Having entered China trough Laos - using the Mohan-Boten border cross, I engaged the excellent Chinese railways system only from Kunming onwards. Few would dispute that trains are the most efficient, comfortable and reliable method of traveling in this country; I found that out during my first trip, from Kunming to Chengdu, which was for many years – until the recent opening of the Tibetan line – the main technological achievement of the system. The line crosses over a hundred bridges and tunnels through a wonderfully rugged terrain. Deep creeks, high mountains and what can be summarized as an endless desert of varying characteristics – snow, mountains, sand and bare rocks are randomly distributed along the trip – give the impression of being traveling in a foreign planet. The lack of people and settlements along the route – a surprising characteristic of rural China - only increases that feeling.
This train departs from the main railways terminal in Kunming, the Kunming Railway Station, near downtown. The huge empty space can get chilly during the winter evenings; but the wise traveler always carries a cup with tea bags or coffee and can enjoy thus the free hot water offered to the waiting passengers. An ambulant stall sells rice and meat dishes and operates until sunset.
The tickets are best purchased at the main terminal. However, the selling indow is not at the terminal itself but at a building placed at its side. The staff doesn’t speak English (the only one claiming to do so failed understanding the simple transaction) thus it is recommended to arrive early enough and with a book showing the characters of the destination and the desired class and berth (these characters are easy enough to learn on the flight).
The line length is 1100 kilometers; it was built to withstand a Richter 7.0 earthquake. The reason is obvious while watching the many bridges and dark tunnels along the broken mountains along the way. It was opened in 1970.
Most Chinese trains include several kinds of cars, the main ones being first, second, and third classes and the dining cars. The difference between the first and second classes – called soft and hard-berth for historical reasons – are minimal. The first class compartments include just four berths while second class ones have six, beyond that there are not significant differences able to justify the big difference in the fares. Most significant are the differences in the berths – despite the lower ones being more expensive they are a bad choice since during the day they are used as coaches by everybody in the area.
Moreover, the quality varies with a specific line importance. A second class car in the Beijing-Shanghai line is much better than a first-class one in the secondary connecting Kunming with Chengdu.
The third class ones are the sitting cars, which display several subcategories. They are definitely not recommended for long trips, though for short ones they offer interesting encounters with the locals. If traveling in such a car, the dining car becomes an important addition, since once food is purchased there the traveler is allowed to spend as much as he wishes in this less crowded space.
Toilets exist at one end of each car. Those in the third class are definitely not recommended; regardless the class the traveler is traveling on, nobody would question a foreigner using the first class toilets. For obvious reasons, toilets are closed whenever reaching a station, thus some planning is required here.
At the opposite end of the car is a samovar with hot water, free for the use of passengers. The ones at the third class cars get sometimes empty, but walking around the train with an empty cup and searching for hot water would raise no questions. In long trips – like the line connecting Xian with Urumqi – women with hot water thermoses approach the train windows each time it stops and sell hot water.
The Communist Party Member
During this trip I participated in an extraordinary event. Soon after we departed a group of locals approached me; it included a Communist Party Member – a rare kind of person in China – and at least two translators. For the next few hours I was engaged in one of the strangest and most unexpected conversations in my life. The event is described in my book "The Road to Bethlehem."