The bandit train

Strangers on a train, with bad intentions – by Michael Taylor


A few years ago I decided to visit my friend Tom who was teaching English in Xichang, Sichuan province. I knew nothing about the place, except for my friend’s description of it as a lot more lawless and wild than Beijing. So I packed my bag with a few clothes and my passport, and headed down to Beijing West station to buy a ticket and get on the next train.

After 20 minutes explaining to an attendant that I wanted to go to “Xichang” and wasn’t just pronouncing the word “Sichuan” in a funny way, he led me through a door and down into the depths of the station. We walked down semi-lit corridors, with no members of the public around. This was clearly not the normal place to buy a ticket. Finally we arrived at the strangest ticket office I’ve ever seen. It was dimly lit and attended by a small old woman who sat behind a ticket desk that looked as though it had come straight out of a 1940s film. There was no glass, just bronze bars and wood.

The attendant who had escorted me here explained in a heavy Beijing accent where I wanted to go. Then he turned to me with a slight grin on his face and explained as best he could, mostly by gesturing, that there were no beds left and only hard-seat tickets were available. I had set my mind on going that day, as I had just traveled all the way across Beijing and was in no mood to do it again, so I agreed to take the hard-seat ticket, much to his amusement. I only realised afterwards that the train from Beijing to Xichang takes 46 hours.

Anyone who has been in a hard seat carriage in China will tell you they are not the most comfortable of affairs. The seats are close together and everyone is packed in tight, the atmosphere thick and stuffy. Those with a no-seating ticket sleep on the floor or hang around in the smoking section in between carriages. Occasionally an attendant passes through with a trolley full of snacks, beer and water. But there are generally few disputes and a strong sense of everyone trying to pull together to make the best of a bad situation, sharing snacks and playing cards.

I was sat opposite a young couple and next to an old man who wouldn’t stop crying after I offered him a beer. As the train crawled its way towards Sichuan people got off, until after about 30 hours seats began to empty. Now there was a little more room to move in, and have a look at who else was around me. One of the largest groups was about twenty migrant workers playing cards. During one of my trips to the end of the carriage for a cigarette – which always drew a lot of attention as I was a foreigner – a couple of them invited me over and offered me a couple of swigs of baijiu. In return I offered them a couple of beers, which they gladly accepted.

Not long after this I went for a toilet break, leaving my beer on the table close to my seat. I returned and carried on drinking with them, then went back to my seat to read. It was at this point that I realised something wasn’t right. A strange feeling came over me and my head began to spin, but it wasn’t the same feeling as being drunk. Everything became very hazy. I wondered what was causing this weird feeling, and I didn’t have to wait to get an answer. I was semi-slumped in my chair but I managed to raise my head long enough to give a puzzled look at the leader of the group of migrant workers. He looked straight back at me with an evil grin and said the words “heroin powder”.

I spent the next few hours drifting in and out of sleep, very aware of the fact that I was being watched, and trying to shake off the heroin I had been spiked with. I looked again at the group across the aisle. The leader looked me in the eyes and asked if I knew what “si er” meant. I hazarded a guess at forty two. He shook his head and made a throat slitting motion with his finger across his neck. Then I remembered that the word for death in chinese is “si”.

The group was chattering in heavy Sichuan dialect and occasionally peering over at me. The man sitting opposite me with his girlfriend or wife was listening in to what they were saying, and as I looked over at him he signalled to me with points and nods that they were planning something against me, and it wasn’t good. I nodded to show that I had understood his meaning, but I still didn’t have a clue what to do about it. The problem with trains is that there isn’t anywhere else to go.

So we all sat there for a couple of hours in this manner, the group plotting away and the man and his wife listening in, occasionally pouring out a tray of peanuts from a large sack and sharing them with me. In my broken Chinese I managed to ask the man where he was going. He said the same place as me, and I tried to explain how grateful I was for his help. He gave me his phone number and we agreed to meet up for food a couple of days later. What happened next I will never forget.

We were pulling into a tiny station in the middle of nowhere. One of the group, which I now just thought of as the bandits, made a loud comment directed at me. I still don’t know what he said to this day. But on hearing it, the man opposite me looked right in my eyes, gave me a nod, poured out a tray of peanuts and stood up in front of the bandits. He gave them all a disgusted look, lifted up his t-shirt and started rubbing his belly. In southern China this is considered a grave insult. Straight after doing this, the man took his bags and his wife’s hand, and exited the train. The bandit leader made a motion with his hand and said a few words. Four of them stood up and closely followed the couple off the train. I tried calling him a couple of days later as we had agreed, but there was no answer.

After their departure, my section of the carriage was mostly empty except for me and the sixteen or so bandits that remained. I had been planning to meet my friend – also a foreigner – at the station when I arrived, and I had mentioned this earlier when I was drinking with the bandits. I knew I had to warn him, but when I pulled out my phone it was dead. They were still talking about me, thinking that I couldn’t understand a word they said, but their intentions were clear enough, they were planning to rob me when I got off the train.

I had an idea. Even though my phone was dead, I very obviously pulled it out and acted as though I was sending a text to my friend. They saw me doing this and soon afterwards I heard them say the word “jingcha”, which means police. After this they entered into a sort of debate, and when the train stopped at a station two hours from our final destination, all but three of them got off. The leader still sat across the aisle from me with that smirk on his face. He picked up his phone and made a call, and it dawned on me that he was calling others down to the station ready for my arrival. After this he got up and walked away up the train, while his companions moved two or three rows down and were obviously keeping an eye on me.

Soon we would be pulling into the station and they would be there waiting for me, and my friend who was coming down to meet me would also stumble into the situation. I picked up my bag, made sure that I hadn’t left anything behind, and resolved to find the policeman that I knew was on board every Chinese train. In the dining cart, I found him sat at a table near the opposite end, smoking a cigarette. I sat down opposite him and did my best to explain what was going on. At first I thought he seemed overly calm about it all. He soon explained why.

Only two weeks before, fifteen Russians who had been making the same journey had been beaten up and robbed as they got off at the station. This was clearly not an uncommon occurrence. He went on to tell me that he would phone ahead to the station and have me escorted from the train. It was such a huge relief. But I still had to contact my friend to tell him not to meet me at the station, and my phone was out of battery.

Many people complain that the staff in Chinese train dining carts are rude and unwelcoming, but that day they also played a part in saving my skin. First they invited me to eat with them, a huge bowl of spicy chicken they had cooked up. They also offered me beer, and when I refused they gave me a can of coke. Over the food I did my best to explain my situation to them, and the chef, who was eating with us, suddenly perked up. It turned out he had the same phone as me and he had his charger with him. He fetched it, plugged it in and soon my phone had enough charge for me to call my friend.

I told him what had happened, and among his gasps of astonishment I told him not to come down to the station, and that I would call him when I was in a taxi so he could tell the driver the address. During the last hour of that journey, as we were sat in the dining cart, one of the bandits would occasionally come and peek around the corner, staring at me eating with the staff. Every time they did the policeman or the staff would tell them in a very strong manner to go away, and they would, only to return fifteen minutes later.

As the train pulled into my station, the policeman told me to wait a few minutes for everyone to get off. Soon two more policemen arrived at the carriage door to escort me out of the station. As they led me through the crowd of people, I held my breath. There must have been about fifty people around us, and I knew that in the crowd somewhere were the bandits. When we finally broke free I was directed to a taxi. I got in the front passenger seat and felt the relief wash over me. I had made it. I froze up as the back passenger door behind me opened, and someone got in.

Of course, it was nothing. Just standard routine for taxi drivers to drive more than one passenger at a time, to maximise their fare. I called my friend, who told the taxi driver the address, and soon we were speeding through dark twisting roads towards my friend’s house. When we arrived, he came out with a knife in his pocket. What I had told him had made him jumpy as well.

On reflection, what happened to me on that journey is something that hardly any travellers in China have experienced. It was the only time I have ever felt truly intimidated in China, and in a way, I am glad that I could walk away with such a good story to tell. But if it hadn’t been for that man and his wife, the policeman, the food cart staff, the chef and the policemen who braved that crowd with me, it might have been a very different story. For their help I am forever grateful.

Michael Taylor has lived in China since 2007