28 hour hard sleeper train journey: the quintessential Chinese travelling experience

By Anna-Maria Linhard, English and German teacher in Shanghai

China is really big. I knew that but I didn’t feel it until I went on my first 25+ hour train ride.
During the national holiday in October, a fellow English teacher invited me to her place in Guiyang. Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou province in South West China. It has a population of “only” 3 million and the city itself is not really a popular tourist destination, especially not for foreigners. The area around it, however, offers beautiful mountains, forests, lakes, interesting ancient villages restored for tourists and diverse ethnic communities. With the worsening pollution in the big cities, Guiyang with its pleasant summer weather and fresh(er) air, has recently become a spot to escape the pollution and summer heat.


Ancient village with its own Great-Wall-style village wall near Guiyang

Since travelling by train is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than flying, I decided to be adventurous and give the 28 hour ride from Shanghai to Guiyang a try. I’d heard conflicting reports about long-distance train journeys ranging from comfortable and pleasant to a total nightmare. Trains in China are crowded during national holidays and book out very quickly. There is a train ticket booth just outside our school, but it is complicated to keep track of when tickets go on sale and how quickly they sell out, especially during national holidays. I used an online service (chinatraintickets.com) to avoid running to the train office several times only to come back with nothing. They charge extra fees, but you stand a much better chance of getting tickets. Unfortunately, I still only managed to get a sleeper train for the journey to Guiyang (about £45) and had to contend with a hard seat (about £23) for the return journey.


Shanghai South Railway Station at 6am

There are different kinds of trains in China. G or D trains are very modern high-speed trains with comfortable first or second class seats. K trains are slower and offer hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers and soft sleepers. On my K train, the hard seats were two benches of three somewhat padded seats facing each other, with a small table at the window. There were no arm rests and not a lot of leg room. Standing tickets are also sold for the coaches with seats. The hard sleeper coaches had an aisle along one side of the car and open compartments of six bunk beds on the other side. The beds were quite narrow but actually pretty comfortable and you get a pillow and a blanket. I did another sleeper journey to Shenzhen and both times I slept really well. The bottom beds are popular because there is enough room to properly sit up and you can store luggage underneath the bed. The top bunk requires some agility to climb up the very narrow ladder (or steps that pop out of the wall) but you have the most privacy up there and strangers don’t try to sit on your bed. All the trains I’ve been on had air conditioning.


Hard sleeper compartments on a K train

For more information on buying tickets, boarding procedures, and the different categories of trains and tickets, see this very helpful website: http://www.seat61.com/China.htm.

Back to my journey to and from Guiyang. They say that you don’t know China until you’ve been on a long distance train. When I mentioned that I was going to Guiyang by train during the national holiday week, I got a lot of concerned looks from my Chinese colleagues. One told me that the hard seat coaches are so crowded during national holidays that women wear nappies because it is impossible to get to the toilet. I was also warned about catching horrible diseases. I admit I was slightly worried, but I did as much research as I could. I prepared as if I was going to war. (I did not take nappies…) I bought a neck pillow, a cushion to sit on, wet wipes, tissues, instant noodles, fruit, water, hand sanitizer, face masks, earplugs, an eye mask, and loaded up my kindle and iPod to keep me entertained.

I was pleasantly surprised with the sleeper compartments and my bed. Thanks to being rather short, I could even sit up on my bed with my back slightly bent. Climbing up and down from the top bunk was a challenge at first but I quickly figured out the best technique. I got some surprised looks from my fellow travellers. I didn’t see any other foreigners in my part of the train, in the queue in Shanghai, or on the platforms when the train stopped at the stations. I suspect I was the only one.

Unlike what I’ve heard, the other passengers didn’t stare a lot and didn’t really try to talk to me either. I had a few short, extremely basic conversations but I couldn’t really understand their dialect/accent. Not that I would have fared better if they had been speaking in perfect standard Mandarin… The best communication I had was with a very cute one year old baby in the compartment next to me. We had a great talk.


View from the top bunk into the aisle

The main issue during the hard sleeper ride turned out to be killing the time. I slept a good 10 hours, lulled by the gentle rocking movement of the train, but that still left 18 more to fill. Along the aisle there were folding seats and small tables to I did a fair bit of sitting and staring out the window. It was the first time getting out of Shanghai for me so I really enjoyed seeing fields and forests and mountains, some of which were spectacular! Unfortunately the train was too fast, the windows too dirty, and much of the mountain area too misty to take good pictures, but I’ll never forget those really remote places with breath-taking valleys and peaks, sprinkled with very few towns and villages. I was surprised that my phone had reception almost every time I checked, except for in the tunnels. The one word I learned was 隧道 (suìdào) which means tunnel. A little girl a few seats ahead shouted, “suìdào!” whenever we entered a tunnel, which was several dozen times during the day time. A slightly disturbing sight was the many towns or cities that seemed half abandoned. I saw countless ten or twenty floor buildings that looked like they were never finished and were just slowly falling apart now. I don’t know what happened. People leaving for the mega cities? Construction projects abandoned because of economic recession?


The best picture of the mountains I could manage through the train windows

Another way to pass the time was eating. Whenever the train stopped at a station, people selling hot food and drinks would get on and pass through the coaches getting off at the next station. I was too scared by the horror stories I’d heard to buy anything, but I kind of regret not trying some chicken or a few boiled eggs. Still, I had my own supply of noodles, sushi rolls, oreos, apples and milk tea to dig into. One thing I’ll miss on trains in Europe is the boiling water available on Chinese trains for all your tea, coffee and cup ramen needs. I was also amazed by the train attendants going round selling portable battery chargers for your phone. Probably to make up for the lack of electrical sockets on the train. One piece of advice I would give regarding the Chinese style toilets on crowded K trains is to find less popular times to use them, i.e., not before people go to bed, just after everyone wakes up, or before arriving at a station. Towards the end of the journey the toilets on my trains all ran out of water to flush and got increasingly smelly, so the earlier you go the better.

When I arrived, I felt pretty good despite the boredom of the journey. I had a great time in Guiyang and I don’t regret the trip at all even though the worse part was definitely the return journey. On the way back I had the misfortune of only getting a hard seat ticket for a 26 hour train ride. I’m afraid I can’t tell you many happy, fun memories from that journey. I got lucky that my seat was a window seat, so I wasn’t too bothered by the people with standing tickets crowding the aisle, and I could at least lean my head against the wall or even rest it on the table. My memory of the journey mostly consists of being incredibly bored, in pain and kind of numb. There is no room to stretch or change your sitting position. My two cushions helped with the neck and back pain. I shared my six seat compartment with five Chinese guys who didn’t know each other and barely said a word, but one of them spoke English pretty well and we talked for a while. He also helped me sign up for any sleeper beds that might become free during the journey, but the list of names was very long and I didn’t stand a chance. During the daytime I mostly looked out the window and listened to music. Unlike in the sleeper cars, they didn’t turn off the lights at night in the hard seat car and people kept talking, playing music and getting on and off the train. I did sleep for an hour here and there, alternating between leaning my head against the window and resting it on the table, but time just crawled at snail speed. I only got up three or four times to get hot water for my noodles or to go to the toilet. I’d been warned of the smell in the coach, but it was alright apart from the occasional whiff of cigarette smoke.

The hard seat was a miserable experience, I’m not going to lie, but I have to say it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. I didn’t need nappies and I didn’t contract any diseases. If you have a choice at all, avoid 15+ hour hard seat journeys. But if you do go on one, you’ll survive! Hard sleeper trains on the other hand, I can warmly recommend. And remember, it could always be worse. A friend of mine actually bought a standing ticket for an 18 hour train journey. Now that is what I call tough.