Standing Room Only

I had just spent a long night on an overnight bus to Hong Kong to make a visa-run. Now, I had to turn right around and get to Nanning.

It was finally my turn to approach the window and I nervously threw out a Ni hao.

“Ticket to Nanning?” I asked.

The teller said something in Chinese I obviously didn’t understand.

“Tonight?” she repeated in English.

“Yes, xie xie.”

“Standing room only. 109 RMB”


I didn’t think it through. It was a 13 hour overnight train, but the blessedly low price was a smokescreen to my better sense.

I had no idea what to expect, and at first it didn’t seem so bad, but then… It just kept filling up. The glorious seats that once seemed so abundant kept disappearing, someone sat next to me, and across from me, and legs and heads and sweaty arms were all around me. Then, finally, at 6 in the morning the meaning of my standing room only ticket became glaringly apparent. Someone had the seat I had been sitting on actually printed on their ticket.

I was dispossessed of something that wasn’t even mine. Not even squatters rights could help me.

For the next five hours I became a train rat. Snatching seats when someone left for a smoke break, falling asleep standing up, and giving condescending glares to the hoarders who, for one reason or other, were taking up two seats.

The small cabin on the lumbering train became a cross-section of humanity. And when I wasn’t fighting a small child for a seat or stretching my whacked-out back, I observed.

There was a mother and son who looked like they rode this hell-hole cabin for a living. They didn’t mind sprawling out on the filthy floor or baring teeth to protect their territory. I took notes.

There was a group of young Chinese guys who had their hair all done up and slicked to different sides like little ramps. The ringleader in dark glasses and popped collar kept walking past this girl sitting across from me (when I still had a seat). Every time he passed he’d flick his collar and give her a smug little smile. Like a boss.

His friends were playing a card game in which the losers got several flicks to the forehead for each point they lost by.

There was ceaseless chatter beneath the humming white lights.

It smelled like instant noodles and sour sweat.

And it just, wouldn’t, end.

But then it did.

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6 thoughts on “Standing Room Only

  1. Fiona.q says:

    hah, now you seem to be an expert in the south of China.
    p.s. i never buy an over-night train ticket without bed.
    take care, pal.

  2. You will never forget the experience and will be better off if there is a next time.

    • J. William Young says:

      Haha, you’re right on both counts. But by better off, I’m assuming you mean, “Never again.” 🙂

  3. Beth says:

    Sharp-edged writing with heart and a sense of wonder. I’ am armchair traveling in high style.

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