Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dispatch from China: China by Rail

Travel Agent is cruising through Northern China and Inner Mongolia this week with G Adventures on their brand new 12-day Hidden China and Inner Mongolia itinerary. As part of the journey, travelers who embark on the tour experience real rail travel in China. Editor’s note: Those who are thinking this is the Maharaja’s Express or the Rocky Mountaineer will be sorely disappointed. This is rail travel for the masses - the masses of a third world country.

Our first experience was an overnight journey from Beijing to Boatou, Inner Mongolia. For the 12-hour trip we settled into a “soft sleeper” cabin. Soft sleepers fit four to a cabin in bunk bed style, with a firm mattress, blanket, pillow and a small table (complete with dried red rose in a vase! And who said this wasn’t luxury?) The "luxury," however, stops there. Seriously. Just be happy that you have a Western toilet instead of the more popular "squat" style.

All things considered, this was a pretty delightful form of travel. The train rocks along at a solid speed and even if you’re a relatively light sleeper like myself, the soft sleeper cabins are private enough that there are minimal interruptions, thanks to the sliding door you can shut.

Then, of course, we had to experience the “hard sleepers” in order to get a full picture of what these rail trips are really like. The hard sleepers are far more common (cheaper) among the masses. These bare bones accommodations sleep six to a cabin, in bunk bed style, so whoever is on the top most bunk has quite a climb ahead of them. There are no doors in the hard sleepers, unlike the soft sleepers where you can shut a door at night for maximum privacy. The hard sleepers also do not offer Western-style toilets, so ladies need to prepare to strengthen their leg muscles. It’s far from glamorous.

That said, this is the real way to see China. It is for the adventurous traveler who wants to immerse themselves in the real way of life. Despite the lack of creature comforts, there is something romantic about staring out the window watching the China countryside and mountains roll by. Trolley cars tick by the cabins with vendors selling fresh, wrapped fruit and snacks. For someone like myself, I prefer to travel the local way because it brings me closer to the destination I wish to experience. The minimum amount of discomfort is far outweighed by the stories that I will bring home with me. Having said all that, as I write this from the middle bunk of a hard sleeper cabin on the 8-hour journey en route from Datong to Pingyao, I’m trying desperately to wait another three hours to arrive at my destination to use a hotel bathroom, and I really, really want a shower.

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