Emily from CITS picked us up at our hotel and dropped us off at the Shanghai South Railway Station, the world’s first circular railway station, where we caught the K79 Fast Train to Kunming. This train is not a bullet train, but it is fairly fast, and a lot faster than the route used to be. The train left Shanghai at 18:24 on the Monday, and arrived at 08:15 on the Wednesday morning, having travelled 2660 kilometres through five provinces in the south of China. It kept to the schedule for most of the time, but got held up a little on the Wednesday morning, so we arrived half an hour late.
We don’t specialise in train travel, though we’ve been on a few, over the years. Most notable have been the Cairo to Luxor sleeper (excellent), the Wadi Halfa to Khartoum train (dire), Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (lovely, quaint journey), Mombasa to Nairobi overnight train (fascinating), Liwonde to Nayuchi (beautiful route), and Sydney to Melbourne. It was on the train in Australia, when we had the kids with us, that I left a didgeridoo in the luggage rack when we pulled in to Melbourne Station. I phoned up the Lost & Found office the next day.
“I’m afraid I left my didgeridoo on the train last night. Has it been handed in?”
“What shape was it, mate?”
“The didgeridoo was long and thin.”
“I’ve got it here. You can collect it from this office.”
We took the train in China because we wanted to see something of the countryside, off the main tourist routes. We didn’t really know what to expect, but were very happy with the result. Sanya China Travel had made the booking for us, which is just as well, as you can’t book far in advance and seats often get sold very quickly. We were anticipating some forced conversation in our very basic Mandarin with the other occupants of our four-berth compartment, but Sanya China Travel booked all four sleeper berths for Lindsey and I, which was probably just as well, as our far too large bags took up a lot of room.
We went Soft Class sleeper, and our compartment was clean and comfy, as you can see above. The washroom was fairly basic, as was the toilet. By the Wednesday morning the water had run out, but overall the trip was fine. The food was also fine, and very cheap, with a meal costing about £2 and delivered by a trolley lady who zoomed up and down the corridor. There was also a buffet carriage, where we had one meal.
The train was particularly smooth-running, except that every half-hour or so for some reason there was a big ka-junk-junk, followed by another junk-ka-junk, which made sleep a bit taxing.
With our limited Mandarin, we got by fine.
You can smoke in areas between carriages. There appeared to be a large amount of railway staff on board, with about five for each carriage, plus catering staff and drivers, etc.
The one who worked the hardest was the immaculately dressed girl in the photo below. She never stopped! She was there when we arrived, and there when we pulled in to Kunming. She had various duties, including standing to attention with white gloves and hat at every station stop (there were 24) outside the carriage, collecting rubbish, sweeping the corridor, delivering water, unlocking the door at stations, putting down the ramp, checking tickets, etc. At the most, she would have been able to sleep for no more than three hours in one go between Yingtan and Xinyu (the longest bit without stops), and she still had a perfect smile on her face at Kunming Station.
What you can’t see in the photo above, because I took it in haste in case you were not supposed to take photos at stations, are the staff for all the carriages standing to attention at the doors.
I may now have a bit of a thing for smart-uniformed, white-gloved, Chinese railway, tireless female staff.
Taking photos from the train was a bit problematic, as the windows were a bit dirty, but what you notice is: how much construction is going on all over China, even in villages; how many people are still manually working the fields; how labour-intensive everything is; and how few cars there are in rural areas.
I spent most of the time on the train reading a biography of Allen Ginsberg.