The Standing Train by Robyn Jankel
Haerbin's illuminated ice castles were melting.
We were English teachers in China, holidaying in the north. As winter thawed, our Cantonese classrooms beckoned, but Haerbin remained unvisited. Trains were standing room only and the journey would last 24 hours. But the ice castles were melting and so was our time. Such discomfort was fair exchange, we reasoned, and snapped up the few remaining tickets.
At 2:00am on the platform, surrounded by leathery peasants bearing folding stools and determined grimaces, the first doubts appeared. When the overstuffed train rolled into the station and guards forced a chosen few through its groaning doors, our apprehension increased. Once on board, I surveyed the seething mass of humanity and realised our catastrophic error. Heilongjiang's snowy palaces shrank to a fabled, distant dream. What we had willingly entered was a nightmare.
The train was packed. And not rush hour on the Tube packed, but impossibly, astonishingly, terrifyingly packed; the wooden benches stuffed with a dozen passengers, children crouching under tables, adults climbing on top of one another and an unmoving, solid throng of travellers compressed into the aisle. Yet with no space to breathe and surrounded by groping limbs, the passengers' only consternation was that four westerners now shared the claustrophobic lowest class. Unable to squeeze through into a carriage, I remained in the enforced limbo of the joiner; wedged between the wall and a toothless woman who thrust a bucket into my arms.
We anticipated the first station almost as much as our distant disembarkation, but it was to prove an almighty disappointment. A few passengers escaped but hundreds more tried to take their places. With no entry through the bulging doors, they climbed on to the outside of the carriages. As we puffed slowly out of the station, stooped men and wiry old women lowered themselves through the windows on to the boiling sea of people below.
The night air dropped to -10˚C and ice formed on the inside of the window. As my fleece stuck to the frosty wall, I thought longingly of the down-filled coat under my feet. Lashed to my rucksack and relegated to the floor on our arrival, it now served as little more than a lumpy carpet. My head pounded from the frozen air and increasing dehydration; our carefully-packed water bottles and essential Chinese train journey sustenance (biscuits, mini jellies, cup-a-noodles) nestled in our rucksacks alongside those longed-for additional layers, mere inches away yet painfully inaccessible. This inability to eat or drink was arguably no bad thing since the tiny toilet had been taken over by a family of three leaving no room to close the door, let alone use the facilities.
A coughing fit offered a brief respite from the crush. My horrified neighbours thought only of the SARS epidemic and managed, impossibly, to back away whilst I groped blindly for my inhaler. A baby peered inquisitively from the luggage rack.
Some eight hours into the journey, we knew that the train would pass through Beijing. I wondered: should we leave? We could just get off this journey into the depths of a frozen hell and cut our losses. How breathtaking could those ice palaces really be? How much did we care? There were no alternative tickets or methods of transportation. We had chosen the busiest weekend of the year to make this journey, immediately before Spring Festival, alongside hundreds of millions of people simultaneously crossing the country to get home to their loved ones. Wherever we disembarked, that's where we'd welcome the Chinese new year. But we could sit. We could drink. We could breathe!
We stayed on the train.
The hours were painful but as the sun rose, they seemed shorter. The bucket lady handed around kumquats, closing our protesting hands around her precious wares. A man with a puppy in his pocket shared his sunflower seeds. For a brief moment the area was filled not with the laboured breathing of constricted, contorted individuals, but mutual appreciation of shared discomfort. When thirst and sleeplessness caused blackness to cloud my vision, I was thrust ceremoniously and inexplicably into the carriage. Crowds miraculously parted, the edge of a bench made free, a dirty bottle of water appeared from nowhere. Somebody started singing. In the afternoon light, we could see views from the windows. By the time we pulled into our destination, we had made precious friends and crossed silent barriers.
In Haerbin, the ice castles were stunning.
We revelled in their chilly splendour, then sat down and drank tea.