After the debacle of our exit from Xi’an, we were excited for a fun train ride to Chengdu. We were confident that sharing the 6-berth hard sleeper cabin would be better than being scattered throughout multiple soft sleeper cabins. We were encouraged when we boarded. The train was clean, the beds were relatively comfortable, and our traveling companions in the car seemed friendly. Once we were under way, Tom headed to the dining car and ran into a Canadian couple he and the boys had met during their hike along the Great Wall. They loaned us their Lonely Planet to cram since our Rough Guide was gone and asked if they could follow us the next day to our hostel in Chengdu.
We busied ourselves by playing cards and reading books. The kids ate ramens in the dining car and located a Western toilet a few cars away, much to everyone’s relief. Chinese squat toilets are challenging enough for Westerners when they’re stationary, but the ones on the train were particularly intimidating since they were nothing more than holes open to the tracks below. As the evening progressed and people began to settle in for sleep, it became clear that hard beds and seedy bathrooms were not going to be the challenge on this particular journey; instead smoke was the demon that would plague us for the next 12 hours. Chinese people love to smoke. As if the quality of the air they breathe isn’t sufficiently horrific, they feel an insatiable compulsion to pump their lungs full of toxins and their bloodstreams full of nicotine. They smoke everywhere, all the time–in restaurants, in bathrooms, in lobbies, on street corners, in cars, and as we learned on the train, in bed. Technically smoking is forbidden in sleeper cars. The car attendants periodically scold passengers, usually men, for breaking the rule, but without fail the offenders light up again as soon as the enforcers leave. We battled the smoke by opening windows, but bothered by the wind, the smokers would close them within minutes.
My lungs were already aching from the black air days in Xi’an, and I was hopeful that once the lights were turned out at 10:00 the smoking would cease. No such luck. At any given point during the night, at least one if not ten people were smoking. I opened my window and hid inside my sleep sack hoping for some relief from the fumes. The problem with this reasoning, in a mystical land that often defies logic, is that the air outside was dirtier than that inside. The tracks were lined by coal-burning power plants that produced a steady stream of noxious fumes and a particulate content so high I could feel it settling in my throat and lungs. McKane and I both felt like we were suffocating.
Every now and then I’d sleep for a few minutes only to be awakened by the violent lurching and jerking that accompanied each and every stop and start along the route. Apparently our brakeman was an apprentice, an alcoholic, or a sadist because control of the train eluded him completely. Our Canadian friend, Helia, who slept on one of the top bunks in a soft sleeper car explained that she had almost fallen to the floor during one particularly wretched stop.
Sadly the air quality in Chengdu was even worse than that in Xi’an upon our arrival. We crammed in some amazing activities in our first 36 hours and then I collapsed into bed for 18 to let my lungs recover and recharge my immune system. Thanks, Tom, for manning the troops. After a day of rain the Chengdu skies cleared today and we enjoyed a sunny, smog-free afternoon. Tomorrow morning we take a 10 hour bus ride to Jiuzhaigou Scenic Preserve where we’ll take a brief reprieve from our city-dwelling hostel habits to bask in the luxury of a five-star resort thanks to all those points we’ve accumulated with Starwood over the years. I am hopeful the air in the Tibetan mountain valley will be clean, though the air in the bus is another matter. Signs in English in the bus station promised it is forbidden, but we already know how that works.
I still love this country. I just can’t figure out how its people are going to live very long without lung transplants.