The Hard Sleeper Train: Part 1. Beijing to Guiyang (1,346.0 Miles) / by Katherine Cecil

I apologise for the lengthy gaps between posts. I've had a number of unexpected surprises since my arrival in Guizhou -- so much so -- I’ve decided to title my current period in China: ‘Down and Out in Guiyang and Yunnan’ for reasons that will soon become clear.

It all began with a train journey…

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I’ve been fascinated with railways ever since reading Paul Theroux at the age of 13. This is odd because Theroux doesn't necessarily portray the act of train travel in a positive light. His descriptions of overcrowded carriages, dismissive conductors and manic passengers are a far cry from the romantic ideal. Theroux’s raw accounts of the sleeper train (non existent in the UK) planted a seed of peculiar obsession. It seemed, in my mind, to be the most honest way to travel across a country.

Therefore when the opportunity arose for me to catch the long distance sleeper train from Beijing to Guiyang. I jumped at the chance.

I was to embark on China’s longest rail route. The journey itself takes 36 hours and covers a massive 1,346 miles. Beginning in Beijing’s wealthy northeast, it rattles west across the belly of China toward T1b*t, and finally lurches south, chugging steadily to the sub tropics of Kunming, Yunnan (the province that boarders Laos, Vietnam and Burma). Guiyang, my destination, was the last major city before Kunming. 

When I told my Chinese host that I was going to take the train, he openly laughed at me.

“You 外国人 (laowai) are so strange” he said, “why don’t you fly? It takes 4 hours, and you’ll be in comfort. Why would you want to make your life difficult by taking the train?”

“It will be an experience, and I love the railway!” I replied,

“It’ll be hell” he chuckled, “外国人 (laowai), so strange”.

I was travelling with my friends Daniel and Rob. After an exhausting two weeks TEFL training in Beijing we welcomed the 36-hour brake. My time in China’s Capital had been rewarding but heavily monitored (sadly to such an extent that all I can say about the city is that it’s big and in the 14 day’s I was there the smog lifted twice!) As such, by taking the train we we’re breaking free of our reigns and finally being released into China proper.

This feeling was especially prevalent when we crossed the Yangtze and left the rich North East behind.

The original plan had been to fly. This had displeased me. I enjoy the process of getting to a destination. Aeroplanes -- in particular internal flights -- can depersonalise travel (tube systems are the same), the traveller runs the risk of seeing a country as a series of places rather than a whole. There’s no flow to flying. You get on at one destination; you get off at another, without witnessing how both these places are linked through miles and miles of landscape, people, and tradition. I dislike this; an integral aspect of travel (at least for me) is seeing the shared common factors between person and place.

Rail allows for this: bed upon bed upon bed, loud, cramped, and uncomfortable, trains ignite a common sense of unity. The small group of people around you become your family: you share food, you play cards and as night falls, you wish each other 晚安 (wǎn'ān) /གཟིམ་ལཇག་གནང་དགོས་། (sim-jah nahng-go).

Most significantly, as a collective, you share the magnificence of the landscape. Views impossible to attain by any other mode of transport. There were moments during the journey when all the passengers, whether they be Chinese, T1b*tn Thai or Western had their noses pressed against the window, staring in wonder at the spectacles on the other side of the glass.

Another notable of feature of rail travel in China is the food. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. The dining cart is a sight of wonder -- chef’s working day and night preparing a multitude of dishes. Nothing is packaged everything is fresh. Four times a day crooked old ladies dressed in pseudo-military uniform would rattle down the aisles selling steaming 15 RMB (£1.54) delights, along with beer and the infamous baijiu (燒酒). This was just the beginning, every hour different sellers would clatter through the train selling fresh and dried fruit, soya milk, various meats, nuts, pastries and beer -- so much beer – that by the time the lights were automatically switched off at 22.30 we were all so drunk and full it was impossible not to fall into a heavy, comfortable slumber.

At key stations during the journey the train would stop for an extended period -- although it was never announced how long the train would be in station. Therefore a fair amount of frantic guesswork and guard surveillance was needed in order to safely leave the train and explore.

Markets would spring up around these rest-points, selling local tourist treats. Daniel and I got off regularly (after making an oath that we wouldn’t get back on the train without each other). The Chinese passengers would also clamber out at these lulls, mostly to take photographs, which is a habit that they are most fond.

It was at one such stopover, that I thought I’d come into good fortune and found sugared ginger, only to later realise in horror -- after shoving a large quantity into my mouth -- that it was pickled chickens feet (it might seem ludicrous but the two look remarkably similar when vacuum packed!)

The 36 hours passed at surprising speed and all to soon the conductor was poking us awake and shouting in rapid Chinese that we we’re approaching Guiyang.

My new home, for the next 4 months at least…