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Hard sleeper class on the train to Kunming, looking rather like Alcatraz
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Sharing a snifter of Cape Breton ten year old malt with Eric and Ellie

When we woke this morning I think we both had trepidations about what the next day would have in store for us as we set off on our first Chinese railway adventure. A taxi dropped us off at the train station well in time for our twenty three hour trip to Kunming. We saw more Western faces in the half hour we waited for the train than we have done in most of our time in mainland China. Even so the majority of passengers were Chinese.

Our bags were scanned airport style as we entered the train station and we then went up to sit in the waiting room. There is something about Chinese public buildings that seems to create the need for large cavernous rooms with very dim lighting. The electricity they must save by not lighting buildings during the day must enable them to keep up the bright and garish neon displays that are a feature of every Chinese city we have been in. There was no hustle and bustle of vendors trying to get you to buy last minute wares, much to Stef’s disappointment as he was hoping for a spot of breakfast before we got on board.

With just ten minutes to go before departure they finally opened the doors and everyone streamed down and onto the platform. We found our carriage and before we were settled in our little cabin we were off and the mental clock was ticking down the next twenty three hours. We had opted to travel in style and went for a soft sleeper cabin. These are small compartments with a door you can shut to keep out the noise and smells from the train. Bunk bed style benches are on each side of the cabin and there is barely enough space for two people to stand let alone all four occupants of the cabin. A lace tablecloth, antimacassar style covers on the seats and carpet add a few creature comforts and the atmosphere was greatly improved when we found the volume control to turn down the endless stream of Chinese music blaring away in the cabin.

Our biggest concern had been that we would have to spend our time on the train in the company of spitting, snorting, throat clearing, slurping Chinese people, although it may have enabled us to get more of an insight into the local culture and customs, assuming they spoke English. But the sounds they made are pretty disgusting and they spit wherever they are irrespective of who else is around and about and it was not a prospect I considered with relish. To our great relief we saw Western faces and spent the journey in the company of Ellie and Eric who have spent the last few years living in Sydenham, not far from us in South London.

They were good travel companions and time went by quickly as we shared travel tales and experiences, talked about home and mused about how odd it was to be spending Christmas Eve in this way. Stef went for a wander to have a look at the rest of the train. One way was the dining car, which seemed to be endlessly full of train staff counting bits of paper and having little interest in serving anyone. The other way was the hard sleeper carriage. Open “cabins” with six beds in the space we had for four. Some were empty, others were full but even early on in the journey unpleasant smells were starting to brew. As we left the train we saw the cheapest carriages, hard seats. Not good for a journey as long as this one.

In some ways the most enduring memory of that trip will be the smells on the train. Whilst in theory being close to the dining car has benefits if you are hungry, in practice it was probably a bad deal. Every time the train stopped the air became full of a stench which was a combination of sewers (toilets were stand up holes in the floor leading directly out onto the track) and burning cooking smells. Frequently throughout the journey we had to shut our door because of the stomach churning smell of burning cooking oil and vinegar. It was the sort that goes right up your nose and makes you cough, not great for me and Stef as we were both coughing away quite beautifully under our own steam.

A couple of times during the day a woman would walk up and down the train pushing a trolley full of food. For about £1 you got a box full of rice and another with chicken, vegetables, pickles and a fried egg. Despite the unpleasant smells that came from the kitchen the food was pretty tasty and very filling and thankfully had no nasty side effects.

The landscape we passed through was pretty boring and unremarkable and with not much to see, a feature that is following us around China. We passed some rice fields and in others sugar cane was growing (it looks like bamboo but the cane is a purpley black colour). The earth has now changed from very sandy soil to being bright red clay like soil. We spent some time catching up on our diaries, much to the bemusement of the Chinese people who walked by, and we read for a little while.

If there is ever a case for someone to look at a journey and see how it can be improved, this has to be it. The trip was scheduled to last for twenty three hours but we arrived about half an hour early. One frustration though was the number of times we stopped. Often the stops were at stations and people got on and off. Unlike India though there was no frantic activity on the platforms with vendors racing to the windows to try to sell you bites to eat or liquids to drink. The longer stops though seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes another train would go by in the other direction but often we seemed to stop for no reason at all. I think that if you chopped the stopping time out of the journey you could probably halve the overall journey time.

By evening, boredom was starting to set in and we agreed that it was time for games. Packs of cards came out of bags and we spent an hour or so playing rummy, Shithead and Slap the Queen (not sure if this is what it is really called but we cannot remember the name Ellie and Eric gave it). The rules for the games new to us are set out below. Stef was on a winning streak and each time we switched to a new game he seemed to win.

We made our little cabin as festive as we could. Ellie had an advent calendar Christmas card which went up on display accompanied by a couple of satsumas and Stef’s little Canadian Mountie Moose, who, with a red jacket on, performed admirably as Santa. We still had with us a miniature of single malt whiskey that we had bought in Cape Breton on the East coast of Canada and it provided a welcome tipple. With no glasses to hand, four bottle tops made do as shot glasses and we had a festive toast or two.

As the night wore on, yawns circulated around and a little after ten we all crashed out. Surprisingly the beds were pretty comfortable and were long enough. As I lay on the top bunk reading my book I was trying to work out if the very deep breathing sounds that verged on light snoring were coming from Stef or from Eric. Stef was the culprit.

Rules for the card games we learned from Ellie and Eric

Slap the Queen This one is so easy you can teach the Indian guys who take you on a two night camel trek how to play.

Remove one queen from the pack and discard it. Deal the rest of the cards out to the players. Each player looks at their cards and if they have any matching pairs they discard them. The player to the right of the dealer starts. They turn to the player on their left and take a card from that player, discarding any new matched pairs as they go. The next player then takes their turn and so on. The object of the game is to discard all your cards. The loser is the person who is left with the remaining queen.

Shithead Best played with two packs of cards.

Three cards are dealt face down in front of each player. A card is then dealt face up on top of each of those cards. Each player is then dealt a hand of five cards and the remaining cards form a stock pile. The object of the game is to get rid of all of your cards. At the start of the game each player has the option of changing any or all of the cards face up in front of him for cards in his hand. Play starts by a player putting a three onto a discard pile. In turn each player has to place one or more cards of a higher value onto the discard pile (aces are high). While the stock pile lasts, players must replace played cards so that they have five cards in their hand (if they have more than five cards they do not need to pick up from the stock pile). If a player cannot go they have to pick up the discard pile. There are two “wild cards” in the game. A ten clears the deck so those cards are removed from play. A two reduces the value of the discard pile back down to three so any card can be played. Once you have finished all the cards in your hand you can then play the cards face up on the table in front of you. Once those cards have finished you play the cards face down. Obviously there is luck involved here as you do not know the value of the card you will play until you turn it over.