Self- described as the “eighth wonder of the world” we had known that at some point during our stay in China we would make our way to the city of Xi’an to see the famous terracotta warriors. Having recently found out that this trip can easily be made from Chengdu on the train, we decided to book a trip there sharpish.
This is our account of our experience on the train. Whilst I (Fi) write on the practical side of things, Jonny focuses on the experience.
Our hard sleeper experience – the way there
From Chengdu, you can catch a train to Xi’an at a fraction of the cost of a plane. We decided to get a train from Chengdu on Friday evening, which arrived in Xi’an on Saturday morning. This meant that we could get off the train and head straight to the warriors.
The only tickets left were for hard sleeper seats. For those unfamiliar with this term, there are two types of beds you can book on China’s sleeper trains – hard and soft sleeper. Contrary to what you might think, they don’t refer to the softness of the bed but to the compartment you will be in. Soft sleepers are two bunk beds (four beds total) in one room with a door and private bathroom. What a luxury. Hard sleepers are 6 beds to an area (two three tier bunk beds) with no door. A small corridor running the edge of the carriage is at the end of the bunk beds. One squat toilet and a few sinks are available at the end of each carriage. As you might have guessed we had been hoping to book a soft sleeper.
We boarded our train from Chengdu north railway station and found our beds. The bed you have is marked on your ticket in Mandarin which wasn’t particularly helpful. I was afraid that we would be sharing the other four bunks with a loud family but thankfully it was another young couple and two men. Poor Jonny had the top bunk whilst I had the bottom. When the lights went out at 11pm, Jonny climbed up to his bunk and I settled into my bed, expecting not to sleep.
We were both pleasantly surprised. Whilst our sleep was not exactly deep, it was uninterrupted. I only woke at 5.30 when the natural light from the window (there are no curtains) began to hit my eyes.
There are no showers on board but I had bought baby wipes, and we were able to brush our teeth and wash our faces in the sinks. Seeing as the tickets cost a mere £13 per person this journey was excellent. The only downside was that smoking on a train is not yet banned in China, and people smoke in the small sections connecting each carriage. Whilst this didn’t drift too much into our carriage, if there had been more smokers that day it might have been worse.
12 hours on a train – the way back
After spending our Saturday in Xi’an we headed back to Chengdu first thing Sunday morning. We booked a driver to pick us up from the hostel to take us to Xi’an South Railway station. The driver was, I think, what I would call overly cautious and decided that we needed to allow two hours to travel to the station. We left promptly at 5am and arrived at the train station…an hour later. We then boarded our train an hour and a half later, at 7.30am. Our train didn’t arrive into Chengdu until 7.45pm that evening. Here’s how we survived over 12 hours on the train:
Think of it as six two-hour slots
Jonny’s cunning trick to make the time go quicker was to plan six two-hour slots of activities. I’d bought my laptop and we both had kindles. I’d also bought some work along. So we planned to watch films, read, do some marking and sleep.
This plan was foiled when, five hours in, Jonny got kicked out of the seat next to me and could no longer watch the second film we had planned. For some reason the train’s computer system had decided to stick us in seat 24 and 25. Great, we thought, we must be seated next to each other. Sadly no. My seat was at the end of one row and Jonny’s was at the start of the next one. The Chinese lady seemed pretty insistent on sitting in her seat (despite several being free) so Jonny relocated to his assigned seat.
Despite this hiccough the train journey seemed to go by surprisingly quickly (I’m writing this in past tense but I’m actually sat on the train writing this – two hours to go!). Also, the scenery from the window has been truly stunning. Beautiful hills and rivers and rice paddies – the sort of places you’d like to get off and explore but which we’ve now come to realise are places that can never truly be explored in China.
The mountains slice up and down, ice bergs coming to rest in a sheer point – see bulbous patches of rapeseed like bamboo fluttering over each other – and paths, foot compacted, running and disappearing by each step makeable – bends round potent and picturesque, ridges staggering dragons above river courses; bridges grey brown and a small hut and golden statue in a spray of moon dust – now an old factor rusted apertures and extrusions, spider legs cobbled together for a dead purpose –
Travelling by train does not explain, it reveals. The train’s focus is in infrastructure itself, adjacent roads, canals and rivers are as purposeful to it as the masks of tumbling greenery, or the young and old playing in far below of above specs. The roads that logic debates must run the same route as the train are exposed only as they are beneficial or detrimental to the scene – exuberances meet beside a pile of refuse to the train window’s eye.
Mysteries all, – like the fact that the train seems to choose to slow and slow but not stop by first one, then more and more, empty decaying concrete things that must have been intended for buildings. Hanging lumps of the stuff from wasted veins of iron, gaps masquerading as chipped windows and doorways leading through to many years faded new years door garlands. And suddenly these were buildings as we see an old woman emerge from no where, carrying some celery, darkened by the rotten shell.
Graves on the hillside stick out, those family tombs that dictate what we think of tradition here today – some clumped by the train. Were they moved, one wonders, did they take them, the bones or whatever remnants, or did they leave them to mulch – blasted out and leveled by the arriving sleepers – only their memorial surviving, isolated in the beauty of this lonely, long named, slope.
It never explains.
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