Beijing is big.. really big
In one of the world’s biggest cities, everything is colossal in size. The trains stations, subway platforms and roadways carve through ancient hutongs and snake relentlessly through the urban jungle of Beijing. This is a city designed to meet a very 21st century problem, one of immense population and economic growth. In 1953 Beijing’s population stood at 2.8 million, by the year 2000 13.6 million inhabitants – recent estimates put Beijing’s current population at 21.5 million. 21.5 MILLION or 21,500,000 people that’s almost three London’s and a smidgen off the population of Australia – all within the city limits.
It’s clear that some serious urban planning was and is still needed. Beijing’s concentric ring roads 1 through 7 (yes seven ring roads) and subway lines 1 through 18 (EIGHTEEN) try to bring this chaos under control.
Catching the sleeper train to Xi’an
It then dawns upon us that getting train tickets and indeed catching a train will be no simple task. Beijing main railway station is enormous and it’s hard to get through the crowds of people just eating out on the street, sitting on the ground, sleeping and standing everywhere, often in your way. We line up for security point one, our bags slide through an X-Ray machine. Entering section two, this is ticket collection. Another line and another X-Ray scanner. There’s good reason you have to arrive 1.5 hours early, simple to be scanned to oblivion with X-rays and metal detectors. We pile into what we guess is a line for the platform, people everywhere, noises, smells, this place is totally affronting.
Upon boarding descending to the train platform which is more of a rugby scrum than an orderly affair we reach the train, which is easily the length of 1km. Class plays an important role in China and there are several different compartments based on your ticket price (though not that much between them really). First up there’s the deluxe bougie ass sleeper we can’t afford, soft sleeper (too western and expensive!), hard sleeper, seat and terrifyingly, standing only. I honestly have no idea how they can sell standing tickets and get away with it, though for some it may be their only choice for the gruelling 12 hour over night trip to Xi’an – this is China after all. We heard of a fellow backpacking choosing a standing ticket for an 18 hour trip just to see if he could hack it. Not sure if he ever survived the ordeal so we advise spending the extra $10 and get a seat buddy!
Hard or soft?
We opt for the hard sleeper (硬卧 pinyin: yìng wò) a good mix of price and authentic experience. For your hard earned cash you are provided a bed 60cm wide in a stack of three. There are six such beds in our little compartment. In keeping with the name, the bed is quite hard but does the job. Luckily i’m shorter than 5 foot 7 otherwise this would have been a big issue / toes hanging out the end. There are little seats near the windows where you can enjoy the view, chat with fellow travellers, play cards, drink tea and eat noodles. Travelling like this gives you much time to reflect, think, plan and just generally figure out what you’re doing with your life. In this modern age i’m sure people would happily pay for this isolation without phones, wifi or modern conveniences. Oh wait, I forgot the one thing they do provide is boiling water – Chinese people love that shit.
Lights off at 10pm and catching the smell of cigarette smoke through the carriage we head to sleep. There is a hierarchy it seems, the lower, middle and top bunks have their own merits. Want easy access? Bottom sleeper. Want to keep cool, perhaps too cool, top bunk as the AC unit is up there, or a mixture of both? Middle. As i’m so uncoordinated the top sleep was so high up about 8 feet I didn’t dare want to sleep up there – oh wait I didn’t tell you, there isn’t a ladder so you’ll need to climb on some little metal steps. It was with some regret I opted for the bottom sleeper being roasted alive with the September heat.
Waking up in the morning we roll effortlessly into Xi’an, on time and surprisingly refreshed and ready for the day. I wish I could complain more about how bad it was (they need to rename the hard sleeper, seriously its not that bad!), but actually it was an all round good experience.
My favourite resource is seat61.com this will have all your train needs for China and many other countries.