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An attendant waits for the Shenzhen to Shanghai train to depart. (Mitch Moxley for The Globe and Mail/Mitch Moxley for The Globe and Mail)
An attendant waits for the Shenzhen to Shanghai train to depart. (Mitch Moxley for The Globe and Mail/Mitch Moxley for The Globe and Mail)

In China, people don't just ride a train - they live it Add to ...

On the advice of friends, I had booked a room at the Yangshuo Outside Inn, a guest house owned by a Dutch family in a village four kilometres outside town. From here, the calm and beauty of Yangshuo Valley can be appreciated as it should be. I spend the next day and a half cycling through the hills, perusing modest villages and taking dips in the lovely Yulong River.

Despite a stomach bug I pick on my last day in Yangshuo, I'm soon on a 12-hour night train destined for Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, this time in first class, which features four berths to a compartment and a door that locks. Still, sleep is fitful.

The train pulls into the Pearl River Delta metropolis once known as Canton shortly after dawn. On this trip, I decide to give Guangzhou a miss and continue down the line to nearby Shenzhen. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village. Today, thanks to its status as a Special Economic Zone, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, home to almost nine million people. The average age in Shenzhen is less than 30 years old. The city is dazzling in its newness.

I stay with my friend Michael Standaert, a 36-year-old American journalist who recently located here from Beijing. We sit on his 27th-floor balcony in the expatriate enclave of Shekou on a warm September evening, sipping homemade mojitos and admiring the sprawling skyline as the sun sets. Immediately below us is at least a kilometre of reclaimed land - upscale apartments, shopping malls, restaurants and bars. Across the water is Hong Kong.

I decide to make the most of my only full day in Shenzhen by doing absolutely nothing. Mike and I head to Queen Spa, an absurdly lavish complex downtown, for five hours of saunas, hot tubs and massages - good preparation for another long day on the train.

The 18-hour T212 from Shenzhen to Shanghai is newer and cleaner than the other trains I'd taken, with sit-down toilets (a rarity) and crisp white sheets. I meet a traveller from England and we have tea in the dining car and admire the green hills and crumbling villages outside. Later, I flip through magazines in a soft sleeper I share with a young family heading home for the National Day holiday. Their adorable son plays children's games on a brand-new iPad.

Shortly after sunrise, the attendant opens the door to tell us we'll soon be arriving in Shanghai. After spending nearly 60 hours on trains in six days, I decide to indulge. I have a room booked at URBN, an upscale boutique hotel near Jing'an Temple. URBN was designed by the Canadian-owned firm A00 Architecture and is China's first carbon-neutral hotel. Everything used in its construction was locally sourced. But more importantly for me at this point, it's got comfortable beds.

Shanghai is the rarest of Chinese cities in that it's pedestrian-friendly and the best way to see it is to walk. I set off from URBN to People's Square, down the pedestrian thoroughfare Nanjing Road to the recently restored Bund, where I snap photos of the Pudong skyline, hidden somewhat by haze. Later, I have a drink at a pub on a leafy street in the French Concession.

I wake the next day at 5:45 a.m. to catch the fast train to Beijing, the last leg of my journey. At the station, I present my ticket to the attendant and notice there's no seat number.

"Where's my seat?" I ask.

"No seat," the attendant says. "Standing room."

Rule No. 6: Double-check your ticket.

I won't try to sugar-coat what it's like riding in standing room on a Chinese train. It sucks. For the first few hours, I find an empty seat and doze off, but by the time we pull into Nanjing station, still nine hours from my destination, the train is full, and passengers continue to pile in at every stop. For a while, I find room on the floor between cars, and later head to the snack car, where I'm able to find a spot leaning against a table. I spend several hours practising Chinese characters.

There's a certain solidarity that develops among the seatless passengers. As the only foreigner without a seat, I'm soon a minor celebrity on the train, with a line of people asking me to help them with their English or wanting to take a photo with the unfortunate white guy.

By the time the train arrives at the station in Beijing, my back is in knots. But no worries. I've got in mind the great Chinese cure-all: A cheap massage.

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