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

An attendant waits for the Shenzhen to Shanghai train to depart.

Mitch Moxley for The Globe and Mail/mitch moxley The Globe and Mail

By 7 a.m., the train is alive. Old men climb from their berths, stretch and yawn. Young women shuffle to the steel sinks at the end of the car to brush their teeth. The televisions mounted to the walls of each cabin are soon turned on - at full volume - playing a low-budget Chinese historical epic. Before long, the grumpy attendants are back pushing carts down the aisle, selling fruit, toothbrushes and fried chicken in vacuum-sealed packages.

Sleep is futile. Outside my window is southern China's Guanxi province. As staccato images of rocky outcroppings, rice paddies and half-built brick homes flash by, I roll out of bed and mix myself a robust cup of instant coffee I'd brought with me.

Rule No. 1 of Chinese train travel: Bring coffee.

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"A train isn't a vehicle," Paul Theroux wrote in Riding the Iron Rooster, his 1988 book about train travel in China. "A train is part of the country. It's a place."

He wasn't kidding. In China, people don't ride a train - they live it. The minute a train pulls from the station, sunflower seeds are chewed, card games played and tea endlessly gulped. Passengers sleep away the hours as if on vacation, chat with strangers or gaze out the window at the passing world. Riding the rails isn't just a way to travel China; it's a way to experience it. And it's becoming much easier and more comfortable to do so.

Until the late 1980s, China relied on steam-powered relics to transport citizens and goods around its vast territory. Today, it is home to the largest high-speed rail network in the work, with 6,900 kilometres of track. Last year alone, China spent $82.4-billion on rail construction, and it plans to add 16,000 kilometres of capacity by 2020. It already has 2,000 kilometres of routes that can run at top speeds of 350 kilometres an hour, with much more to come. The country hopes not only to connect prosperous coastal cities to the remote west, but also envisions lines beginning in China and stretching across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

To put China's growing rail network to the test, I recently set out on a 10-day journey by train from Beijing to the southern tip of China, and back again.

Despite Beijing traffic's best effort to stop me, I make the 28-hour Beijing-to-Guilin train minutes before our 8:58 a.m. departure. I'm soon resting on the middle berth of a second-class compartment, called a "hard sleeper." The beds are almost as comfortable as in first class - a "soft sleeper" - but each cabin has six berths and no door, which makes for a lively trip.

A gritty city in Hebei province rolls by as I read Theroux's book and pick at a supply of ham, cheese, crackers and fruit I've brought with me in order to put off consuming the gruel generally served in Chinese dining cars. (Rule No. 2: Bring snacks.)

I'm soon distracted by an old lady snoring on the berth across from me. On Chinese trains, noise is constant. There's elevator music, crackling loudspeaker announcements, people babbling on cellphones and folks clearing their throats and horking. Reminding myself that it's all part of the experience, I put on my iPod, dig into my book and let the hours drift away.

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For dinner, I head to the dining car for a meal of stewed cabbage and rice with a bowl of chicken soup, washed down by a bottle of Snow beer. I'm back in my bunk for lights out at 10 p.m. Some passengers have already been asleep for hours. Others, like two men in my cabin, seem to have no plans to sleep at all. I read to the light of my cheap cellphone and prepare for sleep by removing from my bag earplugs, an eye mask and sleeping pills. (Rules No. 3, 4 and 5.)

We pull in to Guilin in early afternoon the next day. I immediately rush to the ticket office to buy a ticket for my next destination two days later. In China, train tickets can be purchased only from the departure city - an annoyance that often results in a mad scramble to buy return tickets as soon as a train pulls into the station.

From Guilin, I hop on a public bus to Yangshuo Valley, just over an hour out of town.

"There is a Chinese conundrum," Theroux writes in Riding the Iron Rooster. "If a place has a reputation for being beautiful, the Chinese flock to it, and its beauty is disfigured by the crowd."

This is the case at Yangshuo. The area is known for its misty karst peaks, which have been depicted on Chinese landscape paintings for centuries. But it's not the chill-backpacker hangout it once was. I arrive as the Mid-Autumn Festival is kicking off, and the once-quaint town is shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, despite non-stop rain.

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.

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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.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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