. I often went days without running into any English speakers in western China, so meeting one at the last train stop before entering the Tibetan plateau was unexpected.

I had thought I would get stuck at the train station trying to buy a ticket—this was the first year the train line to Tibet was open and I was maybe supposed to buy a travel permit and ticket from an official tour agency but back then who really knew what was what—official information wasn’t on the internet as much as now. I asked my new friend to buy my ticket for me, and then sat in the waiting room with him as he filled out my passenger card in Chinese for me while police officers stood around the edges of the room armed with machine guns, watching. It was still dark out and I sat there sweating, hoping to go unnoticed long enough to get on the train. Once I got on there were no more stops in towns until Lhasa. I made it, and because I had a normal ticket sat in a car with locals and Tibetan monks. I imagine if I was on a different ticket I would have been placed with the tourists. I made a little table of my modes of transport with times and seat class around China if you’re interested (2004 and 2006).

A friend of mine, who I originally met back in Urumqi, has ping ponged back and forth from China over the last 14 years. The last few years he’s been telling me tales of the new China—the amazing subway and trains that didn’t exist in 2004, the automated ticket systems, the paperless tickets and phone apps to pay for everything. It sounds amazing, but it also comes along with a loss of the way of travel that I experienced and a lack of anonymity. I could never travel the way I did in the new China, and I wonder what kind of experience I would have if I tried to recreate my steps. Would I experience the same sense of community in these high speed trains that you experience on the green trains and other slow trains?
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:47 AM on August 26, 2020 [9 favorites]

Would I experience the same sense of community in these high speed trains that you experience on the green trains and other slow trains?

Absolutely not. It is like airplane seating or living in a modern apartment block, people try not to engage with neighbours. Quick and purely transactional travel.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:37 PM on August 26, 2020

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