© 2009 Steven Wong

16.5 hours to Henan (aka the perils of overnight trains in China)

Many apologies for the lack of posts of late. I blame them on my newfound willingness to study Chinese. Or it could also be laziness. I prefer the former.


For the national holiday, which this year coincided with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, my school gave us a week off. Well, it wasn’t really a week off, because they clawed back a few of those days already by having classes on the weekends. But for those days we didn’t have class, I went with a group of about 25 people to Henan province for a volunteer trip.

1 black Sharpie + 6 plastic cups = fun for all

Most of us thought the 16.5-hour overnight train from Beijing to Nanyang was going to be killer. It was over an hour late arriving at Nanyang, we would stop incessantly throughout the trip, whether actually at a station or not, and these stops would last forever, or at least 20 minutes. But really, it wasn’t too bad. Nothing a deck of cards and beer couldn’t solve. A lot of beer.

Hard sleepers of an overnight train in China

The train itself is another story. We were in what they call “hard sleepers”, which is basically a nice way of saying that at least you’ve got a bed, but it’s still like a cattle car. The beds are stacked 3 high, and there are something like 18 rows. So the situation is as good as the worst company you have. Some people got snorers, some people got babies, some people got smokers. It’s luck of the draw.

The car 5 crew

The toilets on the train, which they locked during any of the station stops, were squatters. You can imagine the difficulty for foreigners to use squat toilets, let alone on a moving, rattling train. You can also imagine what they might look and smell like after 16 hours overnight. Not for the faint of heart.

Then there were the incessant food carts that the staff kept rolling up and down the train. It was like a never-ending parade of instant noodles and warm beer. At least there was free hot water, with which you could make your own tea or bowl of ramen.

Inside the dining car

If you splurge a little more, you can get “soft sleepers”, which are 4-bed private compartments that have a real door. If you want to spend a little less, you can go for “soft” or “hard” seats, which i presume differ in the same way, only without beds. And if you forgot to reserve a ticket? You’re standing all night, unless you score a seat in the dining car and don’t mind spending money on mediocre food to stay there.

The rest of the trip? You’ll have to wait for the next post.

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