We took a train from Xi'an to Suzhou. It was a 15 hr trip. Departed at 8pm and arriving at 11am. G Adventures likes to provide authentic experiences and not just touristy activities. This was certainly was one of those "real"experiences. One I am glad to have done but not one I ever need to repeat.
Ricky our G Adventure guide, did his best to prepare us for this experience. He explained there are different types of fares. Soft sleepers have 4 bunks to a compartment and curtains to provide some privacy. Hard sleepers have 6 bunks in each compartment with no privacy curtains. The hard sleepers have ten compartments with 6 bunks are in each coach. There are also seats for sale and standing room only seats. We have the hard sleepers. As well, the New Years celebrations are just over and many people are returning home. It is going to be very busy. To get to the train, we will take the subway and then walk the remaining distance. And....because of all the people traveling at this time we were not able to get into the same coaches. The 17 of us are spread between 5 or 6 coaches. No one is in the same compartment!!!! Coach 7 has six of us on it (6 of the 60 people). I'm on lucky number 6.
G Adventures recommends travellers have light luggage because the tours frequently move and often use local transportation. All 16 of us started with limited luggage. ...but....the 6 Irish ladies were in Bejing for a couple of days before the tour started. They shopped: some of them needed to buy larger suitcases. They had to lug these large suitcases in and out of the subways, up and down staircases, among the people on the street. No complaints were hear - the items in the suitcases were important. Lol
Ricky led the group waving his purple flag hoping that would be enough to keep us together. We stopped and regrouped a couple of times. The closer we got to the train station, the more chaotic it got. When we made it into the train station, Ricky had a look on his face that I hadn't seen before - the unflappable Ricky looked like he didn't think we would make it through. After a few moments he said he was going to try to get a private waiting room for us for an additional 10 yuan each.
Ricky was successful in making the purchase for the waiting room and we proceeded to the train hotel. Up the stairs to the second floor. Down the halls past filled to the brim private waiting rooms. The halls were filled with people. We eventually ended up at the end of the hall in a dimly lit area. It reminded me of a old black and white movie from the depression. Eventually we got small stools to sit on. In addition to the private waiting room the 10 yuan provided early boarding. When we were given the advanced notice we started though the crowded halls, down the stairs to the loading dock. We arrived there at about the same time general boarding started. I've added two pictures here one without the flash just so you can see how dim it was.
We all found our bunks. I'm on the bottom bunk with 5 Chinese men in the same compartment. On each bunk is a reasonably clean comforter and pillow. A very thin mattress is on each bunk. There is a rail on the middle and top bunk. I'm assuming a rail is necessary to prevent someone from falling out given the bunk is so narrow you can't turn over. Each coach has one squat toilet, one sink available in a common area with two small brown hand towels. Small carts with food and drinks are regularly pushed through the train. I'm choosing not to eat or drink anything (one squat toilet).
Kirsten, my new Scottish friend, was assigned the bunk just around the corner. We effectively managed to trade bunks with the fellow in my compartment with the bottom bunk, so Kirsten was able to move in across from me. Sophie, the sweet Aussie with beautiful platinum hair, gave up her bottom bunk, in a trade for the middle bunk with us.
Haydn, Sophie's partner and Stephen, Kirsten's partner and Tak from Toronto (Tak and Dorothy are on their honeymoon and are not in the same coach) joined us to sit on the bottom bunks. We sat, shared stories for hours. The lights went out at 10pm but as no one indicated we had to stop talking we just continued to talk. Sophie then decided to get into her bunk. This provided us with amusement as she couldn't decide whether to go head first or feet first or just slide in sideways. Eventually she made it and very quickly fell asleep. Soon Kirsten and I fell asleep. The guys had moved to the fold down seats attached to the side of the train. They continued to sit and talk until the beer cart quit coming around.
They each went to their bunks. Haydn found someone sleeping in his bed. He took a picture of the guy and then woke him up and got his bunk back.
The next day we discussed the different experiences we all had. Someone indicated he went to his bunk only to find people sitting on it eating chicken legs. Some mentioned the snoring, coughing, spitting and other sounds. Allen, the American in our group, had three generations in his compartment including a 6 mth old baby. Overall there were no serious concerns. Some noted they had a good sleep. All in all - this was a fun experience because I got to share it with some good people - it most likely would have been a different experience if I had no one to speak to in English for 15 hours.