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Taking a sleeper train in China

Let the adventure commence

I was not thrown into the deep end. This is how I could sum up my first experiences of China.
I was travelling with Marianna, it was easier to laugh off some strange situations, and there was Tomek, familiar with various local ways after living in Zhaoqing for more than a year. Supported by friends I did not find China a challenging destination. Not yet, at least.

A journey from Zhaoqing via Guangzhou to Haikou on the Hainan Island was a part of the trip that concerned me the most from the beginning of planning. Two train journeys in a day with an overnight 12-hour epic odyssey and the fact that the train will be loaded onto a ferry across the sea. Yes.. the adventure was about to start.

Our train to Guangzhou was delayed. How did we know? Well, firstly we could not enter the platform (they are very controlling and strict about it in China) and secondly the sign displayed by my app for “delayed” corresponded with the same sign on the train board.

What a nightmare! We were getting hungry and there was no way we could find any shops or places to eat at the station. Trapped there and surrounded by people, who were constantly staring at us we just had to grin and bear it.

In Guangzhou we had to take a metro to another train station and find a place where we could leave our backpacks for few hours… and quiet frankly that was a bit of a mission. After half an hour we finally found the storage place, which was literally round the corner, as well as the right part of a station where we would be catching our sleeper train in the evening. Relieved and backpack-free we had something to eat and took a metro to the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall to do a bit of sightseeing in that area. After few hours we only managed to scratch the surface.

At the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

At the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

We returned to the station a little bit early to make sure we get plenty of snacks, water and have a chance to freshen up before the journey. While waiting for a train we felt extremely uncomfortable with men staring, pointing fingers at us and trying to sit near us to be able to have a closer look. I even shouted at one weird guy in Polish. He repeated the last word I said and went away. Later, out of curiosity I checked on my app and turned out that a similar sounding word in Chinese means “obscene” or “vulgar” so he certainly got a message that I am telling him off.

A long way by a sleeper train

Before the arrival of our train for the first time it crossed my mind that the sleeper train maybe was not the best idea. I started to worry that we might end up with some dodgy types in our compartment. We booked a hard sleeper so we knew already that we would be sharing with four other people as each unenclosed compartment with no door consists of six bunks. Each one normally has a pillow, a sheet and a covered blanket. If we opted for a soft sleeper it would be a more expensive option but there would be only four bunks and the compartment would be enclosed. From my experience all beds in China are very hard so I would take that “softness” in the name with a pinch of salt.

Once aboard, we were happy to find out that actually people in our compartment are nice and we will not have any strange companions. I had a lower bunk and the bunk opposite me was taken by an old man, who helped me with a backpack and also gave Marianna a helping hand as she had the upper bunk. The middle bunks were taken by a Chinese couple probably around 50 and opposite Marianna there was some young guy, who jumped on his bunk after the train left, staying outside the compartment as long as he could.

I was exhausted so I removed a sleeping bag liner from my backpack, secured my bag and camera and started to make myself comfortable as much as I could. I was dying to fall asleep. The provided cover disgusted me a bit so I threw it over my liner to avoid any closer contact. As a result I was not covered properly but at this stage I did not care. My Chinese grandad got up from his bunk and made sure I am nicely tucked in. His nice gesture was met by my attempt at saying ”xièxie” (thank you in Chinese) which I think I got right.

A video posted by Weronika Czekaj (@notatherdesk) on

I woke up in the morning. A couple from the middle bunks together with my neighbour were chatting over some hot drinks. I checked if Marianna was fine and luckily she joined me on my bunk after a minute so we did not have to shout to each other. She has not slept well so if I was not very rested she must have been extremely tired.

When Marianna decided to lay down again and climbed up to her bunk, I talked to Chinese grandad using the app. I was explaining that we are from Poland and going to Haikou on holiday. We were both laughing our heads off probably for different reasons but hey… even today when I think about it I find it the whole situation very funny!

As there were still few hours ahead of us we read some magazines cover to cover, ate a lot of biscuits and hoped that the train miraculously speeds up. What really slowed us down was the fact that the train had to be dismantled to be loaded onto a ferry boat. Hainan is an island after all, so there was no other way.

In total the journey took us 15 hours. Would I recommend taking a sleeper train? Well, it was not the most convenient way to travel but we arrived at our destination safely and did not break the bank as the tickets costed us $50 each. We would more likely pay double or triple to fly it. I would say that the trick is to prepare yourself mentally for this type of journey, keep your cool and certainly book the tickets in advance. Can you imagine that 15 hours while sitting on a hard seat? Ouch!

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