November 30, 2011

Leaving China: Overnight Trains

After our visit to Xi’an, on Friday evening, Nov. 25, we again boarded an overnight train, this time headed for China’s capital Beijing.  Although the distance we had to cover was greater, the train was faster so we were looking at just a 12-hour ride.  A delay enroute, got us into Beijing about 7:30 rather than 6:30 a.m. on Saturday.  On both overnight trips we took the “hard sleeper” option: open compartments of six sleeping ledges stacked three-high.  We have yet to see an empty train in China, and these trains were no exception—every bunk seemed to be taken.  Some of us slept better than others, but overall the night trains seems to have been the best option for our purposes.  We missed some landscapes along the way , but were delivered reliably from city center to city center.

Most of us found our suitcases to be bigger and heavier than ideal for moving up the ever-present steps.  (Ramps and escalators were welcome surprises when available.)  The Chinese rail stations we have used all have strictly controlled access to boarding.  Passengers cannot enter waiting areas until an hour or two before their scheduled departure, and usually cannot proceed to the tracks more than 20-30 minutes prior to departure.  We wonder if rail officials would have opened boarding just a little earlier if they had known we were planning to board.  A group of North Americans packing a semester’s worth of clothing and gifts moves more glacially than does a comparable size group of Chinese passengers.  Certainly, the masses of new military recruits who rode some of the same trains we did managed to move on and off trains with a great deal more order and speed than did we!  Once aboard, we also struggled to remember to move luggage out of the single passageway first/stow later.  We did get better by our final boarding.

Here are a few tips for the next group who may take the train:  The lighter your luggage, the better.  If you can’t carry your loaded luggage up and down a flight of stairs in your own home, you have to reduce what you are bringing.  If you struggle to carry your loaded luggage up and down a flight of stairs in your own home, you will still want to reduce what you are bringing.  Four-wheel suitcases seem to have a mobility advantage over two-wheel options in Chinese railway stations.  Strapping a smaller piece onto a larger piece will probably make you happier  than trying to carry multiple items on your shoulders.  When boarding, organize yourselves so the person going furthest into the car enters first.  And again, the lighter your luggage, the better.

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