14 Hours – Riding The Train In China

Day 1 – Liuzhou to Shenzhen

With summer fading fast and the new school term about to start, Lily and I decided to get out of town for a week. Much as I love Liuzhou, it can wear on you and bother I was worn proper. The only objectives… take photographs, see friends, and eat my fill of Western food before the big diet/workout regimen kicked in in ernest. There were the usual budgetary concerns as well so we weren’t going far. The Western food angle meant probably Shanghai or Hong Kong but since we could use Bob and Xiao’s Shenzhen apartment as a base of operations and we have close friends in Guangzhou, Hong Kong was the choice. I also know a number of photographers in Hong Kong and Shenzhen so the idea of meeting up with them to take photos was appealing in its own right. Plus, Hong Kong is less China than Shanghai and I wanted to at least feel like I was leaving the country. To get to Hong Kong you have to at least go through immigration!

There is always the question of how to travel in China and I ALWAYS prefer to fly but if the destination is close enough an overnight train becomes an option. Depending on where you’re going, the soft-sleeper can cost almost as much as the plane but the overnight hard-sleeper can be a cost efficient alternative. For most of the time on the train you are sleeping anyway! There is little difference between the soft-sleeper and the hard-sleeper and what difference there is has not a thing to do with the softness of the berth! With a soft sleeper you get a bit more privacy (a door) and only four folks will share the compartment instead of the six who will share a hard-sleeper. The soft-sleeper to Gaungzhou is exactly double the price of the hard-sleeper so yeah, hard-sleeper it was. 12 hours (if not late) on the train to Guangzhou loomed, and then after a short break in the lovely Guangzhou train station, another hour on down to Shenzhen. The plan was to rest up a day in Shenzhen and while there get some Mexican food at Amigos in Shekou. We would then take the ferry on over to Hong Kong the next morning, stay there a couple of days, head back to Shenzhen for a day, then back up to Guangzhou for a couple of days before taking take the overnight train back to Liuzhou.

The price for a hard sleeper to Guangzhou is ¥249 ($37) including the extra fee (¥10 – $1.50) for the bottom bunk. While convenient, having the bottom bunk means you will be sharing that space with any number of random passengers who decide to sit there during the journey. Notice I didn’t say if someone decides to sit on your bed, trust me, somebody is gonna’ plop their rear end down there. A couple of years ago while on a train in the hinterlands of Hunan Province, I woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning to find a man noisily slurping a bowl of noodles while squatting on the end of my bed, his butt hovering just above my feet… mostly above. The hard sleeper, since it is open to the aisle, can be noisy. Chinese folks don’t have the same idea of noise management as we do in the west. Location is also a consideration, the middle of the car is good. Too close to the toilet can be… pungent. The trip down to Guangzhou was… pungent.

Over the next few days I’ll share some travel stories and photographs and introduce you to some of the people we met, beginning here with the ride to Guangzhou. Because the food prices on the train are are a bit steep, most folks will bring whatever they think they are going to need during the journey onboard with them. Lily is no exception. Here she is unpacking enough food and snacks to feed all the passengers and crew of car 14 for a week.

These girls were part of a family of 6 staying in the next compartment. They were traveling home to Guangzhou after a two week vacation with family in Nanning and Liuzhou. The little one was very curious about the big foreigner but, try as I might, I couldn’t get her to approach me once during the entire trip. Notice the huge bags of food…

By the time we got settled in the train was well out of the city and on it’s way. 36 year old Huang Jia Lu is a salesman for an automotive supply company and travels on the train at least twice a month for business. He said train travel has become so routine he hardly even thinks about it anymore. He was thinking about something, as he sat here looking out the window for a couple of hours. Mr. Huang slept in the bunk directly above me. Mr. Huang is a snorer.

On the other side of us, 3 year old Song Xiao Xing was traveling with her mother and grandparents to visit her father who works at a textile factory in Guangzhou. As adoreable as she looks here, she was actually quite the noisy little brat. Equal parts charming and terrifying, she joyously and noisily went up and down the ladder to her bed at least 40 times in the first two hours of the trip. Here she’s in her happy place while talking to grandmother.

If you’re not prepared, boredom sets in early on the train. Li Sheng Li brought along a couple of newspapers and read them cover to cover before dinner. Originally  from Fujian Province, he now lives in Liuzhou where he works for China Construction Bank. Friendly at first, he became a bit standoffish after a few too many questions. He asked Lily if I worked for the government. Seriously, he did and that is not the first time it’s happened.

We also came well prepared, I brought my latest stash of pirated DVD’s along to watch on the laptop and Lily was tuned in to her iPod. That’s Bill Withers… “Ain’t No Sunshine” she’s listening to. As for my movie on the train, I am just going to ask, “Jim Carrey, what are you thinking?” Ditto for you, Ewan McGregor.

After a few hours it was time for dinner. We had the universal Chinese train meal of rice noodles in a round paper bucket along with cold bottles of water. Xiao Xing’s grandmother chastised me for drinking ice cold water (it was my second bottle), saying it was not good for my health. Even if it is over 100 degrees many Chinese prefer their water hot.

Mr. Huang ate noodles as well but his beverage preference was a lukewarm bottle of Li Quan beer. I’ve gotten somewhat used to the warm/hot water thing but I draw the line at warm beer.

After dinner Xiao Xing zoned out on her mother’s bunk, not to be heard from again until the next morning. It gave her grandparents, and the rest of us in car 14 some quiet time.

After dark, the mood on the train changes and most folks finally quiet down. Lily took a cat nap while still sitting up in her bed and Ping Li Hua climbed down from her top bunk to stretch her legs for a while. Ms. Ping was traveling from Liuzhou with her 11 year old daughter to attend a family funeral in Dongguan.

Wei Mo Li, Ms. Pings daughter, stayed up well past lights out (10PM) playing video games on her little handheld computer. Totally oblivious, I was able to get this shot in very low light while we were stopped somewhere waiting for an oncoming train to pass. She didn’t say much the first day but on day two, after saying “Good morning!” in perfect English, she began to talk a blue streak. Cute kid. I liked her better when she was quiet.

So that was the beginning of our trip, we got into Guangzhou about an hour late and then hopped on the hi-speed train down to Shenzhen and spent the day there. The next post will feature my search for authentic Mexican food and the nearest Starbucks. Priorities people, you must prioritize when traveling.

The website is still not fully fleshed out but will officially launch this week. I would appreciate you telling people about the new site and letting them know that during September I’ll be giving away a lot of free “stuff” to celebrate the launch. Prizes will include an Apple iPad, a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 MACRO lens, autographed prints from the archives and autographed copies of my book, Saving Faces:  A Portrait Collection. Details on how to win are coming within the next few days!

Tomorrow: Day 2 – Shenzhen

Peace to you!

24 Responses to “14 Hours – Riding The Train In China”

  1. Ron in L.A. says:

    Very nice Mike, glad to see you’re out and about… 😉

    R(etc… )

  2. Excellent work, excellent storytelling.

  3. Nancie says:

    Nice photos as always Michael. The new site looks great.

    I only took the train once in China, and it was a very short trip. Other than that I flew, which really wasn’t my choice. It was just impossible to get a ticket. Now, I am glad I did. I wouldn’t do well sharing a compartment with 5 strangers for 12 hours… :-)

  4. Steve says:

    Nicely done, Michael. You have perfectly captured the Chinese train trip. Next time try it from a hard seat with no AC – hehe.

  5. Andrea says:

    Site looks great Michael! Glad you and Lily were able to get away for a little vacay! Let us know if you make it down to NN. I can’t say it’s authentic, but I’ll throw a little Mexican food your way! Take care…

    • Trust me when I say this Andrea… your Mexican food is more authentic than anything I had last week and it is missed! I actually may be coming your way solo in September for a photo shoot… let you know. Hope the brood is well!

  6. jesse says:

    Wow, you learned a lot of names on this train trip! Nice essay…

    • Hey Jesse, nice to see you. How was Germany?

      When I have Lily along it’s really pretty easy, I ask a lot of questions and she can translate and take notes… some people clam up but surprisingly a lot of them are very open. I remember Xiao Xing’s grandmother told us her name meant Morning Star (I think). I’m pretty sure it is easier for a foreigner with a camera than it would be if I was Chinese.

      How about you, what do you do when writing a story to remember the details?

  7. Yannick and Olivia says:

    Hey Michael,

    Congratulations for your new website. Pictures are wondefull and your description of the trip by train reminded us of our life in Liuzhou.
    Good luck for your starting term.

    Yannick and Olivia (back in France.)

  8. Cole says:

    Thanks for the account. Very interesting for a Geezer Canadian expecting to take a train trip from Chengdu to Kaili at Easter. Got your site from a friend in Hong Kong, thanks – very helpful.

    Perth, Ontrio, Canada

  9. Lorraine says:

    It’s great to see your new site. I’ve been enjoying all of your images of China, especially the portraits of children. Thanks for sharing this journey!

  10. Ray says:

    Hello Mike, saw this link on ur facebook. interesting train story. I was on the same train from Liuzhou to Guangzhou on October 22nd!

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