Thursday, February 18, 2010

Being woken up at 5 in the morning by a train attendant trying to sell Chairman Mao memorabilia to the passengers

I spent yesterday night in the third class of the Guiyang-Chengdu train, and while in it I had one of the weirdest experiences of all my travels in China: being woken up at 5 in the morning by a member of staff with a microphone trying to sell Mao Zedong memorabilia to the passengers.

I was hoping that this year I would be able to avoid travelling over night in the third class of a Chinese train, in other words in a hard seat. Sleeping in a seat is never comfortable, but in Chinese trains during the spring festival it is made hellish by the incredible overcrowding, with people sleeping on the floor the whole way. I already had such an experience last year, and didn't want to repeat it. However, I was unable to find a ticket for a bed, so I had no choice but to travel this way. This year people are only able to start buying train tickets five days in advance over the spring festival period, to avoid the tickets being sold out ages in advance. However, if one wants to find a ticket for a bed, one probably has to arrive at the ticket station on the morning of the fifth day before they want to travel. I bought my ticket three days before I wanted to go, and a ticket for a seat was all I could get.

I was told that the trains to Chengdu shouldn't be too crowded, because Sichuan is a producer of migrant labour, rather than a receiver, and so after the new year's eve people would be leaving the province, not going to it. My local friend told me I would probably be able to change the ticket and get a bed once I was on the train itself. I was skeptical, and rightly so. The train was perhaps slightly less packed than Chinese trains can be around this time, meaning that getting to the bathroom wasn't actually a feat of acrobatics, however there were still plenty of people sleeping on the floor. I managed to find an attendant, and asked her if I could switch my ticket. She was very helpful and curious about me. She asked me where I had learnt Chinese, offered to teach me her language and asked me whether I thought her putonghua (mandarin Chinese) was good or not (!). She put my chinese name down on a list of people who wanted to switch their tickets, but in the end there were obviously no places available, so I spent the night on a seat.

My attempts to get some sleep were pretty useless. The enviroment was filthy, there were little children hollering everywhere (with their parents doing nothing to stop them) and I was sitting opposite an elderly man who kept drinking shots from a bottle of Chinese spirit and smoking, even though smoking is forbidden. During the evening, I noticed train attendants walking around the carriages selling toys for the children and toothbrushes or other goods. Even though they were dressed in an official uniform, they would pedal their ware and try to get passengers to buy the products, as if they were street pedallers. I found this rather surprising.

At 5 in the morning, while I was trying to nap without much success, a young woman who was clearly working in the train, with a uniform, placed herself right next to my seat with a microphone. To my amazement, she started reading a long text about chairman Mao, and how he established the Chinese railway system (or at least I think so, since my Chinese is still not really good enough to follow what she was saying). After reading the text for about 10 or 20 minutes with her microphone so that the whole carriage would hear, she started to try and get the passengers to buy a series of little effigies of Chairman Mao, going on about their convenient price and their other qualities. Incredibly, no one complained or even grumbled, and some people even bought some of the effigies. Some people even managed to go on sleeping, despite the long speech. The Chinese ability to sleep in any circumstances never fails to amaze me. I on the other hand was not getting much sleep even before the woman came, and by now I was completely awake, and quite fed up too. I could not believe that a person officially working for the train company would start pedalling cheap goods to the passengers at 5 in the morning, waking everyone up. I have never experienced anything remotely like this before in a Chinese train. I didn't know if this was the attendant's own little side business, or part of her job requirements, but Chinese people who I have spoken to since told me that it is probably her own side business. Apparently they are allowed to sell things to the passengers privately. However, they should not be allowed to do this at such an unearthly hour with a microphone.

In the beginning I thought the woman was just making a speech about the achievements of Chairman Mao, and to be honest I would have prefered that. Even though being woken up at 5 to listen to political propaganda is not my favourite pastime, at least there would have been some point to the whole thing. One could even see it as a glimpse of what it was like in China 40 years ago, when if you were woken up at 5 by someone talking about the virtues of chairman Mao, you not only had to put up with it but probably clap enthusiastically too. But being woken up at 5 to listen to the train attendant trying to sell cheap rubbish to you? Why are people working for the state railway service allowed to sell non-essential items to the passengers, and pedal the qualities of what they are selling like television salespeople? It's really weird, and it shows complete disrespect of the right of the paying passengers to get some sleep. Then again, the train was supposed to arrive at 6, so maybe waking people up at 5 is considered to be fair game. On the other hand, I bet the first class passengers were not woken up at all.

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