Why Nothing Can Prepare You For a Chinese Sleeper Train

After flying from Shenzhen to Xi’an, it was time to get back to a method of transport that was more friendly on the wallet for our journey to Beijing. I’ve taken many sleeper trains during my travels and, on the whole, I find them quite enjoyable. My first ever sleeper train experience from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was a real eye opener, although my 22 hour journey from Bangkok to Malaysia was perhaps a few hours too long.

I felt that the aforementioned journeys would be more than enough to prepare me for anything. After all, how different could things be from country to country? Sure, people in China tend to smoke more, spit more and talk louder than any people I’ve ever met before – but it’s only 12 hours, right?

We bought a pair of tickets for around 270 yuan each (£30 or so) and rocked up to Xi’an train station thinking we were fully prepared for the journey ahead. We found our waiting area and – you guessed it – it was absolute chaos. There was absolutely no order, people stood next to ‘no smoking’ signs with lit cigarettes in their mouths and just about every other conceivable instruction was being thoroughly ignored.

There is a ticket barrier at the back of this picture, I swear!

There is a ticket barrier at the back of this picture, I swear!

At one point we also thought we might be treated to a bit of handbags, as the man in front of us appeared to be getting increasingly irate as the minutes passed. Obviously, we couldn’t understand what he was saying, but this is what we thought happened: he had placed a rather large bag containing numerous packs of instant noodles on the floor and people walking past kept catching their legs on it. Yep, that was it. You could argue that when you put a large bag on the floor in an exceptionally crowded place that these things are bound to happen, but he was having none of it.

After one too many people accidentally touched his inconveniently placed bag, he decided enough was enough and started yelling at the offender, who was at least 20 years his junior. Numerous words and stare downs were exchanged before they eventually went their separate ways, but he really didn’t look happy about it. We made sure to stay clear of his precious noodles.

It was soon time to get on the train and of course, there were two nice orderly queues ready to have their tickets inspected and board our home for the night. Just kidding; it was absolute chaos and we had to fight our way through before we eventually got sight of the train.

On board we found our beds fairly easily, as the carriages were split in to blocks of six beds, with three on each side of a compartment. We’d been given a pair of beds in the middle, which actually turned out to be by far the best option. The top beds were mega high, and it looked a real pain in the arse to get up and down for the toilet, food and just about anything else.

I found the beds to be rather comfortable. James, on the other hand...

Believe it or not, the middle beds were the best.

The bottom beds were, however, without a doubt the worst on the train. There seemed to be a general understanding that anyone on the top bunks would just use the two bottom beds as their communal area until they decided to go to bed at night. This meant that the two guys on the bottom – who appeared to be pretty keen to get to sleep – had to put up with someone sat on the end of their beds for hours while they tried to get some shut eye.

Naturally, all common courtesies went out of the window on the bottom bunk as the couple from the top bunk sat at the end of their beds until around 11pm, talking at the top of their voices and even consuming food on their beds. At one point the guy was eating perhaps the biggest tomato of all time and, predictably, managed to get a load of tomato pulp all over the guy’s bed when he took a bite. Why anyone would eat a raw tomato is beyond me, but that’s another discussion for another day.

As all this was going on, James and I were comfortably watching on from our lofty perch in the middle bunks. When I say ‘comfortably’ I’m firmly speaking for myself as James is rather taller than me so, as you can see from the picture, found the beds to be something of a squeeze.

In addition to the beds, each compartment has a pair of seats and a table at the end. Now, my guess was that these were meant for the two people on the top bunk to prevent them having to perch on the end of the bottom bunks (and piss tomato everywhere) but, rather expectedly, they also turned out to be a free for all. One particular passenger decided he quite liked the seats at the end of our compartment and made them his own for the evening.

A rare opportunity to sit at the seats in our compartment!

A rare opportunity to sit at the seats in our compartment!

Usually I wouldn’t mind, but he had a particularly irritating voice and also slurped his noodles louder than anything I’ve ever heard before. He also left an opened pack of smelly sausages in our compartment in addition to a bin-full of other litter, which was nice of him. In fact, he liked our seats so much that he decided to visit them again at around 4am (two and a half hours before our arrival) and have a conversation at the top of his voice with anyone who would listen.

Thankfully, I slept blissfully through all of this but the same cannot be said for James, who managed about two hours sleep all night. The man who can sleep anywhere couldn’t sleep on a sleeper train – figure that one out.

We rolled in to Beijing at 6.30am – bang on time. Another minute longer and I’m not sure how James would have coped, and he has since vowed that he never wants to ride another sleeper train. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a night since where he hasn’t had nightmares about that voice. Personally, I found the journey fairly comfortable which is a relief, as one of my bucket list items is to ride the Trans Siberian railway which starts in – you guessed it – Beijing!

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One response to “Why Nothing Can Prepare You For a Chinese Sleeper Train

  1. Pingback: My Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure: Part Three – Ulan Ude to Irkutsk | Rambling Northerner·

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