I’ve been roughing it on long-distance trains for over 30-years – jolted across China, India, Russia, and all over South East Asia and Europe. Many being non-stop journeys overland to and from Luton and Hong Kong via Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China and Tibet.
The most fun was from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan into China. One of the easiest rides was Beijing to Moscow – 5 1/2-day sleeper for about ₤120 – but to London, via Warsaw, cost more.
Now I’m enjoying a bottom bunk on K648 from Guangzhou to Xian – a ₤48 28-hour ride up the backbone of China. Although it left on the dot, it arrived 6-hours late. However, Chinese trains have improved immensely – open windows are replaced by clean air-conditioned carriages. ‘Hard sleeper’ is comfortable and easy to snooze.
In Norfolk, trains are 2-carrages: in China over 20 with around 3,000 passengers.
When I first back-packed in China I had to go ‘hard seat’ where everyone chain-smoked with all-night lighting. The only way to nod-off was to get very drunk, but you paid for it in the mornings.
In those days they swept the aisle every hour and threw out the window a mountain of spit, cigarette butts, water bottles, empty rice & noodle boxes, orange peel and dirty tissues. Passengers hurled beer bottles out for entertainment. At every station an army of hawkers would hassle outside your window peddling rice boxes, drinks, boiled eggs and chicken legs.
Today, every long-distance carriage has two squat-toilets, washbasins and a hot-water tank for noodles or tea. Lights are out at 10.30pm and you can switch off the stream of military music and propaganda blasted from speakers everywhere. The only hardship is finding cold beer and queuing for early-morning toilets.
Some say China has more high-speed rail than the rest of the world put together. Not sure if this is true, but they do have more than any other single country. With most bullet trains averaging just under 200mph, and some going up to 400klms an hour.
However, the only thing consistent in China is the inconsistency, and rail travel is no exception. One week you enjoy fresh prawns, iced-beer, even cocktails at a bar – and on a repeat of the same journey, instant noodles and bottled water is hard to find.
China Rail is OK, but Thailand and Vietnam better. There the bunks have reading lights, curtains and superior service. The worst I’ve experienced is in Burma, where the track feels like it hasn’t been maintained since the British left. India is slow and good, but paperwork and too-many classes make hard-work booking. Iran beats British Rail’s comfort with some carriages sporting three arm-chairs abreast. With any train trip, the key is planning – Google your route for the best options and book well in advance.
Thailand trains can be booked online over 2-weeks ahead and you can printout your ticket, and a similar (but not as good) system exists on Vietnam Rail. In China it’s more difficult, but mainland train tickets can be brought in Hong Kong at Hum Hong Station and in the mainland little offices can print you a ticket up to 10-days in advance. Always book sleepers at least two-days ahead as they sell out fast. Use Google Translate to printout the Chinese of your journey to make booking easy in Mainland China.
Expect a lot of noise on all Chinese trains, except in Taiwan, where they copy the Japanese with signs advising passengers to talk softly and not to use their mobile phones. And in Japan itself, trains are so clean, you could eat your noodles off the floor!
Trains have many advantages over flights and they can be faster door-to-door. I like the feeling of adventure when you arrive and the opportunity to read, gaze through the window or socialize.
Trains are for ‘travellers’ where planes are for ‘tourists’. The relaxation far outweighs discomfort. I find trains a wonderful way to travel, giving the opportunity to read and relax. When I’m not on the move, I’m either working, in a restaurant or sleeping. However, if you have a long journey, boats are best, followed by trains, planes, and finally (if there is no other option) busses.
Most large Chinese cities have underground rail, and this is the best way around any big city. It’s fast and usually easy to navigate. However, study the map and don’t assume because you’re on the right platform and direction, the next train is the one you want.
In the West long-distance trains are more expensive than flying, but booking 6-weeks ahead online can save over 75% of the cost. If you’re not backpacking and have a lot of luggage, bear in mind most stations involve steps with limited lifts or escalators. When I’m travelling from Heathrow to Liverpool Street Station in London, I go the long-way via Kings Cross to avoid lots of stairs.
See my personal site and follow my travels at NigelHayMckay.com