A friend of mine, who nearly always travels business class, joking refers to economy class on major European Airlines as "cattle class". I always thought that this was a little harsh. After all, it's only a slightly smaller seat and a slightly less appetizing meal. I hardly feel like livestock when traveling second class.
However, unlike the European commercial aircraft, economy class conditions on Chinese long distance trains just may have lived up to the name "cattle class"
(except cattle are probably given a little more elbow room).
The 24-hour journey from Shanghai to Guilin was my first such "cattle class" adventure. I opted for second class at the suggestion of a friend who seemed to think that first class was a waste of money. Under normal circumstances, I would agree with him. To be honest, I never really understood why people would pay three times as much for a slightly more comfortable seat to sit in. These 24 hours in a Chinese cattle class sleeper car gave me new appreciation for the appeal of first class travel.
The compartment I shared with five other travelers couldn't have been more than sixty square feet. On each side of the compartment were three small bunks. I had the top bunk on the left. The bed was difficult to get into and when I finally did, it was impossible to make myself comfortable. The bed itself could not have been much more than eighteen inches wide and I had a comparable amount of space between my bunk and the ceiling. I am slightly claustrophobic so this really got to me. However, since there were already people in the two small seats at the other end of the compartment, I was pretty much confined to my bunk for the evening. Since sitting up was pretty much out of the question, I tried to adjust my body in a way that I could read my book better--with limited success. The lights went out at nine o'clock and, since I could no longer read, tried to sleep even though I wasn't tired.
I didn't sleep well that night. The car alternated several times throughout the evening between being unbearably hot and being unbearably cold--so I was constantly waking up due to uncomfortable temperatures and either piling on layers of blankets and sweaters or removing them.
However, I was able to obtain one of the seats on the other side of the cabin the next morning and eat my breakfast there. I had fortunately brought my own food. I cannot recommend this enough, since the food sold on the train is very expensive and looks VERY unappetizing. I have found that a few packages of instant ramen noodles (the kind that comes in it's own bowl) and a bag of oranges works well for a 24 hour trip. I enjoyed my breakfast since I could watch the Chinese countryside go past outside the window as I ate. After breakfast I watched out the window for a while and then read for a few hours from my seat. Then, either because it was somehow more comforatable or because I was so tired by this time that I didn't care, I took a nice long nap for most of the afternoon.
Needless to say, when we finally arrived in Guilin at eight o'clock that evening, I was eager to get off the train and stay put for a little while. So I must admit that I was a little irritated when the friend who met me at the station (he had arrived several days before) told me that he decided that he didn't like Guilin and had checked us into a hostel in Yangshuo--and the last bus to Yangshuo left in 10 minutes. (And the bus packed us in like sardines) However, since I had been in transport for 24 hours already, what was one more? I must say that I was more than relieved when we finally did arrive in Yangshuo and I could stay put for a short while.
So that was my first second-class long distance train journey in China. I would have sworn that I would have never done it again but, honestly, after the first time it's all uphill, and after I did it a couple of times, I actually started to like it. (Although I have to say that it makes a world of difference if you make sure to arrange yourself a bottom bunk. You can sit up on them comfortably and there is a small table next to it where you can eat your meals.)
Despite the grittiness and the claustrophobia, there is actually something interesting about it. You can see a lot of interesting things outside your window when you ride clear accross China and you meet (or at least observe) some of the most interesting people when you are forced to share such small quarters with so many people.