Ticket: US$403, bought 3 weeks before departure through www.vietnamimpressive.com
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 18:30 on Friday to 12:08 on Sunday
Actual departure/arrival time: 18:29, Friday to 12:38, Sunday
I had a day and a half in Hanoi before my direct train up to Beijing. A lot of it was spent under an A/C unit following my sweaty trip up Vietnam. Although I didn’t get out to see the museums or the water puppets, I had an enjoyable stay– wandering around the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, eating baguettes and exploring the atmospheric streets and alleys of the Old Quarter.
Life really takes place on the street here. Restaurants, bars, barbers, shops and children’s play areas all occupy the remaining pavement which doesn’t have scooters parked on it. On the roads the traffic is tremendous; to me it seems utterly chaotic, but I didn’t see any crashes or even near misses.
Crossing the road is an experience in itself as there are seemingly no pauses in the stream of vehicles. You just have to walk into the traffic slowly and steadily and rely on them to miss you. Problems arise if you stop and start in an unpredictable manner.
I left Hanoi main station on the twice-weekly 43 hour direct train to Beijing. It’s obvious there was a time when this was a popular route, with a separate large waiting room for international travellers. Today I had it to myself.
I was taken down to the train, where there were only two carriages– one of which was closed off. When we departed, I realised there would be only 3 passengers on the train plus about 6 staff. The train we took to the border was old and shabby, and I was glad to hear that we would change onto a better train at the border.
My fellow passengers included a Professor who taught Vietnamese at a Chinese University in Guilin. His phone ringtone was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. He said it was a famous old Vietnamese song. Did Mr Oldfield have a trip to Vietnam before that hit?
Excitingly, there was a fellow traveller who was going from Singapore to London also on board. He was a Japanese medical student on a summer break inspired by one of my favourite websites, Seat 61. He got off at Guilin as well but will be heading to Russia on the same train as me, so perhaps I’ll meet him again.
We arrived at the ominously lit Dong Dang border crossing at 10:30, and were ushered off the train past tens of blue-shirted railway employees into a cavernous immigration building. It all seemed out-of-place considering there were only the three of us to process. However, the numerous dark green uniformed immigration officials set to work and we were taken back to the new Chinese train by 10:50.
This train was a real step up, with bigger cabins, great A/C, working lights and a bed long enough for me to lie flat on. The other big difference from the trains I had been on so far was the noise. Once we were moving it was really quiet.
Once again I had a 4-berth cabin to myself as the other two guys were put next door to me. I soon had a knock on the door and it was the light green uniformed Chinese immigration who come onto the train to do the necessary. They take your passport away and then return it stamped about 40 minutes later.
At 06:15 we were awoken when we arrived at Nanjing station and were asked to leave the train. But we could leave our luggage on board as the train was being shunted. The three of us were led to another large waiting room and told to wait for an hour or so. You can get a pass to go and get cash from an ATM during that time, which I did.
The train station was heaving with people, considering the time on a Saturday morning. I am not the norm here, judging by the number of stares or occasional hello, followed by giggles if I said hello back on the short walk to the ATM. It felt great to be in China, sixth country on my trip and first one I hadn’t visited before!
At 07:30 we were led back to the train with loads of new Chinese passengers joining the trip. Our carriages had been attached to countless others going up to Beijing. However, I kept the 4 berth cabin to myself and fell back asleep.
Throughout the day we travelled through some great scenery and ugly architecture. It was very mountainous and we were often plunged into darkness as we passed through tunnels cutting through the rock. The train only stopped at major cities every couple of hours. So lots of time to read and observe the world go by.
By the evening I had run out of instant noodles so went in search of some food. After miming to the guard, I found that the restaurant cart was just two carriages down. It was busy and loud with lots people eating, drinking and smoking. As expected there was no English so had to point to dishes other people were eating to order. Ended up a happy man with some good chicken, veg and rice plus a very good barley beer, all for about $6. The beer was very cheap so took a couple back to my cabin. Later on I bought a set meal from a station platform. The rice was fine but whatever the protein was, (fish maybe?) it was foul. That went in the bin quickly.
After a good night’s sleep travelling north, the countryside had changed. There were now fields of corn rather than rice and forest not jungle. It had also flattened out with no more rocky outcrops. Still plenty of ugly buildings.
The train arrived 30 minutes late in Beijing, which I have the next few days to explore. Oh and here is a photo for Mr Gilchrist who wanted a shot of me looking out of a window in a Palinesque fashion.