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Lynne and Andy Buddin are real China Highlights customers. Lynne is the Writer, Andy is the Photographer. Both Carers for Adults with Learning Disabilities in Tyne and Wear, UK, they like to travel further afield and more different than Europe — places like Mexico, Australia, Peru, and Hong Kong. Their next trip to China will be their third, being so vast there is a never ending variety of things to do and see.
You’ve booked your tickets, read China Highlight’s excellent website advice (see left) on travelling by train, you’ve got through the security scanner, located your train and manually lugged your bags up 4 flights of stairs, (escalators are rare), jostling elbow to elbow with hundreds of other travellers, some carrying impossibly vast bundles...
Worryingly, you have only 3 minutes at some stations before the train pulls away. But, once you’ve safely got to your numbered cabin, what are the rules, what should you do or NOT do on a Chinese soft sleeper train?
We have travelled 3 nights like this, the first time we felt a bit lost, but by our third trip we had it sussed and felt like locals. All it takes is a bit of advance preparation and consideration.
Firstly, stow your luggage. Cases are put under the bottom bunks, if you need anything from them it’s better to just bring out one at a time. We had all of our 3 weeks luggage with us, so in advance we put pyjamas, toiletries, etc., all in one bag, so I got everything I wanted out in one go and stored that at the bottom of my bunk.
The cabins are for several people so be nice to the others, it will be a shared, small space for several hours, so don’t hog all the room or the atmosphere will be poor for your entire trip.
On our first train ride I started to put my book etc. on the small table under the window between the bunks, and got such a filthy look. I realised that was not the done thing, then noticed a small hammock slung under the bunk above to use for things like that and moved it.
Different prices are paid for different levels of bunk, but until everyone has eaten it is only considerate if you are on the bottom one, to pull back your bedding to allow people from the next bunks to eat sat upright. There is not enough room to do this on the other beds.
The biggest no-no is to wear shoes to stand on someone else’s bunk. Sandals/flip-flops are provided, if you don’t cringe at the thought of wearing someone else’s shoes, but even these should never make contact with your/your temporary neighbour because the sandals will have been used to walk in the toilet.
With the best will in the world, the toilet floor will be wet. In your head just pretend it’s recently been mopped.
In reality, if you cast your mind back to your childhood and the last time you were caught short in the woods, you will remember how difficult it was to squat and go to the toilet WITHOUT hitting your pants, then add in the extra degree of difficulty that you are moving, so is the target. The train has a helpful rail for you to hold onto, but I found it seemed I didn’t have enough hands to hold on and use the toilet paper.
Shorts are a good idea too, so the hems of your trousers don’t end up soggy. I took trousers I was throwing away anyway (to lighten my luggage for all the souvenirs I was going to buy). I also kept the disposable slippers they give you every day in the hotels so I could wear them to the toilet and just throw them away afterwards.
Everything you do on the train impacts on other users so you clean up after yourself, especially in the toilet. A pail of water is provided to flush and a “Pooh Stick” for any blockages. No matter how repulsive this may seem to you as a Westerner, the done thing is that if you caused it, you sort it.
For more, see How to Use a Squat Toilet in China.
Although there are “No Smoking” signs up in the cabins, a huge percentage of Chinese smoke and will not bother about the sign, and may not speak English for you to insist.
We even saw the chef sitting in the buffet car having a smoke before it moved and lots of people smoke in the corridors. We got our Guide to write in Chinese for us, “Please would you not smoke as my husband has Asthma and it will make him ill, thank you”. We found that showing this, it was accepted with a nod and a smile.
Actually, we found most of what we communicated between us and the Chinese people in our carriage was done by pointing, smiling and nodding. Amazingly we found out like this, that the middle-aged couple in with us had a son studying in Newcastle University, which is only 7 miles away from where we live. It really is a Small World. After that strange coincidence we settled in happily. More on Communication in China>>
On every table is a metal tray with a 2-litre hot water flask in it. If you empty it, you fill it up near the basins where there is a boiler on the wall. Be careful, it’s really hot!
The metal tray is not for catching the drips as I thought; most Chinese (and us now since our second visit) carry a small glass tea flask, tea leaves and just keep topping it up. That tray is for while you are waiting the 4 minutes for your pot of noodles to cook in the boiling water, you have your “starter” of melon seeds and leave the nuts shells in the tray.
Pots of noodles that you can buy in China are much more tasty and easily available for about 25p. They come in the pot you eat them in and with a fork folded inside — it’s ideal small space food.
We then bought 1/2 a carrier bag of fruit for the equivalent of 65p on the way into the station. We didn’t need that much fruit, but I couldn’t ask for less than a kilo as my Chinese isn’t that good. We got bottled drinks for the journey beforehand too as they were much cheaper.
If you have decided to take the train rather than flying it’s likely that was to save money, so don’t spent more than you need. Also although there are snack carts that come round, they don’t necessarily come when you want them.
Once you’ve eaten, maybe taken some photos of the view before dark, most people settle down with a book, cards, or listen to music. If you are playing music or games on an I-pad or mobile it’s essential you use earphones and keep the volume down as no one wants to hear someone else’s repetitive noises.
The other essential was a snore strip for my husband, sleeping flat on his back I knew he would snore and didn’t want him keeping anyone awake. Whether the others in your cabin will be that considerate to you, remains to be seen, I’m not sure if it’s ethical to take spares to put on other passengers once you know they snore!!
Another time you must be respectful of your “roomies” is when you want to go to bed, that might not happen when all parties want, and there is only one control for the radio, the thermostat and the light.
I found my booklite was great as I could direct it onto my book, but also if I needed the toilet of a night, I could find everything. The corridors are lit overnight but there is no need to wake everyone putting the room light on when most people now have torches on their mobiles. When you are all in bed for the night there is a double lock on the inside of the door (in soft sleeper cars) so no one but the guard (only in emergencies) can get in while you sleep.
Probably the most useful thing I took with me was a free gift from Northumberland water in the UK. In each carriage at one end there is an open bank of 4 basins, they don’t have a plug, but I had my flat plastic fits any sink size plug. So when I went for a wash I put my plug in, ran the cold water in then used the flask to get warm water.
This caused a mass discussion with the Chinese people I was sharing my wash space with, lots of peering and pointing at it. It would not surprise me if one of these enterprising people is now marketing something similar somewhere!
You really don’t get any privacy on the trains, the basin room has a lock on the inside, but it is considered ill mannered to lock it and use it just yourself and unless it’s the middle of the night you would quickly cause a queue. If you did lock it, be prepared to be shrieked at and banging on the door until you open it. I just made do with on the beach type undressing under a towel.
We really enjoyed the experience. Go on, give it a try. Now you’ve read this article you have the best chance of an interesting journey. Good luck.
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