Day 1: Shenzen to Xining


The big journey from Hong Kong to London began this morning. The first leg of the trip is one of the longest: a 33 hour train journey from Shenzhen (just across the border from Hong Kong) to Xining. And we have been expecting this journey to be the worst of the entire trip, because there were only “hard sleeper” class berths available.

Long-Distance Chinese trains have a few classes of tickets:

  • Deluxe soft sleeper – 2 person private cabin with locking door and private bathroom – only available on limited trains from major cities
  • Soft sleeper – 4 person cabin with locking door and shared bathroom
  • Hard sleeper – 6 person bunk room, no door, shared toilet at end of carriage – apparently this is best value for money and what most middle class Chinese take if they can afford it
  • Soft seat – a comfy seat, doesn’t lay flat
  • Hard seat – like it sounds … not comfortable.
  • Standing – never ever ever get this ticket – apparently people with standing tickets jostle to climb onto luggage racks or sit in the aisles!

Our plan was to take Soft Sleeper for the overnight journeys, and Soft Seats for the shorter daytime trips.

Unfortunately on this first train, only Hard Sleeper was available. The only other option that would work for our time schedule was flying from Hong Kong to Xining – and we weren’t going to do that! So Hard Sleeper it is.

Anyway, we’ve been saying that this would be the absolute worst journey, and it would only get better from here. I was imagining a carriage of 15+ bunk rooms, each with 6 berths, filled with smelly food, noisy people, crying kids, spitting, and not getting a lot of sleep.

We were in for a surprise.

We started our journey with a 5:15AM taxi from our hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong to the Hung Him MTR station (that’s the Hong Kong subway system). We boarded the very first subway of the day at 5:30AM, and then it was an easy 40 minute ride to the Hong Kong / Shenzhen border, where we entered mainland China.

We’d been to Shenzhen once before, so once through the border we had a general idea of where the train station was. It still took us three attempts to find the correct window to get our tickets – and no one spoke English (which is kind of hilarious since we had just walked across the border from Hong Kong where English is everywhere).

Hurry Up and Wait

Tickets in hand, we found the designated waiting area for our train. There was a vendor selling toys to passengers in our area – makes sense to keep kids occupied on such a long journey… BUT, the toy selection was.. interesting.

Many of the toys were battery-operated with lights, music and movement. A spinning Cinderella doll with a light up dress and music. A radio control car. A helicopter-like Minion that flew up to the ceiling. A bicycle that rode around in circles with flashing lights and music.

Really? Are those train-appropriate toys?! What happened to good old colouring books?!

Fortunately the toy vendor wasn’t making many sales.

Zak said if one of those toys ended up in our room it might accidentally get stepped on… oops. ?

Our 4 New Best Friends

All aboard! Huge scuffling, pushing mass of people to board the train, but it was easy enough to find our carriage and bunks.

The hard sleeper carriage has 11 little ‘rooms’ (no doors) with 6 bunks each, 3 on each side. As you enter the carriage, the bunk rooms are down the right side, and the left side is a narrow corridor with windows, with two little fold down seats and a tiny table/ledge outside each bunk room.

Each person is assigned a bunk, but you can only sit on the bottom bunk (not enough height to sit in the middle and upper bunks!), so people seem to alternate between laying on their bunk, sitting on the bottom bunk, and sitting on the fold-down seats in the corridor (and smoking in the area between the train carriages!!)

We have the bottom and top bunks. There’s a little space for luggage under the bottom bunk, and there’s also a luggage shelf at the ceiling for the top bunk.

The top bunk is HIGH. At least 6 feet up. And there’s not a proper ladder, just these fold-down foot holds in the door frame. So you really need to be agile to get up into the bunk, and then once you’re there, you can’t sit up or easily turn around without folding yourself in half. Zak took the top bunk, hoping there’d be a little extra legroom if he put his legs/feet into the luggage rack!

The carriage was completely full, every bunk taken.

Everyone is Chinese. We haven’t seen another Westerner, or even another non-Chinese person, since crossing the border into Shenzhen. We’re definitely getting curious (but friendly) stares on the train.

No one in our bunk seems to speak English, or at least, no one has approached us or even seemed like they understand what we’re saying. Usually when we travel, we’re approached by people who want to practice their English, or at least inquisitive looks that imply that they’re sort of understanding what we’re saying – but nothing here. So that’s a little strange – we’re really just talking to each other the entire time.

As the train left Shenzhen, I noticed how quiet it was. I was thrilled! I was really expecting a noisy, dirty, annoying train ride, and this was fantastic. Stretched out on the bunk, nice and quiet, everyone reading or playing on their phones. Really much better than expected.

Here’s what’s in our carriage:

Toilets! There’s one toilet at the end of the carriage, and a block of 3 sinks. It’s a Chinese-style Squat toilet. There’s no toilet paper or soap anywhere, so you need to bring your own (we did.) Fortunately we’ve had lots of practice with these toilets living in Hong Kong and honestly I think they’re often cleaner than the Western-style ones (because the cleaners just hose down the entire room periodically.)

Scalding Hot Water! At the opposite end of the carriage there’s a hot water dispenser. SCALDING hot water for tea. Everyone on the train seems to have a thermos filled with loose tea leaves, which they keep filled with hot water. Seriously this water is so hot, even a little splatter burns your hand. I can’t imagine it would be allowed on a train in the US or UK for health and safety (someone would burn themselves and sue!) I love tea, so I’m really loving having tea available to me all the time (and yes, I packed a HUGE amount of tea bags in my luggage, so I’ll be set for several weeks of constant tea drinking.)

Food Vendors! Every 30 minutes or so, a vendor walks through our carriage. There seems to be one vendor selling fresh fruits (which vary after each station stop, depending what was in stock) – she’s had bananas, tiny oranges that were the size of mushrooms, and this morning entire baskets of mangos. There’s also a vendor who sells instant noodles, chips, drinks etc.

So far we’re very impressed by this train. It’s on time, the staff is regularly sweeping and mopping the floors in our carriage, everyone is well behaved, we can stretch out… if this is the worst train journey we’ve got, I think we’ll survive…

4 Replies to “Day 1: Shenzen to Xining”

  1. Amanda,

    Train seems a lot more civilized than I anticipated. Looks like you guys are having a good time. Great blog and travel log. Very professional.

  2. Ohhhhh yes, the scalding water dispenser! We remember it well. Definitely cooks your instant noodles. Honestly, it would probably cook a chicken breast… 🙂

    1. Oh man, on our most recent train a lady in our compartment sent her 5 year old son out alone to fill up her tea water flask… not surprisingly he burnt his hand!!

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