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19 May-8 June 2018.
We’re hanging out in the crowded main station in Xi’an waiting for our train to Emei Shan. We have our luggage all stacked together in a pile. Some of us are sitting on the floor,

and the rest of us are hanging out nearby, when suddenly it happens. A young Chinese woman comes rushing up to us squealing and jumping up and down like a little kid because she is so excited to see foreigners. At least that’s what we think it is. Her energy is loud, boisterous, uncontained, uninhibited. She is loud, boisterous, and uninhibited.

The squealing and jumping up and down continues as she latches on to Belinda who is her new best friend!

She gives Belinda a big hug then races off to make a phone call. She runs back, jumping up and down, hugs all of us, does some tai chi as Bhakti joins in, hugs us all again, and Belinda over and over, all with this manic energy. It goes on for at least half an hour. The more energetic and louder she gets the greater grows the audience around us. There had been some people just standing and staring at us as we waited in the railway station in a group with our luggage. They’d probably never, or rarely, seen foreigners before. We were pretty much the only foreigners in the crowded station, but when the girl starts interacting with us in such a noisy and rambunctious way the audience grows until everyone in the vicinity is watching. The one thing we glean about her is that she’s training to be a kindergarten teacher. How appropriate. Her energy is joyful and infectious, and even though it perhaps goes on for a bit too long we are all smiling. I have never experienced anything quite like it. She’s so uncontained in her excitement, like there’s nothing holding her together, that any minute I think she might explode.

And then our train comes, and her train comes, and we part ways. Peace returns as we collect our luggage and follow Peter onto the platform, and onto the train.

China is a huge country, roughly the same size as the USA, and over a three–week period the eight of us plus our fearless leader travel the length of it in a zigzag pattern from Beijing to Hong Kong, a distance of over four thousand five hundred kilometres. In order to cover the vast distances our itinerary includes three overnight train trips.

In a staggeringly short period of time, over the past ten years, China has developed the biggest high-speed rail network in the world: it has eight times as much track as France, ten times as much as Japan, twenty times as much as the UK, and five hundred times as much as the USA. China has more high-speed track than all the rest of the world combined. We do take two relatively short bullet train journeys, but it is the slow overnight journeys that allow us to see the countryside, to spend time together, to unwind from sightseeing, and to have a truly local experience.

Our first overnight trip begins at Beijing West Station, a crowded, noisy, cavernous, and bewildering space with a huge airport-style departures board.

Here we are camped out waiting for the train in the best spot we could find, right next to the women’s bathroom.

We take turns perusing the many small convenience stores for food to take with us. We are headed to Xi’an, a twelve-hour journey covering a distance of nearly 1300 kilometres. It’s our first introduction to “hard sleeper” compartments. Most trains have “hard sleeper” carriages, “soft sleeper” carriages, and carriages with seats. “Hard sleeper” carriages have six-berth compartments; three berths either side of a narrow space with a small table. The mattresses, despite the name, do have a bit of softness to them; they’re at least better than a camping pad. Each compartment is open to the aisle where there are fold-down seats for staring out the window.

By random computer draw I am assigned to the top bunk. The only way up there is on single footholds at each level on either side of the space between the bunks. Somehow I have to get up onto the first step, straddle the space and up climb up to the next level. I’m pretty darn agile and flexible for my age but I’m so grateful that Bhakti, who has been assigned a middle bunk, agrees to swap with me. And relieved when she tells me the next morning that she slept well.

You can see how narrow the bunks are.

The upper two levels are even narrower, and closer together so one is barely able to sit up. And as you can see, somehow we manage to cram all our luggage into the space, including under the bunks and on the luggage rack above the aisle windows. It’s very cosy.

There are squat toilets at the end of each carriage, but if you walk a long way through several carriages until you come to the “soft sleeper” carriages, which have only four (wider) bunks per compartment, there are western toilets. Oh joy. No really! There are also three sinks for washing in each carriage, and stations for boiling water for tea or noodles.

We settle in and get out all our goodies for dinner. There is a dining car and some have opted to go to it, but most of us have bags full of snacks, and we have a picnic where we are. I have cashews, nuts and raisins, a couple of hard-boiled eggs that I’d filched from the breakfast buffet at the hotel that morning, nectarines, two bananas, and a bizarre bun thing that is sealed in cellophane. I’d bought it in Beijing and have no idea what it is – if it’s sweet or savoury, bread or cake. I show it to Peter who says the topping is seaweed and pork bits so I assume it’s savoury and decide I’ll have it for dinner with the eggs. It turns out the glazing with the seaweed and pork bits is sweet. That’s a surprise. I’m munching away on my egg and take a bigger bite of the bun only to discover it has a sweet vanilla cream filling. That’s really a surprise!

We fill the time chatting, reading, and staring out the window at the countryside.

Next morning I’m able to make my usual wake-me-up cup of tea; there’s boiling water available, and the little milk I’d brought with me survived the night.

Trains reach almost every town the length and breadth of China and are safe, reliable, punctual, and cheap. They are the great people-movers in this country of 1.4 billion. The stations are huge, and incredibly busy and noisy, and tickets sell out almost immediately they become available. Each ticket is personalised to prevent a black market arising from bulk-buying and reselling.

I am incredibly grateful to have Peter who takes care of getting us to the stations in plenty of time, and collects our tickets, gets us to the right platform, and into the right carriage. He is our guiding light through a zoo of humanity and confusing signage. It’s possible to travel by train independently in China, and there is quite a lot of information online about how to do it, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

After leaving our very enthusiastic new friend, the would-be kindergarten teacher and BFF of Belinda, at the station in Xi’an we board the second “hard sleeper” train of our journey south. This time it’s overnight and most of the next day, taking us to Emeishan Town.

Once again by random draw I’m allotted the top bunk. I choose not to swap even though it’s offered. Since it’s happened two times in a row I figure it’s my destiny to sleep on high. And anyway everyone has to take their turn. Also in this train there is a ladder, not just footholds on either side of the gap between the bunks. I know I can negotiate a ladder with no problem.

Photo by Tim Munro

In the photo above, you can see the bottom bunks by my shoulder, the middle bunks just above my head, and the top bunks way up high near the top of the picture. It’s a long way up. I didn’t sleep well, but then neither did anyone else, and we all survived. I remember years ago, back in my Hippie days, asking a friend how her trip had been. She replied Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was dirty and there was no place to sleep all said in a very matter-of-fact voice, and as if there was no need to expand on that simple statement. It’s the way of travel isn’t it?

The “hard sleeper” carriages are grubby, crowded, and noisy. They are like a huge dorm room. As you make your way up and down the aisles you pass people playing cards, shelling and eating sunflower seeds, smoking in the allowable space between carriages, or simply staring out the window.

They gather in groups to talk, and at meal times come together to eat, usually the ubiquitous instant noodles. Strangers quickly become friends and a holiday atmosphere arises. Food carts selling noodle pots, soft drinks, and mysterious Chinese snacks negotiate the narrow aisle from time to time.

Out the window I see rice fields and rural homes,

rice fields and a village filling a long valley,

rice fields and huge power stations,

more rice fields,

irrigation canals,

farm houses,

crops of corn and other vegetables,

a sleepy turquoise river valley nestled between green mountains,

and new high-rise apartment buildings, marching like great battalions across the land. (The second photo was taken from a bus on a highway but is similar to many I saw from the train).

We mainly hang out in our cosy cubicle gabbing about this and that, telling stories, telling jokes, laughing, reading, writing.

Photo by Peter Wang

In the morning I walk the length of six carriages to find a western toilet. And then wash my face and hands. I’d made sure to have soap and a small towel easily available in my luggage. Neither toilet paper, nor soap, nor towels of any kind are provided. But I am prepared, and it’s amazing the difference it makes just to have clean face and hands. So happy.

Later in the day, when the need arises, instead of walking six carriages to a western toilet I go into one of the squat toilets nearby. Needless to say this is not a pristine place. I hitch up my pant legs and clamp them in place with my knees. I’m sure you can imagine why I don’t want them touching the floor as I pull my pants down. When I’m finished, and still standing in place doing up my pants, the toilet suddenly self-flushes! Spraying water (well I hope it’s only water) all over my legs! That’s a surprise! Ewwwww. I can’t connect the two: a stinky old-fashioned squat toilet on a train with a self-flushing mechanism. It seems such an unlikely juxtaposition.

Some of us go to the dining car for lunch and I have pork with rice, black fungus, and cucumber, cooked in the usual delicious Chinese sauces. So good.

Several days later we are on the third overnight train. This one takes us from Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam, to Liuzhou, a journey of about 950 kilometres and sixteen hours. We’ve just finished a three-night Yangtze River cruise ending at the Three Gorges Dam. From there we travel by bus to some mystery point where we change to another bus that brings us to the station at Yichang. And here is luxury! For this trip we’re in a “soft sleeper” carriage. There are only four beds per compartment, and the beds are softer and wider. Deluxe!

Once again I’m allotted a top bunk! But this time I’m glad. At the foot of my bunk is a huge shelf that forms the roof over the aisle, and it is here that I can stow all my things (suitcase, backpack, camera, bags of snacks) and be able to get at them easily without disturbing anyone. Oh the little things that make me happy!

We’re on this train from the afternoon into the following very early morning. I spend the time talking with the others, uploading and editing photos, and gazing out the window as we pass by mountains and rivers,

and more small farms and rice fields.

I’m lulled into stillness as the green scenery passes before me. At times it’s almost as if the scenery is moving and I am the one that is still. Eventually I climb up to my bunk and embraced by comfort for a couple of hours I fall into a deep sleep.

Most of us have dinner in the dining car,

where Bhakti swipes the conductor’s hat.

Again the food is good. I have the usual pork and rice, this time with black fungus, carrots, and onions. Belinda and Bhakti each order soup and it arrives not as we Westerners expect, in a soup bowl with a spoon. No, it is served in gigantic basins with ladles!

Of course it is the Asian way – meals are shared so although the rest of us are served individual meals apparently soup only comes in the extra-large size so we can all have some.

I sleep well that night. We are woken at 4.30 am to get off the train at 5 when it arrives in Liuzhou. From there we pile onto a bus for a three-hour drive to Yangshuo.

I’ll mention one other train trip. We get a bullet train from Guilin to Shenzhen where we take a local subway to the border. After leaving China we take another subway, finally arriving in downtown Hong Kong. The high-speed train from Guilin to Shenzhen takes three hours to cover a distance of 500 kilometres. At one point we’re travelling at 308 kilometres per hour.

Train window dreaming:

Next post: The famous Terracotta Warriors and the not so famous Han Yang Ling Mausoleum.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.