J. Kenji López-Alt blah

Xi'an to Chengdu: Traveling in China? You'd Best Buy Your Train Tickets Early.

Location: Overnight train K879, from Xi'an to Chengdu, China

It'll be OK, I'm sure there are plenty of spaces left, I told my wife, Adri, as we joined the massive, jumbled queue at the Xi'an train station's ticket office two days ago to buy our tickets for Chengdu.

Famous last words.

You'll have to excuse any typos in this entry—it's a little difficult to type effectively when your laptop is balanced on a single knee, even when that laptop is a brand new, ultra-light, super-slim, ideal-for-a-traveler-on-the-road, 11-inch MacBook Air (I mention it because this may be the happiest I've ever been with a device, and I'm a device junkie). Why don't I put my knees together and place my computer in my lap like a normal traveling-writer, you may ask? Well, if I were to do that, I'd end up putting my shoes in the puddle of human urine on the floor in front of me, duh.

But we'll get to that.

I haven't been keeping up with my daily updates. It's partly because our internet connection in Xi'an was abysmal, but more because I've been so busy wandering Xi'an's Muslim Quarter,* breathing in the aroma of toasting cumin and smoky chiles that permeates the narrow streets to find the time to sit down and write.

*and OK, taking a ride around the Ming-era city walls on a bicycle built for two along with a day trip to see a few thousand terra-cotta warriors

I've got plenty of time now, not to mention a whole different set of aromas.

I'm currently sitting on a hard wooden seat with at most an inch of useless foam padding. Attached to this plank, at a precise 90-degree angle, is a seat-back that has been custom-designed to be just compressive enough that a train ticket-seller can describe it as "soft-backed," without actually providing any of the physical comforts of a soft back. Seated on the other half of the plank is Adri. She's currently leaning against the window, which is steamed over with what can only be condensed sweat, perhaps mixed with the vapors rising out of dozens of bowls of instant noodles. (My own Spicy Beef-flavored noodles are under my seat, waiting. I'm rationing myself—there's a long ride ahead).

Adri just downed two Nyquil. She says it's to treat a cold, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she's in it for the soporifics. Those sniffles she claimed to have yesterday? She was paving the road to have an excuse to pop these pills tonight and sleep her way through our 16-hour train ride. It was a long con, but it looks like it's paying off.

Our first train experience in China, an overnight ride from Beijing to Xi'an couldn't have been more pleasant. We opted to pony up for the soft sleepers on the twelve hour journey. For a few hundred Yuan, you get a spot in an air-conditioned room with a latching door and a total of four bunks. They're dressed with clean sheets, a very comfy bedspread, and a pillow that you can get lost in. Adri and I had the top two bunks (they're slightly cheaper), but if we had been on the bottom bunks, we also would have gotten a small table, along with a never-ending hot water dispenser for making tea or noodles to our hearts content.

That table and hot water dispenser was put to good use by our cabin-mates, the world's sweetest old Chinese couple: A granddad and grandmother who sequentially offered us a bit of every single type of food they carried with them until we finally relented and accepted a cucumber. I can safely say that it was the first time I've ever peeled and eaten a plain cucumber on a train, and also the first time I've ever accepted a cucumber as a gift. I offered them some of my Pickled Green Peppercorn and Fried Fish-flavored potato chips in exchange, but they politely declined. They were probably more the Grilled Texas Barbecue-flavored potato chip type.*

*Turns out it's not just us who butchers their food in the US. The butchering goes both ways! Aside from the obvious oxymoron a Texan would spot in the phrase "grilled barbecue," these particular chips had a distinctly sweet, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce flavor to 'em.

I stayed up reading about Xi'anese cuisine in the cool, dry, cabin-air until the gentle, silent rocking of the train put me to sleep. I woke up bright-eyed and fresh the next morning to the sound of the old lady clapping her hands across her arms rhythmically while the old man did his morning toe-touches. The Chinese are pretty serious about good blood flow. I was refreshed, ready to tackle everything that Xi'an could throw at me.

That was then and this is now.

About that urine between my legs. It's not mine, if you were wondering.

Granted, it's baby urine, and it was recently emitted by a particularly cute baby (with no warning, I might add. Smiling, gurgling, reaching for crackers one second, giving the floor his own special rinse the next), but still, it's urine, ferchrissakes.

If you haven't been to China, you may at this point be wondering how it is that this particular cute baby's liquidy discharge managed to make it past the absorbent barriers that his parents thoughtfully girded his loins with before bringing him aboard the public transport that is to be his home for the next 2/3rds of a day. If, on the other hand, you have been here, you'd know that it's perfectly common to see children under the age of five walking around wearing sweatpants that have been neatly split down the center, allowing them to relieve themselves willy-nilly.

So far, I've seen children going on a street corner outside the train station, in the middle of a line while waiting to enter the Terracotta Warriors archaeological site, in pretty much every public park I've been to, and on the floor of a fully-loaded long-distance passenger train. I've even seen a young girl well past toddling-age hike up her skirt, pull down her underwear, and pop a squat in the middle of a paved path in a public park in broad daylight before sprinting off to join her friends.

It really makes you wonder how the housebreaking process goes if children are trained that it's ok to pee whenever and wherever the urge strikes. But come to think of it, just before our train took off, we watched as a railroad worker casually whipped it out to lay his stream on the tracks in full view of the hundreds of passengers currently aboard our train. This at least partly answered my question about housebreaking. Obviously, some folks never learn it.

Things on the train got a little hairier when I had to rapidly tuck my feet underneath my plank seat when the little tyke decided that simply urinating wasn't good enough. In addition to my new laptop, I treated myself to a pair of new hiking shoes (some fabulously comfortable ones from Merrell), and while I fully expect them to get beat up and dirtied over the course of our 10 week adventure, I'm not quite prepared to let them be shat on quite yet.

The odor combination of Roast Pork and Shiitake Mushroom instant noodles (being eaten by the man across the aisle), mapo tofu (being carted up and down the aisle), and baby poop (right in front of me) is not one I've experienced before, and one that I hope never to experience again. It's put me right off the "Finger Licking Braised Pork Flavor" potato chips I was enjoying. And oh god, the mother of the sweet-but-stinky child just opened a banana, the only thing that could possibly make this cacophony of odors any worse.

I lied. Things just got worse. Turns out it's not just the baby who enjoys soiling the floor. The child's mother just dumped out half a bottle full of milk directly onto the floor between my feet. Come on, lady, there's a drain right at the end of the car. Or were you perhaps trying to wash away the urine with your milk? I shot her a sort of incredulous are you serious? look totally involuntarily and she seemed to get the message, as she handed off the baby to his grandmother while she walked off and returned with a mop.

Please don't be the mop from the bathroom please don't be the mop from the bathroom, I told myself as I held my breath. I took a short, exploratory inhalation which confirmed my worst nightmare. Yes, it's the mop from the bathroom that just dripped its way down the corridor. I suppose a little more urine here or there isn't going to hurt matters.

There was a point to this whole story, and that's that if you plan on traveling by train in China, get to the train station early, and for god's sake, take the sleeper.

I think I'm going to take a stroll down to the end of the car so that I can get a breath of fresh air near the bathrooms and the smokers. We shall see what the next 15 hours will bring us.

I'm fairly certain that the first shower I take when we arrive in Chengdu will be the best shower ever.

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