This is the story of how China left me with a hole in my face, and why you should always know where your shoes are. Strong language may follow.
Our journey from Xi’an to Chongqing starts the way of many others: the crowded station, the sudden mad collective rush through the barriers and onto the train, despite everyone having pre-allocated beds. Chaos, then relative calm. It’s 10 hours or more to Chongqing on this K-class sleeper train. I drift asleep to the sound of the woman on the bed below me holding what sounds like a heated phonecall. But then all phone conversations sound heated here. It’s early, maybe 10 pm.
I wake thirsty, and the woman below is asleep. There are the usual rustlings and clunkings of a communal carriage on a night train. Fifty or sixty people arranged in narrow three tier bunks, sleeping fitfully, watching videos on their phones, coughing and snoring. The train sliding through the night. It’s dark for a change. The early hours. I feel a little sick. Try to ignore it. Drink cold water. Drift off.
When I wake again my stomach is making its presence felt. In retrospect, this is always bad news. It seemed an inconvenience at first. I wanted to sleep, I felt nauseous, so I couldn’t sleep. I lay there a long while. Talking myself out of it. Drink some water. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. The gentle rocking of the train didn’t bring its usual comfort. It sickened.
A sudden tipping point was reached. I bolted from the bed, desperately trying to reach the floor, my shoes, the bathroom, in time. Preventing sudden movements, moving as suddenly as I could. My laces did not get tied.
I made it, that time.
Train bathrooms in China do not come with sinks, which makes being sick from both ends logistically difficult. I emerged shellshocked, shaking. But relieved. The nausea had passed. Drink water. Lie down. Go to sleep.
The next time I woke I knew what was coming. But it was morning now, or almost. Still pitch, and hours from Chongqing, but time for the early risers to begin their morning ablutions.
I don’t know if you’ve shared the standard-issue two bathrooms with fifty odd fellow sleeper train passengers before. If so, you’ll know that the morning queue can be painfully slow. The older men are the worst, getting in early, patiently ignoring all frantic door-banging, taking their time. What they can be doing in there for twenty or thirty minutes I doubt I want to know.
Toilet queueing is the bane of night train travel. Woe betide (s)he who does not factor in waiting time to the bathroom trip timing decision. This is a particularly thorny problem where children are concerned. In Russia we were party to one family’s solution: a potty under the bed for their six year old. Four days we spent living a foot or two away from this family, and their potty. Which they did not regularly empty. Disaster, it turned out, was inevitable.
So the solution we’d witnessed the night before seemed sensible in comparison. While we brushed our teeth a young woman stood next to us holding up her toddler over the drain in the corner of the sink area, his stream combining with the murky water that swilled around the floor, back and forth to the rhythm of the tracks. Eventually, hopefully, to drain down into the dark. Remember this bit, it’s important.
So there I am, lying rigid in bed, facing the inevitable. Paled by the knowledge that my chances of swift bathroom access are slim. But the toilet is calling, and I must go.
I vault out of my bunk, practiced now. Laces tied, toilet roll in hand. The first bathroom is locked.
I rattle the handle in desperation. No give. The second bathroom is locked. I’m holding every muscle I have taut in a futile attempt to keep my sickened insides in. I don’t know how long I can hold on. Not long. I’m sweating. I rattle both handles again. Nothing. The next carriage? Maybe.
I barely make the foot between the toilet door and the bank of sinks across the aisle. I wasn’t expecting vomit this time, but my body has taken it as a last resort. It can’t get rid of whatever has done this fast enough. I have never been this sick in my life, and I’m the girl who used to drink cheap white wine from the bottle. I hold the sink with a death grip. I can’t see. I’m contorted.
And that is when my body gives up. On standing up, on holding in, on consciousness.
Arthur finds me face down on the sharply ridged metal floor, confused, and covered in blood. And water, and other things. Remember the toddler? This floor has seen a lot.
When you marry somebody you accept that you’re going to have to deal with their shit, but I guess we thought it would be a good few years before we meant that literally. Travelling together can really bring new depths to a relationship.
The surprising thing about this experience is that I’m not at all embarrassed. Perhaps losing control of your functions on a Chinese night train is a valuable right of passage. Now I know no fear. Or less fear. The whole thing was so absurdly out of control that I can’t feel any shame. Bodies are strange.
Instead I’m mostly grateful that my audience of bathroom queuers found Arthur to rescue me, to bring me clean clothes, and water. And that he did all this kindly. That the gash I sustained to my face was not closer to my eye. And that Sabine, who we were travelling with, is a pharmacist, and had me drugged up, with my wound clean and patched, in minutes. And that the concerned train guard came to offer his own antiseptic and bandages too.
I’m also grateful that we were in Chongqing in two hours, I did not faint in the taxi queue, and I was not sick on the way to the nearest hostel, which had a clean, warm bed, where I slept for almost all of the next 48 hours. Except for the first hour in the shower, too weak to stand up and make the water warmer when it turned to ice, or cooler when it burned, trying to get my clothes in a fit state for the washing machine. Arthur even helped me with my laundry. Now that is love.
You know what Chongqing is most famous for? Helluh spicy food. Just, perfect.
If this has given you a taste for food-poisoning stories (just me?) you might enjoy one of my favourites — Scenes From A Food Poisoning — elevating bodily functions to a whole new level.