An Epic Rail Journey Across China

From Beijing to Guangzhou by rail.  A 2200 kilometre journey through China’s heartland, from North to South.  Who could resist?  We also discovered that the journey would cost us less than half the price of a flight, which added to the appeal.

We bought the tickets prior to leaving home, through a tour operator in our home-country who in turn obtained the ticket from one of their agents in Beijing.  A full itinerary was emailed through to us and we were advised that we would get the actual tickets once in China.

Photo of Bejing West railway station

Image attribution: ?? Kim S, 2 May 2005

The tickets arrived at our Beijing hotel before we did.  (We checked in very late owing to 45 minutes spent taxiing around the airport before deplaning, and a delayed transfer to the hotel.  Our tickets were waiting for us.)

On our arrival at 2am the hotel was in darkness and the security men were all but asleep.  Not to mention the thick smog enveloping the city which added a certain spookiness to the city streets in the early hours of the morning.

Getting to the station

Our rail journey really began around 8am with the taxi ride from the hotel to Beijing West Train Station.  The driver’s car had a unfortunate tendency to conk out in the middle of heavy traffic every few kilometres, resulting in raised fists and voices from other motorists and a great deal of apprehension on our part.  Our driver took it all in his stride, as though it were commonplace, which in his case it probably was.  Once we got to the station, which is designed to look like a gate, we realised that even finding the entrance was going to be a mammoth task by ourselves.  We therefore offered him extra cash to show us the entrance.  As he had parked in the underground parking, which looked like a modern version of the Hampton Court maze, this was a good idea.

Our driver parted company with us at the entrance with a toothy smile and a wave.  A long line snaked its way to the entrance gate, where an official was checking everyone’s train tickets.  If you didn’t have a train ticket, you could not get into the building, simple as that.

The station

Being Westerners, our documents were simply glanced at and handed back.  None of the questioning we’d seen fellow queue members go through.  We were in the station at last – an hour after setting out from the hotel!  To the left and right were shops selling all kinds of food that one might require on the journey.  Above was a confusing display board, advising departure times in Chinese.  We did not know where to go, as the train terminal is as big as an airport terminal inside, with limited signage in English. 

Looking around for anyone that might help, we spotted a gentleman in a red and black uniform with a leaning-tower-of-Pisa contraption that housed bags on top of it.  I went up to him and enquired if he knew where we needed to go, showing him my ticket.  His response was to hoist my luggage onto the Pisa tower and hold out his hand, indicating two Yuan with his fingers. 

I told my sister that the luggage guy would know where we needed to go, but we had to carry her luggage as his rackety contraption was now too heavy to take any more items.  By now, there were a dozen other folks gathered around whose luggage had also been loaded atop the leaning tower of luggage.  Soon we headed off.  It felt as if we walked miles down corridors.  We passed through two further sets of security, where our tickets were again checked.  Finally, we went down a staircase and on to the platform.  Here, voices were raised between the luggage carrying man and his customers.  It turned out that the argument was because my luggage was taken to our carriage first as we were in soft-sleeper and the rest were in hard-sleeper. 

On the train

The carriage we were ushered into had its own friendly stewardess and was spotlessly clean.  We were in a four berth compartment, sharing with two others.  It was a great relief to find that we had the bottom berths.  Why?  Because the upper berths were not just high being at head height, but only had one step to help one accomplish the acrobatic feat of swinging yourself up and on. 

The toilets were very clean when we first boarded.  However, they had to be cleaned regularly by the stewardess throughout the trip as the floor inexplicably got wet every hour or so. 

Surprise of surprises, the lady sharing with us could speak a little English and we learnt that she was heading to Cambodia.  We chatted and played cards, waiting for the train to depart.  We couldn’t wait to be out of the city perimeter so that we could really see China from the ground.  Pollution blankets the city and one often cannot  see the sun clearly.  Once we were about two hours out of Beijing, we did see some rice paddies and a few trees.  The scenery proved to be a disappointment because it rained from one end of the country to the other.  Along the route we encountered towns with buildings that sported peeling paint or no paint and gaping holes for windows.  It was not the view that we had expected, but did give us an insight into the daily lives of the ordinary Chinese that we would not otherwise have had.

The dining car was quite an experience.  All the tables were crowded even though we went early.  The menu consisted of frozen non-descript pre-packed meals.  Meals are not included in the price and after having a look at what was on offer, we decided to raid our chocolate supply instead.

Slippers are provided free to all soft-sleeper travellers.  This is not just a nice touch, it’s a necessity in a place where throat-clearing, followed by spitting is done every few minutes by one of the passing males in the corridor.  It is a very bad idea to go barefoot.  This aspect, although distressing at times, is practiced in most parts of China, especially up North, and one either becomes paranoid about it, or you stop noticing it after a while. 

A landslide had derailed a train of this very route just two weeks before our arrival, so we slept fitfully.  The rain came down steadily throughout the entire trip.  Also, the lady and gent we were sharing with struck up an impromptu date and chatted way into the night with the light on.

We arrived in Guangzhou the next morning, two hours later than the scheduled arrival time.  There was a great sense of camaraderie as the passengers eagerly lined the windows along the corridor to watch our approach into the city.  All in all, it had been a great adventure, our cross country rail trip from Beijing to China’s pearl delta.

Total duration of journey: 24 hours.

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