Chugga-chugga-chugga-slosh-slurp-slosh-choo-choo is the noise a Chinese train makes as it hurtles across the tracks carrying hundreds of people eating pot noodles.
The Chinese like their food. In fact, when travelling in “cattle class” as we now affectionately call the hard seat tickets, it feels like the Chinese do little other than eat. And that suits me just fine.
So on our recent 29 hour journey from Xi’an to Guilin I decided to live like a local and spent an evening, a night, a morning, and afternoon and another evening doing little but eating.
The best thing about Chinese trains is that you can get on with no food and still eat your way across the country. And, in stark contrast to aeroplane food, the grub that is served up on Chinese trains is brilliant. So great in fact that I thought I should tell you all about it.
First up was dinner. Dinner was especially important because we were sulking a bit at this point. We had 29 hours ahead of us in the same seats and to make matters worse The Mongoose and The Yank (Karen, the Mongoose’s better half) had splashed out on a soft sleeper. They had a soft, comfy bunk in a private 4-bed cabin, we were sharing our carriage with about 100 others – many of whom did not even have seats so were squashed onto the end of ours. We were bitter.
But then a smiling man paraded down the carriage bearing a food laden trolley and this was served (at the bargainous price of 20 Yuan – £2).
Feast your eyes upon this ladies and gents. At the back a giant portion of steamed rice was served with a fried egg on top so you could even make your own egg fried rice in the pot if you so desired. It was accompanied by three delicious dishes – a black bean pork number, a rich soy sauce based beef dish and chilli tofu.
It was delicious, filling and made my chopsticks work at an alarming pace. I have no idea how this creation is whipped up on the train – is there a mini kitchen somewhere with a little Chinese lady in it who has three huge woks and a large pan on the go? I wanted to go and find her and shake her hand.
After dinner we decided to grace The Mongoose and The Yank with our company and arranged to meet on neutral ground – the Buffet Car. Oh, the Buffet Car – a delicious way to get out of cattle class for a few precious hours and eat something else.
It was an odd set up I won’t lie. We were charged 30 Yuan (about £3) for the privilege of sitting there and were told we could stay for nine hours until 6am. We were told some food would be on its way. We guzzled some Chinese wine (more on that another time) and waited patiently.
Soon a man appeared with a huge box of goodies and dished out an array of treats for us.
Buttery biscuits, tea, coffee and best of all a huge packet of semi-popped corn, that tasted like dried Sugar Puffs. A fine treat indeed.
Matty and I made the most of our Yuan by crashing out in the buffet car until 6am after the other two went back to their palace. Once rudely awoken we trudged back to our seats and grabbed some breakfast from the trolley.
Ding, ding. Welcome to the Chinese breakfast. Yummy, soft dough balls and a spicy cabbage and bean stir-fry. Delicious. Only let down by a strange bowl of glutinous rice slop that they insist on serving at every breakfast.
This part of the meal went straight down the loo.
A nap later and we were ready for our mid-morning snack. The Pot Noodle. The essential travel partner in China. Dozens of people up and down carriages across the country can be found slurping on these noodles at any one time.
The trolley man boasts three shelves of multi-coloured pots for the picking and at either end of the carriage you will find huge tanks of boiling water. When word gets out they have been re-filled you must not be elbow-shy as dozens rush forward clutching their cardboard pots with a ferocity that is somewhat disarming.
A far cry from the pot noodles at home, these are spicy, flavoursome and wholesome. Ok, the last bit was a lie. These things can’t be good for you.
In between the meals there are plenty of snacks on offer. Including packets of chilli tofu, which once opened must be sucked out of the packet with your mouth, chilli nuts, sweet nuts, seeds of all shapes and sizes and crisps which I can only describe as ‘Chinese flavoured’.
And so it was that 29 hours later we waddled off the train as it sloshed and slurped to a hault in Guilin. And I was ready to get off that train. Really ready. I just couldn’t eat anything else.