TO: I had a hard-seat ticket on the night train to Jiaozhou. There are four classes in Chinese trains: Soft sleeper (compartments of 4 beds), hard sleeper (compartments of 6 beds, stacked 3 high), soft seat (individual chair that can recline a bit), and hard seat (bench for 3 people). Getting tickets of any sort is difficult over the holidays, so I was happy to have a seat at all. If you can't get a seat, you can choose to stand in the crowded aisles of the hard seat car.
My 6 hour ride went smoothly, although I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer. The seats are at straight 90 degree angles, so your head falls over and jolts you awake the second you nod off. I had prayed for someone to help me navigate my train ride, since the conductors speak too quickly for me to know when to get off the train. God provided by seating me next to a guy who was also going to Jiaozhou. He told me when to get off and helped me with my bag, and I was able to practice some Chinese with him. See above for a picture of a hard-seat car at 3 a.m. -- people sprawled everywhere, children sleeping on laps, and everyone just trying to find a position comfortable enough to doze in.
FROM: My student's father and uncle offered to get me a train ticket home. The night before I left, they announced that they had secured a ticket (no easy task over the holidays). So the next morning, we arrived at the train station and were hustled back to some guy's office in the back of the station. We sat on his couches for awhile shooting the breeze, with me wondering all the while who he was and why we were in his office. I thought maybe he was a friend or relative who had somehow helped get the ticket for me. Then it was time for my train to come, so my student's family and I all left the office and were ushered past the line to the platform to wait for the train. On the way out, I saw the answer: My student's uncle left a couple bottles of Chardonnay in the corner of the man's office.
My ticket was to Weifang, a city still several hours away from my home. I was told that I could "make up my ticket" (add money) once I got on the train so that I could stay on until my destination. So my student's uncle walked me onto the train and told me to sit in the dining car until a conductor came to make up my ticket. I sat down and was expecting the uncle to return and tell me what to do when the train started moving! Apparently he wasn't coming back. So there I was in the dining car, with no assigned seat, limited Chinese, and a ticket that only went half-way home.
I will spare you the details, but the next few hours involved me thinking I gave my ticket away to a thief (who turned out to be the man who helped me add money to the ticket), being told there was no room in the train so I could remain in the dining car, getting off at the wrong stop, getting chased down by a conductor and being told that I got off at the wrong stop, and finally arriving at my destination.
It was a confusing trip home, but in the end it turned out to be much more comfortable than the trip there. And now I have a story to tell. :)