At 121,000 kilometres, the Chinese rail network is the second-longest in the world, offering ample and cheap travel opportunities for those living and working in the Middle Kingdom. China trains go all over the country and come in various speeds and classes, meaning there's a railway journey for all persuasions and pockets. Here I list three of my favourites.
"You can always fool a foreigner" is the Chinese saying that inspired travel writer Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, first published in 1988. Theroux was determined to prove that he was a foreigner who would not be fooled by travelling extensively on China's trains.
And travel extensively he did. In fact, he even travelled to China from London solely by train, making his way across Europe and Russia before finally arriving in the Middle Kingdom.
Of course, most of us don't have the same level of enthusiasm as Theroux, and neither do you need it in order to enjoy travelling on China trains.
The first thing I appreciate about train travel in China is the price of tickets, which tend to be far lower than those in developed countries. In addition to saving money, however, travelling on China trains also allows for the opportunity to engage with people from all echelons of Chinese society.
The more affluent middle-class families and business people tend to take the faster and higher-priced high-speed trains, while those with less disposable income, such as the migrant workers I met travelling from Guangzhou to Guizhou, tend to take the slower and cheaper varieties.
Travelling by train in China is, in short, a convenient, cheap and somewhat authentic experience. Below are three journeys I recommend, each with something unique to offer.
Guangzhou to Hong Kong
Short and sweet is probably a good way to sum up this two-hour journey. Since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, links between the territory and the mainland have increased. One such link is the high-speed rail line that takes passengers directly from Guangzhou East Railway station to Hong Hum station in the centre of Hong Kong.
The line is particularly popular with tourists and those who do business between Hong Kong and mainland China. However, be aware when taking this journey that, what is for practical purposes, an international border still exists, so be sure to arrive early to allow time for immigration.
I first made this journey during Chinese National Week in October 2014. What I found in Hong Kong was a clean, orderly and cosmopolitan city with a convenient public transport system, great food and buzzing nightlife.
A far cry from the city centre is the greenery and calm of the New Territories, just south of the border from neighbouring Shenzhen. I recently had the opportunity to visit the New Territories. The temples and overwhelming quiet in the small villages dispel the myth that Hong Kong is a "concrete jungle."
Travelling between the Hong Kong and Guangzhou is set to become even faster in the future, as a new line is to open between Guangzhou South station and Hong Kong's Kowloon district. At 260 HKD (33 USD), some have, however, criticised ticket prices as extortionate. For those who value time over money though, the new line is no doubt a welcome development.
For those who value idyllic scenery, however, the 48-minute journey offers less time to appreciate the view from the train window than it's slower (although still very speedy) counterpart.
Guangzhou to Kunming
My first experience of taking an overnight train in China involved departing at around 10pm from Guangzhou and sitting in a hard seat until our arrival at around 7am in Changsha the following morning. A "hard seat" is essentially the lowest class for overnight trains in China. You can read more about the different classes here.
The next morning I was awakened not by the gentle "click clack" of the tracks, but by an attendant who thought it was a good time to sell laundry detergent.
I told myself "never again," and yet somehow I ended up on a 26-hour journey from Guangzhou to Kunming - the capital of Yunnan province - six months later. But there was one key difference. This time my travelling companions and I had splashed out on a "soft sleeper".
With its clean air, cobbled backstreets and hipster-like feel, Yunnan province is a popular holiday destination. This was reflected by the passengers aboard the train. We mingled with several young college students and a family with young children, all of whom were heading to Yunnan for their summer break.
The line passed through Guangxi and Guizhou provinces which, along with Yunnan, are among the poorest in China. What they lack in wealth, however, is more than made up for in natural beauty.
The train frequently passes through small rural villages nestled next to waterfalls and sheer rock faces. The category K-train is a prolonged journey, but as an upside it offers passengers more time to enjoy the view.
Urumqi to Kashgar
This route runs from Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the upper northwest of the country, to the city of Kashgar, close to the border with Tajikistan.
In some ways the geography reflects the culture of the region. An American blogger who lives in the Xinjiang region described Kashgar as the "gateway to central Asia". Indeed, the city is closer to the Iranian capital Tehran than Beijing.
Many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Uzbeks, identify more strongly with central Asian Islamic culture than with that of the majority Han Chinese. As such, the train from Urumqi to Kashgar offers travellers an alternative China experience.
I took this train from Urumqi's South Station with some colleagues during the October National Week of 2015. Like the trip to Yunnan I had done the previous year, the 26-hour journey made sleeping compartments a necessity.
The ethnic makeup of passengers on the train was somewhat reflective of the region as a whole. Shortly after having boarded, a Han Chinese man introduced himself to the passengers sat next to him. The young Uyghur girl looked up at him shyly. He leaned over and told her not to be worried, before greeting her in Mandarin, Uyghur and English. He was later seen dancing to Uyghur music - a good advert for ethnic integration in the region.
In stark contrast to the greenery of Hong Kong's New Territories and the rural villages of southwest China, the train from Urumqi to Kashgar offers views of the Taklamakan desert. Mile-upon-mile of neatly formed sand dunes make up a significant part of the route.
After arriving in Kashgar we were reminded very quickly of the region's tight security. The Xinjiang region has seen incidents of unrest in recent years due to tensions between the Han Chinese and the Muslim ethnic minorities.
The Chinese government has made security a priority, which means that military personnel are on the streets and random ID checks are not uncommon. Visitors should always carry their passport and be prepared to undergo a thorough security check at train stations. For the most part, however, this should not have a major impact on your trip.
With its history as a renowned city on the ancient Silk Road, Kashgar attracts tourists from all parts of China and beyond. Travellers can expect to find foreigner-friendly youth hostels and hotels, night markets with traditional Uyghur cuisine and natural scenery in the Taklamakan desert, including Tian Men (Shipton's Arch), the tallest natural arch in the world.
Culturally and historically, Kashgar is a valuable asset to China, and one well worth a visit.
Your carriage awaits
Having experienced China trains first-hand, I have come to learn that my limit is about 30 hours per journey. I therefore have no ambitions to emulate Paul Theroux and travel endlessly for months. Many of you probably feel the same way.
As long as you are clued up on where and when to get off, don't mind sleeping in a carriage with strangers and are willing to put up with the odd crying baby, China trains are for you. They really can take you anywhere, and if you're not one for long journeys, there's good news. The high-speed network is already 16,000 km in length, and the government has plans to expand it further.
So whether you want to see the cosmopolitan city centre of Hong Kong, the lush scenery or Kunming or the central Asian culture of Xinjiang, your Middle Kingdom carriage awaits.
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