First road trip, part one: sleeper trains

Three of my coworkers invited me on a trip this weekend to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, northeast of Shenyang, near North Korea. Transportation being what it is in this part of China, getting there and back was half of the adventure.

Here’s a rough map of the region and route:

shenyang to yanji map 1

You can’t get directly to Yanbian from Shenyang. We had to take a train north from Shenyang to Changchun, then another train east to Yanbian.

The train to Changchun was a high-speed train, very fast (140 mph) and comfortable. That leg took less than two hours.


Changchun train station at night


High-speed train

Once we got to Changchun, we had to switch to a slower train. The only seats available were what is called “hard sleep.” Each train car is divided into compartments, with six narrow bunk beds per compartment. I got the top bunk. Luckily for me, I am in good physical shape, so climbing up and down wasn’t difficult.


It’s a looooong way down!

The narrow hallway in the train car has small stools that fold down from the side of the car, so if your roommate is snoring or farting, you can sit out and look out the window. There is also a luggage rack. I had the feeling that I was in a submarine.


Corridor in hard sleep train car

On the way back, we managed to get “soft sleep” tickets. Compartments only have four bunks instead of six, and the beds are softer. there is a HUGE difference between hard sleep and soft sleep.


My soft sleep bunk.


Soft sleep corridor

The trains between Changchun and Yanbian are older and slower than the high-speed rail. The tracks can’t handle the high-speed trains. The second leg covered only a little more ground that the first leg, but it took about eight hours, instead of the two hours for the high-speed train. We managed to sleep on the train, but it was uncomfortable sleep.

The train ride was uncomfortable for a number of reasons. One cause of discomfort was the smell of second-hand smoke. High-speed trains are smoke-free, but the sleeper trains aren’t. Smoking is a lot more common among Chinese people than among Americans, and smoking isn’t restricted to the extent that it is the U.S. Even though they try to limit where people smoke, in an enclosed space, if one person smokes, everyone smokes with him. Another cause of discomfort was the lavatory. Imagine the scariest place to relieve yourself, then make it three times more stinky.

My fellow travelers were great companions, and we made the best of it. Compared to a cross-pacific plane ride, it was better to be able to lie down and stretch out than to have to try to get comfortable in a narrow airplane seat. If they could ban smoking, and get better toilets, the quality of travel would increase a lot.

To be continued…

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