As frequent budget travellers, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’ll be required to hop on one of China’s notorious long-haul trains. China has developed a top-notch network of high-speed railway lines that cut journey times down to a fraction of what they were, this is true. But the sad reality is that tickets for such trains often rival the costs of flights, putting them firmly out of reach of your average budget traveller.
Where does that leave us, then? In the same place we’ve always been: opting for long-haul hard-sleeper berths (or, for the particularly budget-conscious/masochistic, hard seats or standing). What you trade in luxury and speed on these trains, you more than make up for in cost. As someone who’s recently made a number of such trips, including a gruelling 44-hour train from Lhasa to Beijing, I’d like to share some insights I’ve acquired braving China’s rickety old trains.
Don’t get the bottom bunk
OK, so this one is kinda out of your control. If you get given the bottom bunk (下铺 on your ticket), you’re in for a world of hurt. In this particular instance, the hurt in question comes in the form of seed-crunching, space-hogging aunties or baijiu-swilling uncles.
The bottom bunk is, by unwritten law, the communal space of hard sleeper berths. If it happens to be yours, tough shit; everyone in that compartment is going to be sitting there during the daylight hours, and you’re not going to get the benefit of your bed. You can always ask one of your newfound friends to trade with you, of course, but don’t hold out too much hope. Why would anyone want the bottom bunk?
Invest in a double plug
A hard sleeper carriage has power sockets, which is great news. The bad news is that there’s one socket for every three compartments. This means that, at any given moment, there are roughly sixteen people vying for access to that socket. In the age of smart phones and power banks, this basically means that you can forget about getting any of that sweet, sweet electricity except for in the wee hours.
One solution to this is to get yourself a double plug and become, in the words of one of my hard-sleeper veteran friends, “king in your castle”. He (or she) who controls the plug is king (or queen), my friends. And if you can not only make use of the plug but allow others access to it too, then you’re sitting pretty. Plug your laptop in and get some much-needed blogging done. Charge your phone or power bank (hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) whilst also allowing the locals to do the same. It’s win-win.
Get earplugs and a sleeping mask
Chinese people are, to put it diplomatically, garrulous. To put it more bluntly, they’re fucking noisy. Hawking, shouting, chomping, screaming, snoring – you name it, it’s gonna happen. Snoring has been a particular bane of mine, as have especially chatty children. Accept it, get over it, and buy some fucking earplugs. A sleeping mask will also do you right for afternoon naps (if you’re locked in for 44 hours, you’re going to do some napping).
Stock up on supplies beforehand
Long-haul trains have a dining carriage, sure. But it’s a single dining carriage for some dozen-plus carriages. This translates into a lot of people all trying to grab themselves a table at any given time of the day, so you gotta be lucky or else go off-peak.
The food in said dining carriage is not going to be amazing, but it’s going to be hot and somewhat filling. A standard dish will set you back around 30 RMB. Some trains offer set meals, which cost 50-60 RMB and a whole lot less choice.
In addition to this, you’ll get carts of multiple flavours doing the rounds in the sleeper carriages. Some offer fruit, some offer lunchboxes, and some offer beverages/pre-packaged food. These tend to be cheaper than the dining carriage, at the expense of quality. But it’s a quick way to grab a beer and a duck leg, should you so desire.
All this is leading up to the moral of the story: stock up before you get on the train. Grab yourself bucket noodles, peanuts, beer, whatever; it’s a hell of a lot easier than dealing with it on the train. Hot water is available in each carriage because this is China and hot water is next to Godliness, so you can easily prepare your bucket noodles or tea. Drinks can be hard to come by after around 10pm, so having your own stock on hand can be invaluable.
Be prepared to be the belle of the ball
If you’re taking a cheap train, you’re going to meet people who’ve never seen or interacted with a foreigner. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to your personal preferences, but you’re going to get a lot of attention. The locals will try to interact with you. Kids will come up and say hello, probably at the behest of their parents. Broken-English conversations will take place. If you’re anything like me, this will drive you fucking batshit after the first seven or eight hours. Your options are to hide in your bunk (sorry bottom-bunkers, not an option), flee to another carriage, or simply grin and bear it. Whatever your coping mechanism, get used to it: people are going to talk to you.
Hygiene up as best you can
Your hygiene options are, to understate the situation, limited. There are obviously no showers or hot tubs on a sleeper train. You’ll typically have a bank of sinks between carriages, and these are frequently filled with murky pools of water. Keep your toothbrush handy and get in/out at late night/early morning. You can wash your face, but forget about anything else.
And the toilets on these trains tend to be squatters, so if you’ve got a bad case of Beijing Belly, I hope you’ve got strong calves and a preternatural ability to avoid spatter.
This being China, the toilets also come fully unequipped with paper. Buy your own.
Become a creature of the night
If you’re anything like me (antisocial and a huge fan of personal space) then I’d heartily recommend getting some sleep in during the day and operating during the wee hours. The benefits of this are many; increased access to power sockets, an ability to move around without an army of people in the way, and perhaps most importantly, no fucking kids gawking at you. The number of Chinese people awake past the witching hour is minimal, so you’ll get plenty of alone time and all the space you can handle. You’re good from around midnight to 5am, at which point everyone will inexplicably get up early and start being noisy again.
So there we have it; a crash-course in hard sleeper survival. This is hardly a comprehensive guide (I refer you to my colleague’s piece on much the same subject), but I can only hope it’s useful to some of my fellow laowai out there. Good luck and see you on the rails.