Train-ing It: The Hard Sleeper Way!

Greetings from Kunming (koon-meeng), where I have arrived after a lengthy 17.5 hour train journey from Guilin. I’m actually heading straight on to Jinghong, capital of the Xishuangbanna Autonomous Region (which is another minority heavy region and happens to border Laos, where I’m eventually heading) on a sleeper bus tonight.

But the train was actually quite a fantastic experience! It was my first journey on the Chinese railways and was somewhat unsure what to expect. There are two classes of seats and sleepers…hard and soft. Supposedly hard seat is amazingly uncomfortable, which soft isn’t bad. But hard sleeper is supposed to be plenty sufficient (and I can personally vouch, not hard at all).

It didn’t help that the night before I was talking to an older woman at the hostel in Guilin who insisted I’d hate hard sleeper and should upgrade to soft sleeper like she did. I’m quite glad I neglected to take her advice!

Hard sleeper is an amazingly communal experience, as the entire car is comprised of door-less “compartments” with six bunks (3 on each). If you want to sit, everyone just piles onto the bottom bunk or sits in these fold down seats in the aisles that are next to these tiny little tables.

It was great fun to wander the train and particularly to encounter other foreigners! There were 4 Germans traveling together two compartments down from me and another German fellow and Romanian fellow 2 cars down.The three of us, all traveling alone, all bonded together for the train journey.

One of my new friends had bought a version of Chinese Chess (which is somewhat like Western Chess, but quite a bit different). The Romanian fellow whipped out a guitar (that he had picked up in Cambodia nonetheless!) to set the board up on and a large crowd of Chinese grew, aiding us along as we played…even the car’s conductor got in on the fun!

Together, along with some Chinese folks around who were quite taken with us but didn’t speak a word of English, we practiced a bit of Chinese (aided by a phrase book and a map) and managed to find out where these two incredibly nice fellows were from (a city in Hunan province), their names and where they were going (a place in Yunnan other than Kunming). We had a grand old time with them teaching us proper pronunciation, the Chinese names for the Terracotta Warriors and the Forbidden City and how to count to 10 (along with the related hand signals)!

While there was a dining car on the train both times we went for dinner (8pm) and breakfast (8:45am) they were out of food! A cart came around selling cheap-o dinners and a snack cart came by in the evening and morning selling Chinese packaged snacks, beverages (including beer), and instant noodle soup, which was rather disgusting!

Once 10pm rolled around, all curtains were closed, the somewhat annoying soundtrack that played the whole way ceased and all the lights went out in an imposed curfew.

7am was the official wake-up hour, when the lights and music began again and I awoke to the horror of a speaker being quite close to my head (a warning to you top bunk-ers…make sure you scope out the speaker and put your head away from it!), making it impossible to sleep any longer, even with earplugs!

Shortly before reaching Kunming, we reached an interesting Yunnan town called Shillin, which is known for (and was surrounded by) its “stone forest,” making for quite an impressive view out the window!

In the end, I had such a good time that 17 hours just whisked by, making the prospect of longer Chinese train journeys (which may be in my future) quite nice! Next time I might just bring some food on board and head to the dining car quite early! Oh and hard sleeper all the way!

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4 Responses to Train-ing It: The Hard Sleeper Way!

  1. Odysseus March 10, 2011 at 1:59 am #

    I like this post! It’s very similar to my experience in a hard sleeper train in China. I also took a soft sleeper (on a different day when all the hard sleepers were sold out) and it wasn’t nearly as much fun. I felt like the Chinese people in the hard sleeper trains were much more openly curious and wanting to talk to me than the richer Chinese people who took 1st class.

    • Aaron March 10, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

      I’m glad to hear that! Hard sleeper was so much fun (minus the incessant music that woke me up at 7am)!! It’s definitely the best way to travel!

  2. Jay May 6, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Great blog, Aaron! I’m heading to Yunnan next month and your experiences are invaluable, even six years on!

    • Aaron May 7, 2016 at 10:53 pm #

      Thanks! Enjoy your time there! I really enjoyed China.

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