Below is a trip report for a journey I took in August 2011 on a China Railways train from Jinan (Shandong Province in eastern China) to Urumqi (Xinjiang Province, far north western China).
Train 1085, Jinan – Urumqi
- Origin: Jinan
- Destination: Urumqi
- Distance: 3747 km
- Travel Time: 48:55
We arrived at the chaotic Jinan station at a little after 8 am. Our destination was Urumqi, but we had to buy our onward tickets from Urumqi before we boarded our train. After lining up at the ticket office for about 20 minutes, we found that the only option to us for our overnight trip from Urumqi to Liuyuan was soft seat – everything else was sold out for our day of travel.
Disappointed that we couldn’t get sleeping berths for our return journey, but happy that we at least had seats, we headed into the bustling station. We quickly found our waiting room, where there were red-capped men with trolleys accosting passengers. They were porters, who would take your luggage to your seat or berth, for a negotiated fee. They also assist you to enter the platform before other passengers. After some rapid negotiations with several porters, a suitable fee was agreed on and we followed our porter to the train.
Jinan station is a busy place, as it is a junction between the a major North – South line and a major East – West line. There was a lot of activity at 9am on a Wednesday morning; an 8 car D train having its final inspections prior to departing for Qingdao (a port on the east coast), a goods train rumbling through with another hot on its heels, our train having the little diesel shunting locomotive detached and the high speed electric locomotive coupled up. I wandered around taking a few pictures, but everything happens so fast on China Railways that before you realise something interesting is happening, it’s over.
I snapped some pictures of the sleek D train. This service operated by CRH5a stock, first generation high speed with a maximum service speed of 250 km/h. They are fixed sets, and operate as either 8 cars or 2 coupled together to form a 16 car train. They are painted white with blue stripes and the lettering CRH (China Rail Highspeed) on each car. Instead of the name plate carried on each car of locomotive hauled stock, each car has an LED display showing the car number, origin and destination in Chinese and Western characters. As I was snapping away, I noticed that in true Chinese style, the plastic nose of the train has cracked and not been repaired – the attractive, aerodynamic nose blemished by the unwillingness of a society to fix anything properly.
Our train was 21 cars long; 10 cars of hard sleepers, 1 car of soft sleepers, 4 cars of soft seats, 3 cars of hard seats, 1 restaurant car, 1 power car and 1 luggage van. The train was made up of the first generation of air-conditioned stock (25G), painted red and silver, with an orange stripe just below the window line. A name plate on each carriage showed that the train was operated by the Jinan railways bureau, running as 1085/1086 Jinan – Urumqi/Urumqi – Jinan. As with all locomotive hauled trains in China, it was fitted with fold up platforms in the external doorways, which allowed access to in-built steps for low level platforms (as used on The Indian Pacific and The Ghan in Australia).
Time came to board the train, and I found our berths in car 4 – hard sleeper. In a hard sleeper, there are 22 sets of 3 tiered bunks. The sets of bunks are arranged in groups of 2 facing each other, with a window in between, giving 6 bunks in a group. Beneath the window is a table and beneath the table is a 1.5 litre stainless steel jug for fetching hot water from the urn at the end of the car. Along the corridor, there are windows, and under every second one is a small table with 2 fold down seats attached to the wall. The car has a pleasant open, airy feel.
We settled into our berths and discovered that we were sharing with a family. Mum, grandma and great-aunt were all Han – the main ethnic group in China (92% of the population). The 3 kids; a 13 year old boy and a boy and girl each 3 years old (twins) were half Uighur – natives of Xinjiang Province (less than 2% of the population). The family was travelling back after visiting family during the school holidays in Jinan. Their final destination was Yining – another 10 hour train journey after arriving at Urumqi. We also befriended a 15 year old Han girl travelling from Qingdao to Urumqi to resume school, who was in the next group of bunks.
Whistles blew, bells rang and a horn blared as train 1085 eased out of Jinan station 1 minute early at 09:19. We made our way through the suburbs of Jinan and soon we were racing through the fertile farmland of Shandong province. We sped through many small towns, stopping at only the larger ones.
A small railway station in a Chinese town is a barren place. The cities have large stations with multiple waiting rooms, LED information signs on roofed platforms and many small shops selling food, drinks and toiletries. Stations in towns have an entryway, with an open walled, roofed area to act as a waiting room if you’re lucky. There will be a couple of low level platforms with very minimal signage – in fact most only have one sign on each platform with the name of the station in Chinese and English. That’s not much coverage on a platform that’s over half a kilometre long! I guess they figure if you want to go to such a small place, you’ll know where you are when you get there.
The quality of Chinese railway tracks is very good. The rails are well laid and well maintained, allowing trains to run smoothly at all speeds . All main lines are at least double track, with many of the main corridors quad track for hundreds of kilometres The volume of rail traffic is staggering by Australian standards. In Shandong province, we passed either a goods or passenger train at about 5 minute intervals.
After travelling for about 2 hours, we arrived in the city of Yanzhou. We seemed to have stopped for an unusual amount of time about 15 minutes. All became clear when we departed and we were travelling in the opposite direction. We travelled on through endless farmland, filled with farm workers. Lumbering 3 wheel farm trucks rumbled along dirt roads as the farm workers laboured in the fields. I took a nap on my top bunk. I woke up about 4 hours later in Henan province, the scenery hadn’t changed. We soon arrived in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. It is a big industrial city, where big apartment blocks have power stations and factories as neighbours.
We travelled on through the afternoon and into the night. Passing towns with buildings up to 2500 years old next to ugly apartment blocks which had been built during the cultural revolution. More workers toiled in the fields lining the railway line, working hard, existing rather than living.
Dinner was purchased for ¥15 (around $2.50) from the trolley that passed through our sleeping car. We had rice, what appeared to be 2 slices of spam, pan fried celery, onion and garlic shoots. It was greasy, but passable, certainly better than anything on offer in the dining car.
22:00 and it was time for bed. I climbed the thin metal ladder to my top bunk. I put my shoes on the luggage rack, because I’ve been warned that thieves like to steal them during the night. The bright fluorescent tube directly above me was bright and the air conditioning duct noisy, but the gentle rocking of the train quickly sent me to sleep.
In the middle of the night, I woke up. I needed to face one of the scariest things on a Chinese train – the toilet! Toilets on conventional Chinese trains are stainless steel floored, squat toilets. Many are just an open hole in the floor of the car, so waste falls directly onto the tracks. They are rarely cleaned and the flush has a woefully inadequate flow. They are not nice places. In a hard sleeper, 2 toilets are shared between 66 people. I’m sure you can imagine the state of this one after 19 hours of travel time. Apart from my little nightmare, I slept well and awoke refreshed.
At around 08:15, we arrived at Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province. Compared with Jinan, Lanzhou is a dump. It’s a dirty, dusty, slum of a city which doesn’t appear to have much going for it. Gansu, in contrast is a province of great natural beauty, and when we stopped at Lanzhou station on the outskirts of the city, we were close to a beautiful mountain range.
We were close to being on time, and had 15 minutes to stretch our legs on the platform. Lanzhou is at an elevation of around 1600m above sea level and the air was cool, even on a summer’s morning. There was a flurry of activity at the station; vendors selling food and drinks on the platform, people loading and unloading luggage from the cars, various trains shunting or just passing through, diesel and electric locomotives moving around the locomotive depot.
Soon it was time to leave, and we were soon racing through the farmlands of eastern Gansu. Here, the crops did not seem as lush or bountiful as backing Jinan and Henan. This did not decrease the amount of farmers labouring in the fields.
A trolley came through the car, selling toys. Much to my horror, the mother of the Uighur children bought 2 particularly noisy toys which vibrated and played western style dance music. My only consolation was that the batteries would not last long. The noise from the toys was drowned out by the background noise of the train and I slept.
When I woke several hours later, we were deep in the desert. We were travelling along a flat, narrow plain between two mountain ranges. The farmland which had sided the line since leaving Jinan was gone, in fact there is very little growing here. We were in the southern part of the Gobi desert. The landscape is very similar to the Northern Territory or the Nullarbor Plain; flat, lifeless and no vegetation over about 10 cm high. It’s so similar, that could almost imagine I was there, until we passed through a village with buildings over 2000 years old.
The line was still electrified double track, but we were not passing trains quite as frequently as we were in Shandong or Hebei. We still passed one every 10 minutes or so, but goods trains now outnumbered passenger trains 4 to 1, with 3 of those being oil trains from the Xinjinag oilfields. Occasionally we overtook a goods train which has been refuged at a remote siding to allow our faster passenger train a clear run.
We passed through railway towns at regular intervals. These towns have a station, sleeping and recreation quarters, administrative quarters and a small rail yard full of track maintenance vehicles. These towns remind me of Australia’s old abandoned railway towns in South Australia and Northern Territory – just better organised and more permanent. The stations at these sidings only have Chinese characters on their sign boards.
The plain we were travelling on started undulating, then became mountainous. We passed over embankments and then through cuttings and finally through tunnels. Some of the tunnels are extremely long, and take more than 15 minutes to pass through; by estimating our speed and timing our duration inside the tunnels, it appears that some are more than 10km long.
We pause briefly at the towns of Qingshui, Juiquan and Jayuguan before arriving at Shulehe just after dinner (another dinner box purchased from the trolley) and again we have a few minutes to stretch our legs. Shulehe is a very small town in the desert; not much more than a train station, a few houses and a shop. We have now been travelling for 35 hours – another 13 to go.
The Uighur twins’ toys ran out of batteries shortly after Shulehe, allowing the carriage to prepare for sleep – the second night on this train. Again, I slept soundly, but I had to contend with the recurring nightmare of the toilet at the end of the carriage.
I woke as we were arriving at Turpan. Turpan is a dustbowl of a village, full of poor Uighurs. The village would probably not even make it onto the map if it wasn’t a major railway junction, and the only town for over 100km. The line to Kashi (Kashgar) branches off to the south-west here. We have been delayed by trackworks overnight and are running about 25 minutes late.
We pass through featureless desert for the next 2 hours, the Uighur twins are dismantling the now silent toys which were bought last night. The Han girl (traveling from Qingdao) practices her halting English with me, frequently stumbling and apologising for her lack of aptitude in the language. She was actually quite good at English, but lacked the confidence to speak.
We finally reached the outskirts of Urumqi. Because we are running late, we have lost our path and frequently stop to let other trains through. At each siding, there were soldiers, protecting against the threat of domestic terrorism from militant Uighurs.
We finally pulled into Urumqi station, 45 minutes late. A drop in the ocean compared with the 2 days we have travelled to reach here. Our journey over, we said goodbye to train 1085 and head out into the crowded station.