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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: April 29, 2011 NO. 18 MAY 5, 2011
All Aboard


Every expat who lives in China's mainland might need to go to Hong Kong sooner or later. Those with money tend to take the easier option of a flight, but as I had spent most of my money, I was left with only one option, taking a train there via Shenzhen.

The vendor of the ticket office informed me there were no hard sleeper berth tickets. To say my heart sank was an understatement. I left the office with a broken spirit, knowing I had to face 30 hours on a slow train with only a seat to comfort me.

Taking a long-distance train ride in China is nothing new to me. On my previous travels to the nation in 2009, I managed to survive a 24-hour-long train ride from Hong Kong to Beijing. Despite it being a pleasant and novel experience, I knew this time around I would not have any of the comforts such as a blanket, a bed and copious amounts of hot water at my disposal. My arrival at Beijing West Railway Station was met with both dread and excitement, a bittersweet combination I felt I was finally ready for.

Waiting in the cramped departure room, I managed to find a spot in a corner where I hoped solace would be waiting for me. As soon as I had blinked, 20 male migrant workers had surrounded me.

My time in China has taught me a vital lesson; your self-consciousness can be your downfall. People will always stare at you to the point where you feel they are analyzing your soul. Being African-British in China, it is an everyday occurrence for me, but in this situation, I knew it would be the challenge of a lifetime.

"They are saying they like your big eyes," said a crisp, well-spoken voice I thought was coming from above. "And your skin, they say that it reminds them of chocolate," beamed this voice. As I turned to see who was addressing me, I saw a middle-aged woman leaning on her suitcase.

Before I could ask her any more questions, or even reciprocate the interest the workers had in me, the signal sounded, stating the K train to Shenzhen was now ready. All eyes were off me as we all huddled into the narrow passageway.

Setting foot on the train was quite possibly the easiest part. A sigh of relief was followed by a smile. That smile soon vanished as I witnessed the pandemonium that lay ahead.

The cabin was heaving with passengers, and many looked as if they had packed for an eternal journey. Sacks of bed sheets and goods were juxtaposed with Burberry suitcases and businessmen with Samsonite briefcases.

After almost half an hour of managing not to offend every single person in the cabin by stepping on their toes and banging into them with my hefty suitcase, I managed to find the sole seat on the train.

My adventure did not end there. During my 30-hour journey to Shenzhen, I was in the company of some of the most genuine and understanding people I have ever met. Their hostile stares soon turned into an intense, yet inoffensive interrogation.

In an odd twist, I managed to wind up sitting next to an Arabic-speaking Chinese worker who had spent 10 years in Libya. As my de facto translator, he managed to get the whole train to ask me a variety of questions, ranging from "Do you like China?" to "Can I touch your hair?"

As I stepped off the platform at Shenzhen Railway Station, I exhaled the largest sigh of relief. My 30-hour ordeal had come to an end. The lack of sleep, dehydration and the onslaught of interrogations were over. With my clothes covered in dirt and my pores oozing sweat, I could not wait to run to the nearest hostel and take a never-ending shower.

Yet my sigh of relief was cut short by a moment of contemplation. My ordeal was a cloud and its silver lining was the warmth and hospitality of the Chinese passengers. They were no longer strangers; they were my friends, whom I was sad in thinking I might not ever see again.

All of this in mind, I had to ask myself, would I do it again? Struggling to say no, the honesty of my subconscious prevailed. I smiled and said to myself, "Definitely."

The writer is a Briton living in Beijing

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