In 2009 after a good friend of ours in England sadly passed away, I decided to go and visit my friend who was living and teaching English in Xichang, Sichuan Province. I hardly knew anything about the place, except for my friends descriptions of it being completely different to Beijing and a lot more lawless and wild. So, the next day I packed my bag with a few clothes and my passport and headed down to Beijing West train station to buy a ticket and get on the next train down Xichang.
After about 20 minutes of trying to explain to an attendant that I was trying to get to ‘Xichang’ and that I wasn’t just pronouncing the word ‘Sichuan’ in a funny way, he led me through a door and down in to the depths of the station. Beijing West is an absolutely huge station and after about 3 minutes of walking down semi-lit small corridors I realized that this place was not the normal place where people would go to buy a ticket and that there were actually no members of the public around, a stark contrast to the scenes from which I had just been led. Five minutes and several small corridors later we arrived in what was the strangest ticket office I’ve ever seen, even in China. It was again dimly lit, and was attended by a small old woman who sat behind a ticket desk that looked as though it had come straight out of a 1940’s film. There was no glass just bronze bars and wood. The attendant who had originally escorted me to this strange ticket office explained to her in a heavy Beijing accent where I wanted to go. However when she replied (my Chinese was abysmal at this point), he turned to me with a slight grin on his face and explained as best he could, mostly by gesturing, that there were no beds left and only hard-seat tickets were available. I had already set my mind on going that day and as i had just traveled across Beijing and was in no mood to do it again, I agreed to take the hard-seat ticket, much to the amusement of the attendant. I only realized afterwards the train from Beijing to Xichang takes 46 hours…
Anyone who has been in a hard seat carriage in China will tell you, they are not the most comfortable of affairs. The seats are close and the people are packed in tight. Surprisingly, however, there are relatively few disputes and there is a strong sense of everyone trying to pull together to make the best of a bad situation, sharing snacks and playing cards. I was sat opposite a young couple and next to an old man who only stopped crying once for the whole journey after I offered him a beer that I had bought in the station before boarding. As the train slowly made its way towards Sichuan, people gradually left the train until after about 30 hours seats began to become empty and there was a little more room to move and have a look at who else was around me. There was a large group of about 20 people who seemed like migrant workers playing cards. During one of my trips to the end of the carriage for a cigarette, something which always drew a lot of attention as I was a foreigner, a couple of them invited me over and offered me a couple of swigs of baijiu, in return I offered them a couple of beers which they gladly accepted. Not long after this I went for a toilet and a cigarette break, leaving my beer on the table close to my seat, I returned and carried on drinking a bit with them and then went back to my seat to read for a bit. It was at this point that I realized that something wasn’t right. A strange feeling came over me and my head began to spin a bit, however it wasn’t the same feeling as being drunk, everything became very hazy. I wondered what was causing this weird feeling and after a short time my puzzled look was obviously noticed and I didn’t have to wait long to get an answer. I was semi-slumped in my chair and I managed to raise my head long enough to look at the leader of this group of migrant workers, who looked straight back at me with an evil grin on his face and said the words ‘heroine powder’…
I spent the next few hours drifting in and out of sleep, very aware of the fact that I was being watched, and trying to shake off the feeling that being spiked with heroine had left me with. I looked across at the group still sat across the aisle, the leader again looked me in the eyes and asked if I know what ‘si er’ means, when I hazarded a guess at ‘fourty two’ he shook his head coldly and made a throat slitting motion with his finger across his neck. It was then that I remembered that the word for death in chinese is ‘si’. The group were there chattering in heavy Sichuan dialect and occasionally peering over at me. The man sitting opposite me with his girlfriend or wife was clearly listening in to what they were saying and as I looked over at him he signaled to me with points and head movements that this group were planning something against me, and it wasn’t good. I nodded to show that I had understood his meaning, however, I still didn’t have a clue what to do about it, the problem with trains is that there isn’t anywhere to leave to. So we sat there for a couple of hours in this manner, these people plotting away and the man and his wife opposite me listening, whilst occasionally pouring out a tray of peanuts from a large sack and sharing them with me. In my broken Chinese I managed to ask the man where he was going on the train and he said the same place as me, and I tried to explain how grateful I was for his help. He gave me his phone number and we agreed to meet up for food a couple of days later. What happened next I will never forget, we were pulling in to a tiny station in the middle of nowhere, one of the group who I will refer to as the bandits from now on, made a loud comment directed at me, and I still don’t know what it was to this day. But upon hearing this comment, the man opposite me looked right in to my eyes, gave me a nod, poured out a tray of peanuts and stood up in front of the bandits, gave them all a disgusted look, lifted up his t-shirt and started rubbing his belly. In southern China this is considered a grave insult. Straight after doing this, the man took his bags, and his wife’s hand, and made an exit from the train. The bandit leader made a motion with his hand and said a few words, four of them stood up and closely followed the couple off the train. I tried calling him a couple of days later as we had agreed to no avail. I still don’t know what happened to that man and his wife.
After their departure, my section of the carriage was mostly empty except for me, and the approximately 16 bandits that remained. I had been planning to meet my friend (another foreigner) at the station when I arrived, and I had mentioned this earlier when i was drinking with the bandits. I knew I had to warn him but when I pulled out my phone, it was dead. They were still talking about me thinking that I didn’t understand a word they said, but their intentions were clear enough, they were planning to rob me when I got off the train. At that point I had an idea, even though my phone was dead, I very obviously pulled it out and acted as though I was sending at text to my friend. They saw me doing this and soon afterwards I heard them say the word ‘jingcha’ which in Chinese means police. After this they entered in to a sort of debate and when the train stopped at a station two hours from our final destination, all but three of them got off. The leader still sat across the aisle from me with that smirk on his face, he picked up his phone and made a call and it dawned on me that he was calling others down to the station ready for my arrival. After this he got up and walked off up the train, while his companions moved to a seat 2 or 3 rows down and were obviously keeping an eye on me.
At this point I had pretty much run out of ideas. Soon we would be pulling in to the station and they would be there waiting for me, and my friend who was coming down to meet me would also stumble in to the situation. I picked up my bag and made sure that i hadn’t left anything behind and resolved to find the policeman that was on board every Chinese train. I made my way to the dining cart, and saw that he was sat at a table near the opposite end smoking a cigarette. I approached and sat down opposite him and did my best to explain what was going on. At first i thought that he seemed overly calm about the matter, however, he soon explained why. Only 2 weeks before, 15 Russians who had been making the same journey had been beaten up and robbed as they got off at the station, this was obviously not an uncommon occurrence. He then went on to tell me that he would phone ahead to the station and have me escorted from the train. It was a great relief, however, I still had to contact my friend and tell him not to meet me at the station, but my phone was out of battery. Many people complain that the staff in the Chinese train dining carts are rude and unwelcoming, however that day, they also played a part in saving my skin. First they invited me to eat with them, they had cooked up a huge bowl of spicy chicken which everyone (me included) dug in to. They also offered me beer, when I refused they gave me a can of coke. Over the food I did my best to explain my situation to them when the chef, who was also eating with all the other staff, suddenly perked up. It turned out that he had the same phone as me and he had his charger with him. He fetched it and plugged it in and soon my phone was charged enough that I could call my friend. We were still out in the country so I had no signal but the policeman told me that soon it would pick up, and it did. I called my friend, and told him what had happened amongst his gasps of astonishment, I told him not to come down to the station and that I would call him when I had arrived and was in a taxi, then he could tell the driver the address. During the last hour of that journey as we were sat in that dining cart, occasionally, one of the bandits would come and peek round the corner, staring at me eating with the staff, clearly wondering what was going on, every time they did the policeman or the staff in the cart would tell them in a very strong manner to go away and they would, only to return 15 minutes later.
As the train pulled in to the station the policeman told me to wait a few minutes for everyone to get off and soon two more policemen arrived at the carriage door in order to escort me out of the station. As they led me through the crowd of people waiting I held my breath. There must have been about 50 people surrounding us, and I knew that amongst that crowd somewhere were the people that the bandit leader had called down. Eventually we broke free of the crowd and I was directed to a taxi. I got in the front passenger seat and felt the relief wash over me, I had made it. I froze up again as the back passenger door behind me opened and someone got in. It turned out that it was standard routine for taxi drivers there to drive more than one passenger at a time in order to make more fares. I called my friend, who told the taxi driver the address and soon we were speeding through dark twisting roads towards my friends house. When we arrived, he came out with a knife in his pocket, clearly what had happened to me had made him jumpy as well.
In reflection, what happened to me over the course of that journey was something that hardly any travelers in China have ever experienced, it is the only time I have ever felt truly intimidated in China, and in a way, I am glad that I can walk away with such a good story to tell. However, if it hadn’t been for the man and his wife on the train, the policeman on the train, the food cart staff, the chef and the policemen who braved that crowd with me, it might have been a very different story, and for their help I am forever grateful.