Posted by: Lotus Light | April 21, 2011

Train whistle blowin’

Glimpses of lives I will never live

I love taking a train trip in China.  There is an art to train travel here and it begins early.  Train tickets go on sale 10 days before the date you want to travel.  This is OK, unless it is near a public holiday, when EVERYONE wants to go home. For holiday periods, be prepared to take a book and some nibblies to the ticket office.  I have seen queues up to 300 metres long!!  And just as it is two people from your turn, the seller closes the window and goes for lunch!  This is where you need to settle down with your book and wait patiently.  If you come back in two hours, you are back at the end of the queue!!

At the sales window there are choices to be made.  Hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, standing.  Upper, middle or lower bunk?  Which ticket? My recommendation is hard sleeper, lower or middle bunk.   This is truly the best way to travel for anything over a 7 hour journey.  Plus, a well rounded foreigner attempting to climb in and out of the top bunk creates a certain level of amusement!!

Standing ticket you ask?  Well of course! Once everyone is seated there is still room in the aisles, and on the carriage connections.  We can fill that space with people.  Standing ticket is possibly the least comfortable mode.  Scrunched up in the aisle, with people walking over you to go to the bathroom or get hot water is not the best way to get to sleep!  However, if you want ‘travel cred’ in China, you MUST take a standing ticket at least once!!

Ok, now you have your ticket, and I will tell you my train travel secrets.  Bring a pair of scuffs with you to wear in the train; they are easier to slip on and off.  Two, bring nibblies, train food is OK, but not exciting.  Three, most important of all, bring a pack of UNO cards.

I arrive at the station about 90 minutes early.  This gives me time to wriggle through the crowd, line up to get into the station, line up again to have my bags scanned.  But more than this, being there early gives me time to sit in the “Soft Seat Waiting Lounge’.  The passengers in here get on the train earlier than the other 2000 passengers in the main waiting area and these extra few minutes allow you to stow your luggage without a carriage full of people trying to pull their bags past you.

Once the train leaves it is time to exchange a friendly smile and ‘ni hao’ with your bunkmates.  Soon the conductor comes to exchange your paper ticket for a plastic ‘bank card’ type and the journey has begun.

When we are settled I pull out the UNO cards, and invite my bunkies to play.  This card game is the easiest to teach, little or no Chinese needed, is cut-throat enough to get very competitive and can be played by 10 people.  10 people squashed onto the bunks playing UNO, shouting and laughing really makes the time pass quickly. If your bunkies are  less inclined to play games, there is always a time for a chat, (usually about family!) and then a nice long read.

If you have the bottom bunk, you amy need to curl your legs – the top bunk people will come down from their eyrie to sit in comfort and you need to move over and allow them a  little room.  Each carriage has a loo (MOST important -bring your own tissues!!!!), a bathroom and a boiler for the ubiquitious hot water/tea.  Getting up early in the morning is worth having the bathroom, with its trough washbasin and mirror, to yourself for your morning ablutions.  A little later and you have to queue.

After a couple of hours of cards it is either lights out, or meal time.  I eat my snacks and buy my ritual bottle of beer from the vendor walking up and down the train, selling all sorts of goodies.

The scenery flashes past outside, small villages and farms can be seen, workers and children in the streets, the lights of cities.  A lovely way to travel across China. I am fascinated by the worlds outside my window.  People work in fields, chat to each other on the paths beside their villages; cars head in various direction as we sail past roads and stop signs.  I look at all of these lives and wonder what the joys and sorrows are within the walls of the houses.  So many lives I will never live.

Near the end of the journey the conductor will come by to wake you up and exchange your train ticket again.  They start cleaning the train before the station is reached, so be ready to lift you bags off the floor and hand over all of your rubbish.  Occasionally the carpet runner in the corridor will be rolled up, making getting to and from the washrooms a little more difficult.  Sometimes you will have to hand over your sheets as well, to help the cleaners get a head start on making everything ready for the return trip.  All of this activity takes up time and provides interest!

As the final destination nears, suitcases are pulled from the overhead racks and left conveniently in the corridor, belongings are gathered and layers of outer clothes put on.  Experienced travellers wait a little – they know that the train has to stop first, the doors have to open and then the hordes have to disembark in single file.  There is no rush!

Once in the train station everyone rushes to the exit, stopping to show the guard that they were bona fide travellers, and fighting off scalpers who want to take the used ticket for re-selling to some poor  rural innocent. Black taxis as well as real taxis line up at the entrance ready to take you on to your next destination.  Some taxis are the 3-wheeled bicycles with a tray and it is fun to watch how many people and how much luggage can be tucked into one.

Train is not the only form of long distance travel, there is sleeper bus as well, but that is a story for another day!!

The little red engine



  1. LOL – Two such rides which I will remember with a laugh for many years to come. Thanks!

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