My boyfriend and I set of on our first trip outside of Europe together, 7 months travelling Asia, no point in doing things by half. Rather than ease ourselves in gently somewhere small and where English is widely spoken, say Thailand, we thought we would tackle the biggest country on our list; China. And wait, it get’s better, we would do it during Spring Festival, the busiest time of the year when every Chinese man, woman and child is on the move, or at least that’s how it appeared to us.
The most epic part of our travels was without a doubt the actual travelling part itself, i.e the moving from A to B. To save money we had planned to make use of the trains, an excellent idea we thought, get on in the evening, go to sleep and wake up there! Perfect. So, first stop on our list Ha’er bin, in January another clever idea (but that’s another story). Desperate to get there we used an agency to get our train tickets, who kept us on tenterhooks throughout the whole booking process! They emailed me to tell me they had the exact tickets I wanted! Oh, no wait, received an email the next day saying sorry they made a mistake and had failed to get my tickets! My excitement at getting the tickets was dashed viciously. A few days before we were due to travel I was told they managed to get us soft seats, not what we wanted but at this point we were getting desperate and not going to be choosy. Again, they promised to try to get the sleeper we wanted, their timing was dramatically perfect, less than 24 hours till we wanted to travel, but for our nerves it was horrific. But finally success! Got our sleeper tickets and spent our first night on a Chinese sleeper train dreaming blissfully of the winter wonderland that awaited us.
We travelled by train through China for about a month, and our level of comfort gradually decreased. Train from Ha’er bin back to Beijing was a soft seat, but that was fine, it was during the day on a fast train and we spent the time watching the snow fields gradually give way to slightly greener ones. Back in Beijing headed to the train station for tickets for the next stage of our journey, Beijing to Xi’an, then Xi’an to Chengdu. Acquired a hard seat to Xi’an, no big deal it was only 12 hours, but the downfall was the Xi’an to Chengdu, standing! For 16 hours! But that was a while away yet so no need to panic just yet.
So arrived at Beijing station to board our train at 2am to discover our hard seat was actually the bottom bunk of a hard sleeper compartment, shared with two more people, with four others sat across from us. Snuggled up for the night and slept a little on and off, unfortunately one of the women across from us talked constantly, and when she wasn’t talking was eating and I swear she was the nosiest eater I have ever met! No matter, we kept telling ourselves, we will be in Xi’an by 2pm and wandering the Muslim Quarter by 3pm snacking excessively. 1pm rolled around and I was eagerly glancing out of the window at each station to see where we were, managed to get the name of one place and looked it up on the map..... only to discover it appeared to be only half way. That can’t be right, surely? In my best Chinese (which is terrible) I asked the guard when we would arrive, 2 she said. I was doubtful, then she came back with the schedule and showed me Xi’an expected arrival time, yes it was 2, but not 2pm, 2am!
What we had thought was a 12 hour journey was actually 24 hour! The horror, my boyfriend was especially horrified as we hadn’t brought enough food so biscuits and pot noodles had to strictly rationed. Luckily as people started to get off we had room to spread out, and spent the last 6 hours asleep with the beds all to ourselves. Arrived at 2am and went straight to our hotel we had booked, apologising profusely for waking them up at nearly 3 in the morning. Spent 3 wonderful days in Xi’an before the next stage of our journey.
Xi’an station was absolutely packed, a taste of what was to come. We inched our way slowly forward to the barrier, showed our tickets and then inched our way along the corridor, up the stairs, down the stairs and onto the platform. Moved along the side of the train to join the huge queue into our carriage, squeezed our way in only just, the final passengers where pushed into non-existence space and the doors were closed. Found ourselves jammed in the smoking section like cattle with nowhere to move, no room to turn and no room to take off our backpacks. Stood for an hour with our packs on till we judged there was enough room to take them off and propped them on the floor near an open door.
Stood there for a while engulfed in a cloud of Chinese smoke and smells of the chicken and baijo. The final icing on the cake of annoyance was the trolley dollies! Who insisted on pushing carts selling fruit, dried meat, alcohol, hot food and god knows what else! Down an aisle where there was barely room to stand! Ridiculous, pretty much every ten minutes, for most of the journey, even through the night! We squeezed ourselves even smaller every time it passed and had our toes run over more than once. The journey continued like this for the whole 16 hours, luckily people did start to get off and we became more used to conditions and went into sort of shutdown where we no longer noticed what was going on. Arrived in Chengdu at 5.45am absolutely exhausted! Went to KFC for coffee and egg custard tarts, taxi to the hostel, finally checked in and crawled into bed about 7.30am.
After that journey, we gave up and flew the next two stages, more expensive but you get to sit down, are there in an hour or so and even get free ham sandwiches. Pure luxury.