Trip Report – China Railways train K596

  • Train origin: Urumqi
  • Train destination: Hangzhou
  • Train distance: 4168 km
  • Travel Time: 57:14
  • Joined train at: Urumqi
  • Left train at: Liuyuan
  • My distance: 825 km
  • My travel time: 10:22

Urumqi railway station seemed less crowded and chaotic this morning, or perhaps I was just becoming used to Chinese railway stations. We put our bags through the x-ray and entered the station. ID cards were being checked by the police inside the station, but we were waved through with a smile ad the cry of “Low Wai” (foreigner).

Soon we were on board our train. As with train 1085, it was first generation air-conditioned stock (25G), painted red and silver, with an orange stripe just below the window line. This train was 19 cars long; 9 cars of hard sleepers, 1 car of soft sleepers, 3 cars of soft seats, 3 cars of hard seats, 1 restaurant car, 1 power car and 1 luggage van.

Our travelling companions were another family – full Han this time. Grandma, Mum, Dad and baby daughter. They were travelling to Hami where Grandma lives. Grandma will look after the baby girl permanently, while the parents return to work in Urumqi. They will only have the opportunity to visit their daughter once a month, such is life in rural China.

We departed on time (11:35) and were soon out of Urumqi. We travel on through the desert, past massive wind farms, the turbines to numerous to count. There are also some solar power stations, but they are small compared to the huge wind farms, covering many square kilometres.

One oddity about Chinese trains that I haven’t mentioned is that although road traffic in China keeps to the right, Chinese trains generally use the left hand line in the direction of travel. This is possibly due to the Japanese influence in early Chinese railway development.

When we arrived at Hami, it was announced that we will be stopping for about 10 minutes. I left the train to stretch my legs and take some photographs. As I was leaving the train, there was a huge surge of people trying to board my car. It was explained to me that many people boarding here look for an empty berth to claim. It can be very difficult to buy a sleeping berth at the railway booking office, but there is the possibility of upgrading on the train (and possession is 9/10 of the law). The station bell rings and whistles are blown. I find myself at the wrong end of the train, so I board another carriage. The carriage’s conductor looks annoyed when I show my boarding card for another car, but lets me on anyway.

I have boarded one of the hard seat carriages and the scene that greets me makes me think of a Dickensian tavern; the lowest in society all laughing and being merry together. There is some gambling over cards, and some good natured arguments, always on the verge of erupting into something more serious. The seats are vinyl, and the odour of sweat is in the air. The carriage is uncomfortably warm, but everyone seems to be happy just to be on the train. Despite the jovial atmosphere, I’m relieved when I arrive back in the cool, fresh air of the sleeping car.

After Hami, we have new people in the bunks around us. We tell them that we are going to Dunhuang an they tell us all about it. The Internet has told us that we can get a bus from Liuyuan (our destination today). They tell us that they don’t know of any bus, most people take a taxi. One old lady says “You must visit Dunhuang once in your life. If you don’t you’ll regret it forever”. Her cynical friend beside her speaks up and says “Yes, but if you do go, you’ll regret it twice as much”. They all laugh.

Our train speeds on through the Gansu desert, passing minor oilfields and wind farms (and not much else). We are scheduled to arrive at Liuyuan just before 10pm, so after another dinner from the food trolley I retire to my top bunk and sleep. Actually, I attempt to sleep, but the conversation in our carriage is to loud, so I read instead.

We arrive at Liuyuan on time, and leave the train. The train takes on water here, so I have time to snap some pictures before the train departs. As the whistles are blowing and bells are ringing for the train to depart, an anxious looking maintenance worker rushes up to me and yells something whilst pointing to the train. I presume he is telling me to get on, but I placate him by pointing to the platform and saying “Zolah” (finished). He nods his head and goes back to whatever it was he was doing before he noticed the crazy Low-Wai who was about to miss his train.

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