A hot June Saturday (2006), and we were sitting in the welcome cool of the waiting room at the railway station in Yichang. We had just finished a wonderful 3-day cruise down the Yangtze aboard the Qianlong (improbably shaped like a dragon, but a comfortable and entertaining ship. Qianlong claims to be 5*, which is stretching it a bit, but she's certainly worth 4, and our fellow-passengers were great company). Like a lot of cruises, we finished in Yichang with a tour of the mighty dam site, which took a couple of hours or so.
There are a lot of options for traveling on from Yichang ? air (not a large airport, so the timetables can be difficult), long-distance bus (which can be a bit of a challenge), tourist bus to the bigger airport at Wuhan, ferry or train. We had reserved two soft sleeper berths on the K50 train to Beijing. The fast inter-city trains with their deluxe 2-berth cabins haven't made it onto this line, so we were in the standard 4-berth soft sleeper. However, it was just fine - comfortable, clean and pleasant, and we enjoyed the company of our fellow-travelers (an engineer from the dam site off to visit another dam site in Peru, and a student who spent ages trying to find a translation program on his laptop, the better to talk with us.
Yichang itself is a river port which has expanded into the hills around the river. The centre, like all Chinese cities, is densely built and frantically building, an eclectic mix of old and new, with the new now dominant. The usual industrial areas were made up for by some gorgeous parks and gardens further out, along tree-lined streets, beautiful flowers and glimpses of the river.
We were met by a local guide who was to show us something of the city, and drop us off later at the station. It was unbearably hot, so we headed straight to the local Museum for refuge. They have some reasonably interesting displays of relics unearthed during the dam excavation, and the inevitable sales room at the end with all kinds of jade and other artefacts, although some were really lovely. We moved on to the Sturgeon Research Institute. The dam has cut off the Yangtze sturgeon from their upstream spawning grounds, and the centre is breeding the sturgeon to release upstream ?and to produce local caviar. Apart from the sturgeon they also have various local fish in tanks, information on their research programs and an absolutely enormous sturgeon on display in one of the central pools.
The train takes just under 22 hours to travel the 1450 kilometres to Beijing, so we dropped by a large supermarket to pick up some food and drink. Certainly, hiring a guide (and air-conditioned car in that heat!) for a few hours made life a lot easier.
At the station it was simple ?there's a waiting room specifically for soft-class sleeper passengers. The attendant carefully checks that your passport # matches that on the ticket. (I assume that comparing the names in western writing would be as hard as asking me to match two strings of Chinese characters, but the numbers are easy). The waiting room wasn't crowded, had comfortable armchairs and lounges, lavatories nearby (Asian-style, but spotlessly clean), cold drinking water, a large TV and arrivals/departures board. The latter cycles between English and Chinese, so it's easy to keep an eye on it. Not that we needed to, because the attendant called us on and directed us to the right platform when it was time.
Our tickets showed our carriage and berth numbers in English writing so we were easily able to pick the right spot on the platform ?like everywhere else the trains line up precisely with numbers on the platform. Every carriage also has its own attendants.
The train moved slowly, and stopped a lot. But we weren't in a hurry, and it's a great way to travel through the landscape. Hot water's always available from a big boiler at the end of each carriage, with a large thermos provided in each cabin. The cabin was originally a 6-berth, with the middle bunk removed, which gave plenty of headroom for sitting on the lower bunk. Linen was provided, and food trolleys came along regularly with cold drinks, rice and noodles etc. There's a separate washroom for each carriage ?with a big steel basin or wash trough and mirror, and toilets, including a western one.
It's quite common for people to move up and down the train once it's left the station (any station) to try and improve their seat. We were glad to be sharing our cabin with locals when we were invaded by a couple of blokes who insisted they should join us, because it had space for 6 bunks. Our guys stood their ground, and eventually saw them off.
The student in our carriage worked hard on his laptop to find a translation programme, and the engineer spoke some English ?enough for sporadic chatter and exchange of information without straining ourselves unduly! Mind you, he got a terrible fright during the night when, after dropping my glasses and groping around for them on the floor I fell out of the bunk, straight onto the thermos stand. The bruises from that meant that everyone treated my husband with enormous respect for the next couple of weeks!
Overall, it was a great way to travel, a lot less stressful than airports these days, and for us a good introduction to our next big train trip, the TransMongolian.