Beijing to Xian: A lesson on train travel in China (Sat) 22 May 2010

Scene from the Beijing train station - again it was about jostling with a million other travelers. All seats in the waiting hall were occupied and we camped out on the floor. Amongst us were many people hauling such gigantic sacks for luggage.

1) There is no such thing as advanced booking for journeys that do not depart from where you are.

To make sure we didn’t get stranded on the days we want to travel, I meticulously planned out a rough route down the country, so that we can buy tickets in advance.

But we found out that you can only buy tickets for trains departing from where you are. Reason is, apparently, the ticketing system in different towns and stations are not linked up! What century are we living in again?!

I didn’t like that because I felt like I had no control over my journey. I mean, yes, we weren’t in a rush, and yes, we were open to going most places, but up until that point, I have had all my tickets and hostel bookings set up before I left London. I felt insecure.

One of many of our fellow travelers waiting for his train. As we sat sweating like hogs, we found that many of them were wearing a double layer of trousers. Why?!

2) Buy your ticket for your onward journey as soon as you arrive at a location.

Because there’s no advance booking, when tickets are available up to a few days (?) in advance, they are up for grabs, free for alls. Things get booked up really fast.

A good idea is to buy your next ticket as you arrive at the station, before you set off looking for your hostel. Or if you wanna see if you like the place enough to warrant a few days’ stay, decide quick.

Beijing to Xian - There's a woman growing out of his neck.

We learned that the hard way trying to get a ride to Xian, home of the Terracotta Warriors. We wanted a hard sleeper, but they were all booked out. So we ended up forking out more than RMB400 each for a soft sleeper.

Since its (relatively) expensive, and supposed to be very comfy, I expected it to be half empty.

How I underestimated China!

It was full. Very full. Every available bed was taken up.

At the same time, the soft sleeper does live up to its reputation and it was indeed very comfortable, very civilised, quite relaxing.

We stepped into a cabin of 4 berths with  soft and white ready-made beds. It was a very clean and modern compartment, looked like a fairly new train.

Inside the soft sleeper - dad chatting up the lady who shares our compartment

Until I got settled and the train started moving, I didn’t realise how much I miss being on a train. All the feelings of the 6-days Trans-Siberian came back and I loved every minute of the soft snugness of this sleeper!

As usual, I didn’t get much sleep due to all the stops throughout the night. Plus, dad is a mega snorer. If you put a megaphone to a normal snoring person and then pipe that through an ampliflier and turn the volume up 50x, you get my dad. It wasn’t so much me being bothered by his snoring, but I kept worrying about the other two people in our room being kept awake because of him. I found myself actually holding my breath and bracing myself when I know he was gonna start again, as if I could absorb the sounds and spare our companions the pain…

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