Wednesday, November 01, 2006

China: Long-distance train rides in China

There is a lot to be said about trains in China, especially if you are on one for 34 hours! We got ourselves hard sleeper tickets to Beijing. There are two other options which are the ordinary seats for shorter trips (now try that for 34 hours) and the soft sleepers which was sort of the first class tickets.

Although called hard sleepers, the beds are not really that hard. There are six beds in each cabin, two on the ground level, two middle bunks and two on top. Prices slightly differ depending on the level. The ground level tickets from Fuzhou to Beijing were RMB458 while a middle bunk was about RMB15 cheaper. I wasn’t able to find out how much a top bunk costs.

For the soft sleepers, there are just four beds to a cabin. The cabins seem slightly bigger and the beds are obviously softer. Aside from better beds and sheets, the ambiance is different since in the soft sleeper cabins, incandescent lights are used unlike the hard sleeper cabins which use fluorescent lights. The rest rooms are cleaner too. But tickets cost 40 to 50 percent more than the hard sleeper.

Now back to the hard sleepers. Each bunk is given a pillow and a comforter and has its own reading light. In each cabin is a thermos for hot water which is an essential since most passengers have instant noodles for their meals as well as tea. There is a restaurant on board but food is quite pricey. Each carriage has common squat toilets, lavatories as well as a continuous supply of potable hot water.

Outside each cabin was a sort of table for eating and two retractable seats which are mostly for those in the upper bunks since you wouldn’t have a chance to sit down except if the one occupying the ground level bunk was your companion like in my case.

Once the train moves, the attendants do rounds of the cabins to collect the tickets and in return, give each passenger a plastic card corresponding to his or her bunk. This card is returned to the attendant shortly before reaching your destination and the attendant returns your ticket to you. You need to show the ticket when you exit the train station.

The good thing about the plastic card practice is that the attendants are able to monitor the final destinations of each passenger and wake sleeping passengers up when they are nearing their destination in order to retrieve the plastic card. Thus, passengers do not miss their stops especially since the train arrives in the early hours of the morning in some stops.

The long trip wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was an opportunity for us to relax after the tight schedule of the camp. And the good thing about the trip was that we got to see the Chinese countryside. I was able to sleep quite well since the train moved smoothly and wasn’t shaking as much as we thought it would. And the irony was that I would wake up when the train stopped at a station which to me was weird since the train wasn’t moving at all.

Well before we knew it, the train attendants woke us up since we were nearing Beijing.

The first thing I did as soon as we arrived was to buy my ticket to Shanghai. The thing about China trains was that you could not book return tickets or tickets from other destinations since you had to buy your ticket from the station from which the train left. So tickets from Beijing to Shanghai had to be purchased in Beijing while my ticket from Shanghai back to Guangzhou had to be purchased in Shanghai.

Now the problem there is the fact that you have to buy your tickets way in advance since the trips are usually fully-booked. So when I checked the ticket office, there were no more hard sleepers, just soft sleepers. So I had no choice but to get it which was okay with me since at least I could experience it too. I spent RMB499 for it, while a hard sleeper was about RMB150 less.

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