One downside to staying at the St. Regis (see my entry on this hotel) is that I am utterly convinced that their entire travel/concierge staff gets downright incompetent when confronted with requests that are not of your usual "rich people" variety. Case in point: we wanted the hotel to help us book train tickets from Beijing to Zhengzhou, our next destination, about 6 to 8 hours from Beijing. You would not believe what we had to do to get this to happen. First, we were told that "we can only get hard-seat tickets for you." Never mind that even the Rough Guide has the following comments on hard-seat tickets: "(it) is really only recommended for the impecunious or on relatively short journeys… the air is thick with cigarette smoke, and every available inch of floor space is crammed with travelers who were unable to book a seat." Second, they told us to go to the station to get it ourselves. Never mind that this hotel sells itself on being able to do anything for you.
Anyway, a call to the manager resulted in immediate efforts to resolve the situation. Of course, this being China, it was not resolved that quickly. However, about two hours later, they managed to unearth two soft-sleeper tickets, which we requested because we wanted to spend the night on the train in order to maximize our time in China and, of course, save on the cost of a hotel room. The soft-berth tickets ended up costing us about $30 per person on an express train.
Soft-sleeper tickets make train travel feel almost luxurious. In Beijing, you get to wait in a plush waiting room, complete with large, comfortable, leather armchairs. A special board is set up to flash the number and time of your train and announcements as to when you can enter the gate. Soft-sleeper ticket holders are allowed to reach the platform a few minutes, and sometimes tens of minutes, before the general stampede caused when everyone is allowed to board, thus making the boarding process so much more pleasant.
The Chinese train boarding process is plenty efficient. As you board the train, you exchange your ticket for your berth number with the attendant. In exchange, you get these tokens. The train attendant maintains an inventory of all tickets, and before you are to reach your destination, he/she comes by to exchange your original ticket for the token, which means that if you don’t play musical berths, you should not ever miss your station. And considering that the train was full, playing musical berths must not be very fun.
The setup of the soft-sleeper class is as follows: there is a choice of Chinese or Western toilet, which is generally empty -- the Chinese generally prefer their own toilet -- and each compartment has a radio, fan, and four berths on two sides, so there is an upper berth and a lower berth. The lower berth is generally desirable, as you have to climb to get to the upper berth, but then, in exchange, before it’s time to go to bed, everyone feels free to use the lower berth as sitting space to conduct conversation. So it’s really up to you.
The one little surprise I have is that I thought that, since we had chosen a soft sleeper, the mattress was going to be soft. Well, surprise -- I guess it is softer than a hard sleeper, but it is still hard…really hard. However, I have to admit that after I twisted and turned for a little bit, once I got to sleep, it actually turned out to be quite all right. I have always complained of backache, and sleeping in strange places often compounded the problem. But there is something about those hard mattresses. I had no backache at all when I got up.
Well, our train ride passed without much trouble. After we checked in, our compartment companions did feel free to use my sleeper to talk for about a couple of hours, after which one of them prepared for sleep, while I caught the other talking to a train attendant. Imagine my surprise when he came back into the compartment with a combined TV/DVD player. It’s clunky, but it is real luxury to be able to watch a movie during the night, which, of course, he proceeded to do for the night. He was considerate enough to turn the noise down really low, so for all intents and purposes, I had white noise to sleep with.