The night I went to Inner Mongolia
I was nineteen years old when I first set foot in China. I decided my two semesters of Mandarin and a Lonely Planet stolen from the local library would suffice to get me through the trip. Little did I know China is the fastest-changing country in the universe, and my Lonely Planet from 2005, as well as my toneless Mandarin, would be useless.
Ningbo is a second-tier city in Zhejiang province, a couple of hours away from Shanghai and Hangzhou. Entirely unappealing for anyone who has a clue of what Chinese cities look like, it felt just fine for me. I had no intention to travel. Instead my goal was practicing my sloppy Mandarin and experiencing life with a Chinese host family. But, as it often happens with carefully planned things, the opposite ended up being true.
My host family kicked me out on my very first night, throwing my backpack in the hallway. The hotel they drove me to didn’t accept foreigners, and I took three more hours to find one that would take me in, making my first night in China far more memorable than expected. How and why this happened make up for a whole different story, but what happened next marks the beginning of my story.
After a couple of days in the most average hotel of the most average city of Eastern China, I decided I had enough of the broken AC and the prostitutes knocking at my door in the middle of the night. I became a full-time passenger.
For the following two or three months, I kept boarding train after train, bouncing around Central and Northern China, while telling my parents I was safe and sound in Ningbo. I tried them all: the 高铁 gaotie, 动车 dongche, 特快 tekuai, 快车 kuaiche, even the ones with no letter in front of the train number (I still don’t know what they are called). Initially, I was impressed by the cleanliness and punctuality of the high-speed trains, a whole different world compared to the Italian railway system I was used to. But with the passing of time and the shrinking of my budget, I ended up opting for the cheaper—the overnight trains. And that is how I traveled from Zhejiang to Inner Mongolia and back.
When in Xi’an I found myself unable to leave because of the good friends met there and the local delicacies. But after sleeping in strangers’ houses for two nights in a row, I decided it was time for me to go, so I packed my bag and rushed to the train station. On that day, the rain was so intense that every single train was delayed, for at least two or three hours. The station was packed with all kinds of people, and the floor was so wet it was impossible to sit on. Too bad I didn’t have one of those portable stools the street-smart shushus and ayis always carry with them when traveling.
Standing for three hours was not an option, so I looked for a seat in the small restaurants scattered around the station. They were all jam-packed, besides one, where just a handful of drenched customers were sipping their soups. I decided to join them and ordered something. When the soup came, I tried with little success to tell the ingredients apart, partly because everything was overcooked and mashed together, partly because it was the spiciest thing I had eaten in my whole life.
As some of you might have figured already, this is not a happy-ending story. It didn’t take more than one hour for the mystery soup to kick in, and thirty minutes before boarding my train I am covered in cold sweat, hallucinating on the station’s stairs. My stomach hurts, my legs are shaking, my vision is blurred, and there are people everywhere. I couldn’t afford to miss that train, so I brought myself to the toilet next to my platform and decided to wait there. In a desperate balancing act, trying to avoid any contact between my backpack and the suspiciously yellow-looking floor, I squatted down to pee. Or at least, I tried. Instead, my eyes crossed the ones of the ayi nonchalantly peeing in the toilet in front of mine. And to the left, another ayi, and then another one… There was no door in this endless row of squat toilets, and I was the main attraction. I couldn’t really get anything done under that kind of pressure, so I pulled my pants back up and left.
I kept shaking and coughing as I boarded the train and reached my “seat.” Having bought a 硬座 yingzuo (hard seat) ticket, everything I could hope for was a couple dozens of square centimeters on a wooden bench, shared with three or four other people. Squeezed on the bench, my cheekbones hard-pressed against the window, the train finally left the station. It wasn’t too long until the sound of the pouring rain, of the chatty passengers chewing sunflower seeds, combined with the smell of the carriage toilets, made me want to throw up. With some difficulty, I get out of my seat, and a couple of steps later, in the middle of the carriage, I pass out.
The following hour or so is faded. Some ayi is screaming, the train manager picks me up, sits me in the restaurant carriage, and splashes some water on my face. In a rather blurred series of event, my ticket is upgraded to a 软卧 ruanwo (soft sleeper) one. Some passenger is getting off soon, and while I wait for them to change the bedsheets, I pass out again. The next thing I know is I am laying in the most comfortable bunk I have ever slept in, all my belongings stored on the top bunk, my phone on the foldable table next to me.
Although the compartment is made for four people, only me and a Japanese businessman were sharing it. He pours me some hot tea and asks in English whether I was feeling better. I nod, and he tells me it was probably food poisoning and that I should be careful when eating spicy food.
After that brief conversation, we kept sipping our tea in silence, looking out of the window. The rain had stopped, and the morning sun was rising timidly over the muddy Northern countryside. I had arrived in Inner Mongolia.