China travel diary: Restless nights on sleeper trains

by Jacob Jarvis

Getting the train in England is usually uneventful. You sit, read a book, perhaps spark up some casual small talk with a fellow passenger, a disgruntled member of staff comes and scribbles on your ticket, and you get to where you need to be in a few hours.

Travelling by rail in China isn’t quite so simple. In fact, it’s a pretty intense cultural experience in itself. However, by accepting its idiosyncrasies journeys have become a really interesting part of my trip.

When I first told another Westerner I’d travelled by hard sleeper, they looked at me completely aghast. I can see why, the atmosphere is hectic and, despite their name, sleeping on them is pretty tough.

Three bed high bunk beds are stacked side by side, so each ‘compartment’ contains six beds, and then these are placed completely open plan along a corridor spanning the length of the carriage. I was on top bunk from Xi’an to Chengdu, which meant I was directly under a light, next to speakers which intermittently played traditional Chinese music, and physically couldn’t sit up.

It felt like I’d smuggled my way on, not like something I’d paid for the privilege of doing. Then for the first hour or so, I felt constantly observed. English people are evidently unusual on this mode of transportation, and every time I spoke to my friend it was listened to intently, every move I made was viewed, small children and smaller old ladies pointed and whispered. This isn’t unusual in China, but normally it’s for a fleeting moment, not while you’re trapped in metal box hurtling between cities with no chance of escape.

Then, shyly and unconfidently a young guy, around 18, came over to me, and asked where I was from, which was the catalyst for me to be treated like I had celebrity status for a few hours. He asked me at length about my home, relaying this back to his family, expressed his desire to visit, told me of his plans to become a police officer, while constantly apologising for his English despite his clear proficiency.

Adorable toddlers used me as a way of trying out their budding language skills, telling me their names, asking mine, incessantly and proudly saying hello to me, amused at each reply due to my accent and inherent Britishness. Before we departed, whole families wanted photos with me, paid me compliments, wished me well, and offered advice for the rest of my stay.

In most places it’s been impossible to see the real Chinese culture behind the façade that tourism creates, but on the trains I’ve seen families being families. Children truly behaving as they usually would and the older generations acting as those in Britain tend to; doing whatever they want, staring at whatever they want and saying whatever they want.

The train wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable either, but if I wanted to stay cosy, I’d have kept tucked up in my bed in England. I want experiences, so I guess I’ll be sticking to hard sleepers.

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