“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, according to the Chinese proverb.
My true journey to Zhangjiajie began at the platform of Guangzhou Railway station where my first steps were more like shuffling in a crowd waiting to pick up my train ticket. Guangzhou Railway Station (广州火车站) serves the city of Guangzhou, China. It is regarded as one of the busiest railway stations in southern China. And I most definitely felt this claim of “busiest station in southern China”.
While the railway station was nowhere near as peaceful as the photo above and not as crowded as the picture below, there were enough masses of people to make anyone’s personal bubble pop.
Unless your life depended on it, it is wise to avoid travel in China during Chinese Lunar New Year. It is estimated by the Chinese government that there are over 2 billion rail journeys over the forty day holiday period around February (depending on the Lunar calendar). Annually this event is known as the largest human migration in the world.
I am traveling with a group of Chinese students, and I was accepted as an international student to accompany and participate alongside in the field work and complete independent research. Even though I look Asian in appearance, I felt the gap between us when it I compared our way of thinking and acting. Even the subtle ways I dressed, or a more obvious difference was choice of luggage (I took a backpack and they all carried hard rolling suitcases), made me feel “international” or at least not from China.
There are several options for overnight bed compartment trains in China. The cheapest way to travel is naturally not the most comfortable way. The group of students took what’s called a Hard Sleeper train (hard sleeper = 3rd class).
1. Luxury Soft Sleep: This is the top level sleeper and the most expensive. There are only two bunks in a compartment. The fare is about twice that of a soft sleeper.
2. Soft Sleeper: These are private compartments, a door separates the compartment from the aisle for soundproofing and comfort. The fare is about 50% higher than that of the hard sleeper.
Then you have our method of transportation…
3. Hard Sleeper: Hard sleeper is generally less comfortable than the soft sleeper. Compartments are open, comprising six fixed bunks arranged in three levels on either side. The fare is almost twice as much as a hard seat.
I’ve travelled quite a bit on trains and if you’ve followed my blog posts you would know that I really enjoy riding the train. For me it’s calming walking around the platform before boarding and sitting in a train watching the scenery change and blur from of a large window.
But this train ride is a very different story. I am lying on the top bunk (one of three bunks) on a hard sleeper train. I have managed to hull my backpack on a rack above the windows. I have climbed up the tiny staircase and hit my head twice on the way up.
The beds are okay, not terribly hard but of course not very soft. There are clean linens and a flat pillow. I will definitely manage but the comforts of a European train are as far away as Europe itself.
Of the three bunks, the bottom is more expensive than the middle and the top is the cheapest. The bottom has enough room for a person to sit without hitting their head. So the bottom bunk turns into a gathering place or couch. The middle bunk has a little less head room but it’s high enough so people won’t climb in and out. The top has it’s benefits of being completely private but it is much more inaccessible.
Despite how chaotic everything seems, people are being civilized and respecting of each other in the tight spaces. Everyone seems to be finding different ways to pass time – mostly napping, playing card games and eating cup noodles. But as the hours pass, the floors gets dirtier. The toilets, in between each train compartment, are near unbearable at the end of the train journey.
It’s also worth mentioning that the train food is not that great. The “hot” food is barely warm and didn’t leave me feeling so great. It’s expensive too, but if you’re really in need of food the carts roll around every hour or so. Children run around the floor and climb the bunks like little monkeys full of energy, it’s fun to watch from the top bunk. As you’re trying to fall asleep it starts to be a little annoying but still entertaining. I fall asleep when the lights turn off at 10:30 p.m.
I wake up abruptly to the sound of a not-so-pleasant train conductor yelling at me in Chinese demanding for my chit. When you first board the train the officer will collect your original train ticket in exchange for a chit indicating your bed location. Just before you get off of the train they do the exchange once more. The train conductor proceeds to yelling at other sleeping passengers.
The sun begins to rise and the train ride is finally peaceful. It amazes me how this train to me has been a crazy adventure for me, but to most of these passengers it’s just a way of getting from one place to another.
It is 6:25 am and I am so glad to be getting off this train. The the sun continues to just warm the horizon and now, 18 hours later, I am in Zhangjiajie.