GUANGZHOU, China – First, the food aboard the train ran out, then the water.

When record blizzards hit China last month, what began as a 36-hour train trip for Edward Wang became an ordeal lasting nearly twice that long.

He described fighting among drunken passengers and staff armed with knives, fears of being robbed by those desperate for food, and breathing air so foul that some people became dizzy.

Wang, 25, rode the rails as China’s worst blizzards and ice storms in five decades caused havoc during the nation’s busiest travel period, the Chinese New Year. At least 60 people have died, thousands of vehicles were stranded on highways, rail travel was severely disrupted, and damage has been estimated at $7.5 billion.

State-run television and newspapers have painted an inspiring picture of people coping with the disaster – soldiers chipping ice off highways, and train conductors using snow to clean toilets on idled trains. Passengers were shown smiling as they looked out of train windows.

But Wang, an English teacher tells a different tale.

He said the crisis brought out the worst in China’s system during what turned out to be a 61-hour journey from the southern city of Guangzhou to his hometown of Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province.

Wang said train staff reverted to the communist habit of blocking bad news, refusing to say why the train was stalled on the tracks for up to 10 hours at a time.

“I didn’t mind getting stuck on the train, but the way they were treating people was terrible,” said Wang, who insisted on using his English name because he feared he might run afoul of the authorities for his criticism.

“The conductor didn’t make any announcements,” he said by phone from his parents’ home. “We didn’t know what was happening. They should have tried to comfort the people, but they said nothing.”

When he tried to take photos, he said “the conductor came over to me and said, ‘Who are you? Are you a journalist? You’re going to have to delete these pictures.”‘

His train left Guangzhou at 8:45 p.m. on Jan. 25. Two hours later, the train stopped in the city of Shaoguan – where it was stuck for 10 hours, Wang said.

Food on the train ran out after the first day and nothing was being sold on the station platforms, he said. Usually, hawkers will offer instant noodles, hard-boiled eggs, spicy tofu or other snacks.

“I guess there were 600 trains ahead of us, and everything was sold out,” he said.

The water also quickly ran out.

“We didn’t wash our face or brush our teeth for two days because there was no water left,” he said. “We didn’t get more water until the third day.”

Some passengers drank beer or the popular, fiery “bai jiu” liquor sold by the train staff, Wang said. A few got drunk, barged into the packed dining car, and demanded food.

Fighting broke out, Wang said.

“The cooks had knives and the passengers had broomsticks. There were no injuries, though, just pushing and shoving and neck-grabbing,” he said.

When the staff finally procured some lunch boxes with rice at a stop, they doubled the usual price to $2.80 – and some passengers bought most of the food and hoarded it, he said.

Wang said he feared that impoverished migrant workers could not afford the inflated prices. “I thought I could get robbed by people desperate for food,” he said.

Every corner of the train was packed with people who were not allowed out for fresh air during the delays.

The crowding kept the unheated trains warm and staff kept windows – except for the small ones in the restrooms – closed to retain heat, he said, adding the lack of fresh air made passengers dizzy.

“Sometimes people had to go to the bathroom to breathe because that was the only place with any fresh air,” he said. “It’s funny because you normally don’t want to do that in a train bathroom.”

Wang said the toilets did not back up despite the lack of water. Most Chinese train toilets are just holes in the floor, with everything falling onto the tracks. People also threw trash out the windows, leaving a trail of toilet paper, beer bottles, instant noodle containers and other junk, he said.

The train was stuck for 30 hours in Hunan province, which has suffered most of the freakish winter storms. The ice and storm downed electric lines that powered the trains, and hundreds of thousands of people were still stranded in Guangzhou during the weekend.

Wang said he regretted not flying home but felt fortunate that he had not tried to take a later train, which would likely have left him stuck like the thousands of other passengers in Guangzhou.

When he arrived home Jan. 28 – 61 hours after his journey began – Wang thought: “In this period of time, I could have been in Moscow.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.