The art of slow travel in China

Williiam Shears meets people who have never heard of Gmail or Facebook on his train journey from Hong Kong to Xian.

As I looked at my itinerary for my overland journey from Hong Kong to Beijing, and saw that there was a 25 hour train journey planned, I paused and asked myself, why was I putting myself through this?

In a world of cheap air travel and bullet trains which can take you directly from Hong Kong to Beijing in just 8 hours, why waste your  time on an apparently pointless and lengthy train journey?

The answer I found was that those 25 hours sat in that train were some of the most fascinating  I have ever experienced.

I boarded the night train at 7:30 pm from Guilin.  As the train slowly moved out of the station I was introduced to my fellow bunk mates, a family of three, who lived close to Beijing.

At first it seemed impossible to speak to them and only sign language could be really used, due to the language barrier. Their major concern was whether I had enough food supplies to last me the journey. Every time the train stopped at a station, they would rush out and re stock their supplies of dumplings; it seemed they cared more about feeding me than themselves.

Soon it was time to go to sleep and the lights in the carriage were turned off. Next thing it was 9 am in the morning and we were going through a beautiful limestone pinnacle landscape.

As I peered down from my bunk, a keen eyed woman was looking at me, and asking where I was from. She was ecstatic to find that I was English and could also speak the language. The news of a white person being on the sleeper train had spread across all the carriages and apparently they were all trying to remember the english expressions they had learnt at school, hoping to try them out on me.

She was excited to practice her English and so we spoke for hours; while I told her about life in the UK she taught me about modern day China. She was fascinated by the fact that squatter loos are pretty alien to anyone who lives in the UK, while I was more amazed by the fact that she had never heard of Gmail or Facebook.

She also started to act as a translator with the family below getting all the questions answered they had been wondering about such as: why can he not understand us and why on earth can he not use chop sticks properly?

The day rolled on; various people brought their children to see a white person for the first time, and I enjoyed the different landscapes China had to offer. Sometimes we travelled  past massive cities , sometimes we crossed  flat plains that appeared to go on for ever.

As we approached Xian, I understood why I had gone on a 25 hour train journey. Slow travel is one of the best ways to see a country, meet people and have time to really think.

World Youth Adventures provides itineraries that allow you to use the sleeper trains within China without having to worry about the issues around the language barrier. Travelling on a slow train in China is certainly an experience not to be missed out on!

William Shears

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