Zhengzhou, China -- I'm scared to go to the toilet. I'm in "hard seat," the cheapest section of China's four-class train system, and I'm going to be here for the next 22 hours. My butt is already numb. My throat is parched, but I only take tiny well-spaced sips from my water bottle, lest I have to pee. I've heard horror stories about the toilets in hard seat, and I'm determined to avoid being forced to check their veracity. I hope my bladder can hold out.
Our guidebook warned that in hard seat, thieves and other unsavoury characters wait to prey on unsuspecting laowai (foreigners). But when our ambitious plans to cram large tracts of the PRC into a three-week itinerary were foiled, we found ourselves stranded in the very depressing city of Zhengzhou, a major transportation hub.
We had to make our way south to the city of Guilin, the jumping-off point for catching a ferry to Hong Kong, the final stop on our China trip. As there are only so many train tickets to go around in a country with a population of more than 1 billion, we were lucky to secure hard seat tickets for the day we wished to depart.
I'm sitting by the window, while Shi is wedged in between a group of young Chinese girls in the bench across from me. Both of us survey the train's occupants, trying to pick out dodgy types.
But while we are definitely the only laowai in hard seat, the thieves, murderers and rapists fail to materialize. Packed to twice its capacity, the car is full of Chinese who are curious about two scraggly-looking, backpack-toting Canadians. Or, more accurately, they are curious about my husband, Shi, who quickly becomes the star attraction.
A group of young girls assembles around him. While I shift in my seat, willing my bladder to remain empty for the next 22 hours, Shi yaks it up with the girls, who fall into fits of giggles every time he opens his mouth.
My attention shifts to the mounting pile of flotsam and jetsam strewn about the floor. I survey it with a mixture of interest and revulsion while the girls teach Shi how to count to 10 in Mandarin. Wrappers, noodles and bottles float up and down the aisle as the train chugs along.
In the seat across from me, a woman removes her baby's cloth diaper, a satisfied grin spreading across her face as she inspects its foul contents. I conclude that there is no hope of getting any sleep on this train. I glower at Shi as he counts to 10 in crude Mandarin, the cute girls heaping praise on him for his linguistic prowess.
Outside, the countryside seems to stretch to eternity, dotted with mud huts and peasants who work the fields. They look like they have less than nothing.
A woman stirs me from my reverie. Nudging me, she proffers crackers, her face beaming as she flashes a toothless smile. I happily accept her offer.
Only 19 hours to go. I'm wide awake and have yet to find a comfortable position. Whipping out my journal, I take a tiny sip from my water bottle and start scribbling.
Eighteen hours left. Damn - I can't fight nature, I have to go. Bracing myself, I march down the aisle armed with a fistful of toilet paper, dodging empty bottles and cans. I don't have to ask where the toilet is; I follow the smell.
I hesitantly open the door, holding my breath. Yup, the tales about the toilets in hard seat are true. But there's solace in the fact that many of the other horror stories are anything but.
The people on this train are the friendliest we've met in China. Holding my breath, I watch where I tread and shut the door behind me.
I've got 17 hours left on this train, but suddenly the trip feels less like a treacherous ordeal and more like an experience I'll never forget.