That Time I Took a Train Across China Dressed Like Santa

by Sasha Savinov

Your local pub is a place where ideas are born. When the beer and the conversation are both flowing, you never know what’s going to come out of it. Sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re downright awful. Sometimes your friends talk you out of it, and other times they egg you on. Once upon a time – in an Irish pub in Kunming – I came up with one of the most ridiculous ideas ever, and Rachel insisted I follow through. 

A Drunken Idea

‘Member Santa Con? Yeah I ‘member! ?

Being far away from home over the holidays is one of those rough parts about being an expat. It’s not always possible to get back, and many find themselves feeling quite homesick at the end of the year. Thanks to events like Santa Con, however, you can at least drown your sorrows in a sea of booze-fueled caroling on Beijing public transportation. We had an amazing time (at least the parts that we remember) in our years joining the holiday revelry in the Chinese capital, and were bummed at the lack of a Santa Con event or enough interest in starting one in our new home of Kunming. With plans to get home in time for Christmas, I started daydreaming about getting back to Beijing for Santa Con before catching a flight across the globe. The easiest way to do this would have been to book one round-trip flight from Kunming-Beijing, and another from BJ to Detroit. Anybody who knows me, though, knows I’d rather take an alternative route. I just needed some inspiration.

One night while out at our local watering hole, we were regaling our friends with tales of Santa Cons past. Excited about my far-fetched idea to celebrate both Santa Con in Beijing and Christmas back in Detroit – and with quite a few Beer Laos Darks in me – I came up with an absurd way to make it all happen. 

“What if I bought the Santa suit here, and wore it on the train all the way to Beijing?”

“Yes! You have to do that!”

“Dude, that would be f%@$ing hilarious!”

“Can you imagine peoples’ reaction to Santa riding the train?”

We all shared a laugh over the nonsensical drunken idea of mine and continued on with our night. After sobering up a bit the next day, I was quick to backtrack on this incredibly stupid plan of mine. Rachel, however, was having none of it.

“You do realize you have to do it now?”

“Whatever. It was just a dumb drunk comment. I wasn’t serious about it.”

“You brought it up and everyone loved it. You have to do it.”

“Well, it would make for a pretty funny video. And I would love to get to Santa Con…”

Little did Rachel know that I was a bit busy making other plans at the time. While she was out teaching, I was at home frantically trying to figure out her ring size on my own, shopping for an engagement ring, and making plans for our trip to Miami for Phish’s New Year’s run. What the hell – why not add a nearly 3,000 kilometer train journey across China dressed like Santa to the fray? It sounded like a good time. Powered by the magic of alcohol and peer pressure, I set about planning Old St. Nick’s long journey across the Middle Kingdom.

Planning

Step 1- Buy Santa suit.

From the very beginning, I had the idea to make a short movie of the whole thing. The idea was based on the fact that the Chinese word for the North Pole sounds a lot like Beijing. Santa’s sleigh would crash land in China, and when he tried to find his way home, miscommunication would lead him to the Chinese capital. I set about writing some sort of a storyboard and script in between failed attempts at engagement-ring shopping. What can I say – planning an idiotic, drunken trip across China dressed as Santa helped ease my mind.

While I’m a big fan of train travel, the 33-hour trip from Kunming to Beijing sounded pretty damn awful. Rather than go direct, I decided to stop in a few provincial capitals along the way. As a part-time English teacher and blogger, it’s not like I had anything better to do than visit random Chinese cities on my way to a drunken Santa party. Tickets were bought, a quality (in China terms) Santa suit was ordered, and shooting began on the super low-budget film with the help of my buddy Robin. 

Santa’s Long, Strange Trip

Kunming

Santa and his students.

As the story goes, Santa’s sleigh ended up stranded in Kunming. I went ahead and did what every random white person does when they end up in China – got a job teaching English. Wanting to assimilate a bit, I also enrolled in Chinese classes and tried out some local snacks. Mmmm… grilled pig feet and stinky tofu. One day while out walking around, I even got a massage in the streets.

Santa loves street massages.

Cruisin’ on my new sleigh.

Life in Kunming was good, but I wanted to get home. I tried to hitchhike back to the North Pole, but no one wanted to give me a lift. Rather than buy a new sleigh, I picked up a 4th hand electric bike and cruised around the streets of Kunming to soak up the city’s culture and nightlife. With enough kuai stashed away in my stocking, I picked up train tickets and hit the rails.

Guiyang

Spreading Christmas cheer.

The first stop was Guiyang, capital of the poorest province in China. It seemed as good a place as any to try and spread some Christmas cheer. Rachel accompanied me on this leg of the trip and held the camera. How I was going to film the rest of the trip without her remained a mystery.

Santa in Guiyang

Mmm… noodles.

I explored an ancient pavilion, wandered into shopping malls to admire Christmas decorations, and slurped noodles. Oh yeah – I also boogied down with middle-aged ladies in the public squares. It was a small group during the day, but by night I was groovin’ with about a hundred ladies dressed in matching track suits. 

Cuttin’ a rug in the public squares.

Changsha

An overnight train took me to Changsha, a mediocre Chinese city you’ve never heard of. Without assistance or encouragement, I was struggling to find the motivation to Santa-suit up and hit the streets in this depressing, unfamiliar, smog-choked dump city. All the weird street food and beers of the previous few nights were also beginning to catch up with me. Needless to say, Santa was a bit confused when confronted with a Chinese public toilet…

Learn to squat.

I wanted nothing more than a bit of comfort food and a nice cup of coffee, and managed to find a local expat hangout that had both. After telling the owner – an awesome Canadian dude named Phil – about my stupid trip, he insisted on taking the afternoon off to film for me.

Thumbs up for Crave in Changsha!

We hit a mountain that’s supposedly historic, where I took a few thousand pictures with tourists and posed in front of a Chairman Mao statue. Standing there in his home province, I wondered what Mao would think about a drunken white hippy dude dressed as Santa being adored by Chinese people. He’d probably hate it, but screw Mao. I hope his fake wax body is rolling in its glass display case in Tiananmen Square.

Santa & Mao

That night we ate some ass-burning Hunan food and hit the bar street hard. After literally being dragged into a bar, a wedding party forced me to pound countless room temperature beers with them. All the while, my newfound Canadian buddy (“I’m not your buddy, guy!”) sat there laughing hysterically, diligently snapping photos for me. 

Pounding beers with a wedding party.

Santa is the tits.

Our jolly evening of debauchery continued at a local bar that’s packed any night of the week. It was a random Tuesday night in a random Chinese city, and people were partying like it was Carnaval in Rio. Everyone wanted to buy Santa beers and share their hookah, ensuring that my night ended in a blur of Tsingtao and strawberry shisha. It’s a damn good thing Santa wasn’t driving his sleigh home that night.

Puffin’ tough.

Wuhan

Wuhan does little to cheer you up.

A high-speed train took me to my next destination of Wuhan in just a few hours, but I was wishing it was an overnight sleeper train. Santa was painfully hungover and just wanted to take a long winter’s nap. Arriving in another cold, depressing, polluted Chinese city didn’t help lift my spirits. For the first time in a week, I had no desire to put the Santa suit on. Instead, I pigged out on dumplings and hibernated in my hostel for the day. 

With one more day before my final train ride, I dug down deep and summoned the holiday cheer needed to tackle a day in this miserable shit-hole of a city. Without Rachel or Phil, I was to rely on my trusty selfie-stick for the day. At least I would blend in with the crowd in one way. I was beginning to hate the stupid Santa suit and wanted nothing to do with it. Rather than wear it out of the hostel, I packed it in my bag and carried it with me. After watching locals do tai chi and sing in a park and visiting a Buddhist temple, I was at peace with my stupid life choices and embraced my inner Santa. 

A day in Wuhan.

Back in my red and white, I hit the Yellow Crane Tower to take an absurd amount of pictures with random Chinese tourists. From there I headed to a snack street, where I feasted on noodles and random shit on sticks. The highlight of my short trip in Wuhan came when I discovered a 40 oz. PBR in a random bodega. Down on the banks of the Yangtze River, on a disgusting, grey day in the urban wasteland of middle China, I slammed down a 40 in a Santa suit. In between sips, I gave a nice “Merry Christmas!” in Chinese to everyone who passed me by. I took solace in the thought that I’d soon be just one of a hundred or so tipsy Santas.

Beijing

Settling in for a long night.

One final train ride finally brought me to my former home of Beijing. Walking out of the train station and observing the absolute chaos of the city, I couldn’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy being back in the place where my whole expat journey started. Of course, it could have just been the compounding week-long hangover and lingering pain of the Hunan food. While I had been happy to leave Beijing a year earlier and had no regrets about our decision to move on, there will always be a special place in my heart (and liver) for that crazy Chinese metropolis.

Back at Santa Con!

As is usually the case, Santa Con was a belligerent mess of a day. At least a hundred St. Nicks paraded through the city’s ancient hutong neighborhoods, singing “Jingle Bells” and Backstreet Boys for some odd reason. It was a joyous day of merriment, full of old friends, laughs, and every kind of booze known to man.

Santa’s long, strange trip.

What started out as a drunken idea in a bar in Kunming ended up being one of the most hilarious adventures of my life. A week later, I’d spend Christmas at home for the first time in five years. Another week later, and I’d get engaged to the love of my life while watching my favorite band in Miami. Whether I set out to do so or not, my drunken idea to ride a train across China dressed as Santa marked a huge transition. I finally said goodbye to Beijing and myself as an independent entity, and looked forward to a new life as a married man. Thankfully for this Santa, my Mrs. Claus fully supports my childish ideas. Without her, I may never have traversed China by train as a drunken Santa.

Watch “Santa in China” and see the whole crazy journey unfold.

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