Will the “sleeper” live up to its name?

When my parents suggested that they come to China and go travelling when they came, we asked them what they wanted to see.  They have a list of places, but for this visit it was Xi’an and Shanghai.  I was cheeky and told them we would be coming to Xi’an with them as it is home to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses.  When we looked into travelling there, the options were flying or taking the sleeper train.

Issues with flying were that

>Xi’an airport, like most airports is not just next door to the City or the Warriors.

>Martin can’t leave school early, thus limiting the availability of flights

>Available flights would get us into Xi’an at about midnight and into the hotel even later, IF the flight was on time.

>Travelling to an airport on a Friday night would have been stressful due to traffic.  (travelling anywhere is stressful)

Travelling by sleeper has the advantages

>of leaving from Suzhou,

>sleeping on the way,

>probably (read hopefully) getting more sleep that if we actually flew,

>arriving into the centre of the city ready to go and

>trains are generally on time.

So with intrepidation we booked a sleeper train.  2 “soft sleeper” beds leaving Suzhou at 7.12pm on the Friday evening, getting into Xi’an on Saturday 21st March at 9.10am.  We booked a flight back with Mum and Dad on the Sunday evening! Mum and Dad also flew up there.  Eleanor is still free on trains and will be free until she reaches 1.2m. Between 1.2m and 1.5m she pays half price.  Because Eleanor and I are relatively small/thin we reckoned we could comfortably share a bunk….NO is the answer.

Having told people here that we were going to Xi’an by sleeper, many looked at us to see if we were wise in the head.  We happily replied that it would be an experience and of course it would be fine, and that we had even booked a return sleeper to the Yellow Mountains at the beginning of April.

There are 4 in a soft sleeper and 6 in a hard sleeper.  What the difference actually was we had no idea, but the idea of a soft sleeper was preferable.  How bad could it be?

Now Martin and I had agreed that we would meet at Suzhou Railway Station about 6.30pm so that we could eat before getting on the train. Eleanor and I left the flat at 5.30pm.  On the 14th floor you never really get a feel of what the weather is like. Sadly we didn’t realise it was raining heavily until we got out of the block.  When it’s raining Taxis are like hens teeth.  With time ticking, I plucked up the courage to ask the compound security guard to phone a taxi for me (I asked in Chinese), but as I was handing the phone over, a taxi pulled into the compound.  The Guard stopped him and on his return out of the compound he collected Eleanor and I at 5.45pm. (The journey is usually 20/30 minutes or so)

At 6.30pm we were still in the taxi in heavy traffic, we had passed two accidents and I had no idea how far we were from the train station.  Asking the driver how far, he responded with “no idea”.  At 6.50pm, I texted Martin that he was to meet my parents in Xi’an without us. At 6.52pm, I phoned Eleanor’s Chinese Dance teacher from the first term and asked her to speak to the driver.  After a short conversation, Julia told me that without traffic we were only 5 minutes away.  Ten minutes later,  the Crozier family were reunited, my heart rate was slowly returning to normal and we were scoffing dinner.  At 7.10pm we got on the train.

We got on, found our cabin and pulled the sliding door across.  Beds were about 90cms across. Footholds jutted out from beside the door to get onto the top bunk and there was a shelf running across the two top beds to put luggage on.  There was piped Chinese music playing through the speakers and the bottom bunks had overhead lights.  There was also a small table under the window separating the two bottom bunks. In this sleeper there was also a plug socket under the table.  On the table was a flask (for the hot water found in the boiler at the end of the carriage) and a small pedal bin.  Having taken all of this in, and having not been particularly quiet upon entry into the cabin, we realised that one of the top bunks was already occupied, and the man was sound asleep.  It is fair to say we probably woke him up. But it was only 7.15pm.  The sleeper set off and I went in search of the toilets.

Toilets on trains are never pleasant. Toilets on Chinese trains…well the stories are in abundance on the world wide net.  The advice is use the toilets at the beginning of your journey.  The Croziers all went and then we settled down for the night.

Eleanor wriggles. The two Chinese men that shared our cabin snored – nudging/hitting/turning your husband over are methods for stopping snoring, but these men were not my husband – I let them snore.  The cabin got incredibly warm – especially when you go to sleep in your clothes and you are wearing two long sleeved tops. The bed is narrow and not very soft. My sleep was far from sound.

I was very aware that Eleanor and I were the only females in the cabin.  As I was getting very hot, I slept with my jumper around my neck, and the duvet over my arms.  All in all, it wasn’t bad.  I even ventured to the toilet at 5.30am.  This train had squatting and western toilets.  It wasn’t too bad but I held my breath.  I had a wander down to the dining carriage to find the staff sprawled over the tables sound asleep.  I went back to the cabin to find Eleanor sprawled over the bed.  I nearly went back to the dining car, but remarkably I manoeuvred  myself back into bed and fell asleep.

What did strike me was that the passengers were all incredibly quiet.  The walls between the cabins were not thick and we did hear people clear their throats to spit but in the sleeping hours the music stopped – people did use the  sleeper to sleep.

Xi’an was the final stop, we woke up about 8ish, feeling vaguely refreshed.  We had brought with us orange juice and croissants for breakfast.  One Chinese guy (the same one that had been asleep upon our arrival) ate a pot of noodles, availing himself of the free boiling water.  A message was sent to Mum to bring Martin a coffee as Mum and Dad had found a guide to collect us from the station so we could go straight to the Warriors.

So at the end of that journey neither Martin and I were dreading our trip to the Yellow Mountains by sleeper 3 weeks later.  However, I put down the marker that I really didn’t want to share a sleeper bunk with Eleanor. 

And thankfully I didn’t.  Neither did Martin.

Friends came with us to the Yellow Mountains.  Friends who also have a 5 year old.  Probably we should have bought one ticket for one of the children and made them share, but in order to have one cabin to ourselves Zoe and I shared with the kids and Martin shared a cabin with Adrian and 2 random Chinese people (man and a woman – who were not together as the woman got off a stop earlier than the man).

Now we had been optimistic in our travel arrangements.   Eleanor and Martin were off for a week.  Eleanor and I went to Hong Kong to see the Knight-Laws family who were in Hong Kong seeing Dave’s family.  Ostensibly we went to see them, but combined it with a trip to Disney! Because the Saturday and Sunday were public holidays in China we decided we would fly on the Monday, return to Shanghai on the 1pm flight on the Wednesday and comfortably (hahahaha) make the sleeper train at 8.21pm. A couple of weeks ago, they cancelled the 1pm flight and transferred us to the 3.05pm. It would be tight, but technically we could still make it in the remaining 2.5 hours.  We took only hand luggage, and found out there was a “special lane” for families and passengers pressed for time.

China Eastern and both airports had been good on the way out.  On the way back we were delayed already at check in by 25 minutes.  At 3.30pm we got on board and at 4.45pm we took off.  At 6.50pm we landed. A bus took us from the plane to the arrival gate. At 7.05 pm ish Eleanor and I got to Immigration. The queue didn’t seem too long, but I decided to utilise the “special lane”. Only to realise that the queue we had left was going down rapidly whereas the passenger at the desk at the special lane had not filled in his landing card on the plane and there were also a group of 5 people in front of me.  My worried look, a cute child and very loud complaining got us infront of the group of 5 people (who as far as I could tell had no reason to be in the special lane) and out of Immigration and into a taxi by 7.20pm.  175 RMB and 50 minutes later Eleanor and I were getting onto the platform and boarding our sleeper train. We had tickets for the Maglev but none of us were entirely convinced that we would make it. My heart rate having again been raised was getting back to normality….That is until we reached Suzhou when our friends and Martin would join us.  Martin having all our luggage as Eleanor and I only had Summer clothes with us!

Martin had texted me to say the train would get into Suzhou at 9.24pm.  We pulled into the station, Eleanor and I looked out into the corridor and nobody came.  The train pulled out of the station and still no one familiar.

Finally recognisable voices.  They had got on at carriage 3 and had to walk down many carriages to get to the one Eleanor and I were in.  Eleanor and I breathed another sigh of relief.   Martin and I caught up, as the last time we had seen each other was at Shanghai airport on Monday morning.  He had left Eleanor and I at the check-in desk to go and find a cheap flight.  He went back to Guilin.  More on that later.

With the kids on the top bunks, I fell asleep quite quickly on one of the bottom bunks, after making some tea and coffee using the free boiling water, the Dulwich mugs (obtained at the Ball) and the milk and teabags/coffee Martin had packed.

I woke up at several points in the night, mainly because the train’s horn sounded every 5 minutes throughout the night – what purpose – I have no idea.  I also woke up as I had a dream that I was in a 12th July parade back in Northern Ireland.   I have never been in such a parade, but the sound of the train on the tracks reminded me of many Lambeg drums.

The train was warm, but not stiflling.  And being in a cabin with people I knew, I had changed into pyjamas.  However, when you get on the train your ticket is exchanged for a plastic card which, close to the station you get off at, is exchanged again for your original ticket.  The Guard comes and wakes you up if needed and tickets are exchanged.  The two guards on both the outward and return journey don’t know about knocking.  I had just got changed when the door opened without warning.  There is a lack of privacy if you are not careful, but more privacy than the hard sleepers which don’t have doors on the cabins.

The train arrived into Huangshan City at 7.12am, and at 7.30am we had checked into the Crowne Plaza as remarkably they had our rooms available.   The toilets on the train again were a mixture of squats and western toilets.  There was also an area at the end of each carriage designated for smokers.  On the way, we had a chain smoking guard and it seemed as if we had all woken up feeling like and smelling like we had all smoked 20 or more.  It was not pleasant.  Again though, Martin, Eleanor and I were not dreading the return journey.

Arriving early on Thursday morning, gave us 3 full days as our return sleeper was not until Saturday 11th April at 8.45pm. Getting the sleeper on Saturday was less stressful than my other trips to the train stations.

The train seemed newer or cleaner than our previous trains but there were only squats for toilets. One had to to choose very carefully and indeed choose a smooth part of the journey.  Enough said.

The Guard on this train did not chain smoke, neither it seemed did many of the passengers, the driver did not sound the horn every 5 minutes and altogether it was a quieter, smoother journey.  The cabin, however, lacked a heavy curtain. The window was covered only by a net curtain, and when sunrise is very early in the morning, an eye mask will now be an essential piece of kit.  We arrived into Suzhou at 7.45am, Eleanor had to be woken up at 7am.  We all managed to get off, have breakfast at the station and be home by 9am, for there was also no queue for the taxis!

There will be blogs about the places we have visited but half the adventure has been in the journey.  We miss not being able to get in the car and driving, but these destinations are far, and sometimes the sleeper is the  most efficient means of travel because you can sleep and no time is wasted. And for approx £50 return for adults, (all dependant on the type of sleeper and whether it is the top or bottom bunk) it isn’t bad value for money.