A train journey across China

May 18th, 2009 by scott and becky

We paid the extra to ensure we had two bottom bunks in a soft sleeper (1st class, 4 person cabin) on the train from Kunming to Beijing. With any luck this would mean we had a private cabin for the journey, as the upper bunks in soft sleeper class are usually the last to sell – they are expensive and you are guaranteed to not have a private cabin since the bottom bunks sell first, most people would just buy hard sleeper (2nd class). If we were earlier into our trip would have welcomed the adventure of hard sleeper class, but we are mentally tired and the lack of privacy in hard sleeper class would have been even more tiring.

Our cabin is comfortable but the first night Becky felt like she had entered into her own personal hell. The toilets on the train were gross within the first hour and we still had 37 hours to go. As seems to be a problem with public toilets throughout China there is a lack of water, so it is difficult to flush things clean. Moving through the narrow hallway has been a challenge at times, and some people are incredibly rude – you step aside to let someone who is coming the other way through and the people behind you just barge through. Adding to this, the scent of cigarette smoke often pervaded through the hallways and seeped into our cabin. Becky’s worst nightmare for this journey would be the need to share the cabin with Chinese smokers, who don’t seem to understand the offensiveness of second hand smoke.

Fortunately, a night’s sleep seemed to relieve Becky of her feelings of being in hell and things began to look up. We awoke to a dreary rainy day, but the scenery was amazing. Rocks and mountains were jutting out of the landscape with valleys filled with terraced fields. There did not appear to be roads into most of the fields, so we would not have seen this area if we travelled any other way. At one point, Becky saw a valley that looked like it was right out of a model railway – with a small village, surrounded by terraced fields and stony mountains, and railway tunnels opening up to show a train running through on a track about 500m away. It was all very surreal. Unfortunately, the spectacular views were often broken up by the train entering into a tunnel. It must have been a real challenge to build the tracks through the area (southern China between Kunming and Nanning). Unfortunately, wet windows do not make for good photos.

Although the smoke occasionally seeped into our cabin, for the most part the air was clean. The conductors on the train seem to do a good job of keeping the toilets reasonably clean, such that their worst condition was in the first hour of our trip.

The food on the train ranged from very good to OK, but generally was quite acceptable. We ate in the dining car, where they had an English menu for us, as well as selecting food by pointing at the carts which went by. While in Kunming, Becky bought a cheap bottle of Chinese wine for us to enjoy with our dinner on the train. Upon opening the wine we discovered that it was truly awful – very sweet. Fortunately, adding orange juice (or 30% real juice orange drink) made it taste like cheap sangria – good enough to allow us to enjoy the wine if not savor it!

Every time the train stopped during the day, Becky got nervous. Several times people poked their heads into our door only to realize they were in the cabin next to us. This lasted right up until the second last stop of the day, where two men joined us in our cabin – an older man and a man about our age. Neither spoke any English. They were both very polite. Becky got worried when she noticed that both of them smoked, but neither even considered smoking in the cabin, rather they both went out to the smoking corridors of the train. The younger gentlemen climbed up into his upper bunk after his smoke and proceeded to watch a movie on his laptop. The sound was slightly annoying since it was in English but not quite loud enough to hear it – fortunately we both have iPods and earplugs. We setup for sleep and went to bed relatively early (9 pm). The older man was not quite ready for bed so he went somewhere – we guess the dining car to read his newspaper and smoke.

We had read that to Chinese people, white people have a particular smell – something akin to cheese. What Becky discovered is that some Chinese people – particularly older ones – have a spicy smell. When the older gentleman climbed into bed, the cabin was filled with his scent. Unfortunately, it was a little overwhelming for Becky, such that she did not sleep as well as she’d hoped. Scott’s less sensitive nose caused him to notice the scent as well, but it wasn’t enough to bother him or disturb his sleep. We wonder what we smelled like to them, after 24 hours on the train, and 36 hours since our last shower?

In the morning, both our cabin mates left the train at the 8:30 am stop. Although they were polite and better than we expected, we were happy to have the cabin back to ourselves for the last 3 hours of our journey. The train arrived in Beijing on-time, and we were happy to disembark after 38 hours.

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