Written by Varun Hukeri.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
The hustle of Beijing West Railway Station is a common sight no matter the day or the hour. Serving almost two hundred thousand passengers everyday, it’s a rather unglamorous scene of crowded walkways, confused passengers yelling and pushing through, and of course, a McDonald’s — a staple of every train station in China. It’s hard to imagine riding a train as a particularly memorable aspect of studying abroad; after all, China is home to a billion people, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and the second largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. However, during my time abroad, I traveled everywhere by train, from the spectacular Beijing-Shanghai bullet train to the clunky Z-class train in the western provinces. Each of these journeys provided a unique perspective on people and places, and some of my most memorable experiences were aboard the train.
My first time aboard a train in China was a twenty-three hour journey to Zhangjiajie in the southern province of Hunan. This was a K-class train, meant for overnight rides and packed with three-tier bunk beds known as sleepers. Boarding the train, I could feel every set of eyeballs gaze upon me and my friends as we approached our cabin, curious as to who these newcomers may be. Because China is for the most part culturally and ethnically homogenous, there is a sort of cultural fascination with 老外, or foreigners. As one of these foreigners, I would soon discover that the train ride is like a little world of its own.
While aboard the train, my ability to converse in Mandarin with the ticket inspector caught the attention of a group of old ladies who were traveling together. Pretty soon, we all became friends, and over the course of this day-long journey, we played Chinese cards, drank Tsingtao beer and soju, and told stories of our lives back home. The elderly Chinese women, or 奶奶 as we affectionately called them, were full of unique insights into local life. One was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, another worked on a farm in rural Hunan, while a third liked to post Tai Chi videos to her TikTok account.
The physical space of the train and the outside environment also reveals much to a watchful eye. Spend enough time staring out the window, and you notice the diverse geographies of China, from the rolling plains of the north to the fertile lowlands of the south to the scorching deserts of the west. In between the impressive megacities like Beijing and Shanghai and Guangzhou were a constellation of villages and towns, all coming to and from sight as the train chugged along. Inside, the narrow passageways made it impossible to avoid contact, and being a foreigner made it so that every interaction turned into a winded conversation about me. “你是哪里人,” people would ask me all the time, curious as to where I came from. Some of them wouldn’t believe me when I told them I’m American, responding that I must be from India or Pakistan, not America. It was a reminder that perceptions of nationhood and citizenship aren’t viewed the same across cultures, and while a bit awkward at times, was a helpful glimpse into how Chinese people viewed the world. Most people, however, were just excited to meet us, and pretty soon what was once looks of confusion and cautious curiosity turned into smiles and laughter as the cultural, linguistic, and political boundaries melted away and were replaced with genuine camaraderie between human beings.
Ultimately, while most people think of flashy tourist destinations and other typical experiences, such as hiking the Great Wall or exploring the Shanghai Bund, as the hallmark of studying abroad, I found that the best memories are formed in the least expected places. The train is a symbol of a new and more connected China, and so it’s only appropriate that I learned the most about the country, its people and culture, while traveling on it. From affectionate old ladies to excitable children, from staring outside the window watching the world zoom by to playing cards and downing a Tsingtao, there was no place quite like the train. The most important aspect of going abroad is the ability to immerse yourself in another world, and there was no better way to do that than being cramped in a train with hundreds of passengers, traveling thousands of miles, and making new friends and memories along the way.
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