Surviving the Overnight Hard Seat: Xi’an to Pingyao

Asleep on Pingyao Train

This configuration is on a “soft-seat” train in China, and a rather nice one at that.

Xi’an to Pingyao

Vowing to never again settle for a “hard seat” on an overnight train (especially the lowest grade, like the one we experienced), we arrived in Pingyao from Xi’an. We had said to ourselves, “How bad could it be?” The reality was pretty terrible. We had seat numbers, which was a good start, and they were sequential, which was also good. It wasn’t until we boarded that we realized we wouldn’t be sitting next to each other over night, but across the aisle from one another. There were two benches for three facing each other across a small table on one side, and two benches for two facing each other with a table across the aisle. Donny was on the end of the bench for three, meaning he didn’t have any access to the table to rest his head. I fought fiercely for my 1/4 piece. See an example of the table above (although that one is on a much nicer class train). We were honestly too rattled to take out the camera and start documenting the journey, though now we really wish we had.

This is pretty much how it looked.

This is pretty much how it looked. Photo credit

The two gentlemen across the table from me chain smoked most of the night, while the woman I shared a seat with talked on the phone or listened to music on the highest volume possible, with no headphones. We were the lucky ones though, as 40 extra people or so in our car didn’t have seats at all. They dove for any seat that appeared when its owner went to the bathroom, and pretended not to wake up when they returned. (This happened to Donny when a woman jumped in the middle spot on his bench and collapsed over onto him for a good twenty minutes until his seatmate returned and shook her more and more roughly until she got up.)

Configuration of a Hard Seat Train

Configuration of a Hard Seat Train (if it were ever empty and clean) Photo credit:

In the middle of the night, from about 1 am to 4 am, the snack carts stopped passing, and many of the standing passengers tried to catch a few winks on tiny stools they’d brought, or underneath the seats on the spit and cigarette butt-covered floor. I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone rolled over and their hair brushed my ankles under my seat. I thought for sure it was a rat!  We hear the nicer trains aren’t nearly so chaotic, but that was our experience so far. The rest is kind of a blur. Maybe it could be selective memory?

China hard seat

Playing twister on a Chinese train. Someone must be in the bathroom for there to be so much space to spread out.

When 6:00 am finally came, we jumped off the train (hoping we were in the right place), happy to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We grabbed an electric taxi and were dropped at our hostel where we were pleasantly greeted by the Dengs. This lovely couple runs Harmony Guesthouse in Pingyao. Since it was so early and our room wasn’t ready they offered us an unoccupied room to take a rest, which was greatly appreciated after not sleeping a wink the night before. The building was built in the Ming Dynasty and retains its basic original architecture, which was very cool!

For more info on all the options for train travel in China, Seat 61 is a great resource.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.