Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sitting here on the train to Bakersfield. I took the bus up from Roseburg, and Martin Lewis met me at the Library in Eugene, which is just a few blocks from the bus stop. We drove out to the old TA truckstop, which had been one of my favorite stopping points during my years on the road. After a hearty meal, we headed in toward the train station. We had a little time to kill, so Martin took me to an old vegetable cannery that had been made into a coffee bar. Brought back memories. During my college days, I spent more than a few long nights in a place just like that, feeding corn cobs into the corn husker, or picking mice off the bean belt.

The train was late, as usual, but it finally showed up just before dark, and I watched as the train station and Martin slowly slipped away. I was supposed to go directly from Eugene, Oregon to Los Angeles on the "Coast Starlight," then transfer to the "Sunset Limited," which would take me west to the small town of Maricopa, just south of Phoenix. But the mudslides changed all that, so I had to be routed around the mudslides, which took out the tracks. Instead of a relaxing morning, I was up at the crack of dawn, so I could change trains in Sacramento.

It's hard to compare train travel in the United States with train travel in China, because the situations are so different. In China, train travel is the primary means for most people to move around the country. Trains are everywhere--the network covers every region of the country. In addition, trains in China are designed to accommodate the broad range of passengers inherent in such a diverse culture. On Chinese trains, there are four levels of seating: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. The cheapest are the hard seats. They are cushioned, but not as heavily as the soft seats, and they are straight-backed, with no frills. But there is something else about the hard seats. There are usually more tickets sold than there are seats. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket with a seat number on it, then you have a place to sit. But if you get on the train further on down the line, you will have to stand. This is truly the mode of travel for the masses. Students generally prefer the hard seats, because the cost is minimal.

The second level are the soft seats. The soft seats in China are the most like the "coach" seats on Amtrak--reclining upholstered seats, with only as many tickets as there are seats. The soft seat is the only type of seat I have not taken in China, and the only type I have taken in the United States.

There are two categories of sleepers in China, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The main difference is the amount of space you are given. The hard sleepers are very crowded. They are not lacking in length--I could stretch out easily. But I could not not stretch out. The hard sleeper is very narrow. This makes it a major chore to turn over. And you are pretty much frozen in one position.

The soft sleeper is wider, and there are only four of them in a compartment. Not like a luxury motel by any means, but they are comfortable. The soft sleeper in China is generally about half the cost of an airline ticket. In contrast to this, a sleeper on Amtrak costs four or five times as much as a plane ticket. So they just are not an option, unless money is no object, and you are riding the train just for the sake of being able to say you've done it.

Service is another issue. Both in China and the United States, eating in a dining car is a bit more spendy than an ordinary restaurant. In China, I have paid as much as 6 to 10 US dollars for a meal. That is to be expected, of course. But on Amtrak, the service is very poor. I never saw a dining car that was close to being full, but all customers are still scrunched together so the porter serves as few tables as possible. In China, eating in the dining car is a luxury. On Amtrak, it is assembly line. Rushed, uncomfortable, and expensive.

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