Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

A passenger in the hard sleeper car on the train from Chengdu to Lanzhou January 23, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Train number: K-1058, from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Xining in Qinghai province, a cumulative 1,528 kilometres.

Number of stops: Sixteen, including ours, Lanzhou (the capital of Gansu province), 1,219 kilometres from Chengdu.

Duration: Our trip, if it ever ends, will take 21 hours and 14 minutes. Those carrying on to Xining will be on the rails for 24 hours and 29 minutes.

Story continues below advertisement

Wow. That's a long time: Ironically, the K stands for kuai, which means "fast." There were slower trains available.

Number of cars on K-1058: 16

Number of passengers: 1,516, if it were full. Forty "soft sleeper" bunks (four people to a cabin with a door you can close, 396 "hard sleepers" (six to a semi-closed cabin), 1,080 seats. If those are sold out, most trains accept standing room passengers who sleep wherever they can find a space. Mercifully, our train was less than full.

Cost of a "soft sleeper" bunk: 398 yuan (or $63.42).

Cost of a hard seat: 168 yuan ($26.77), half that price if you're a student or senior.

My cabinmates: a young couple travelling home to Xining, in Qinghai province, for Spring Festival. She was obviously pregnant, and made her first trip to the squat toilet before the train even began its 27-hour journey. He had brought along an entire hamper of groceries to keep her and baby-to-be fed.

John Lehmann's cabinmate: A recently retired machinery operator also returning home to Xining, after checking out whether she can afford to retire in Chengdu. Xining is on the windy Tibetan Plateau, Chengdu is in the relatively balmy south. It's the Chinese equivalent of an Edmontonian planning to spend their golden years in Victoria.

Story continues below advertisement

People in the next cabin: Four portly men from Lanzhou, one of whom has a Communist Party pin on his lapel. They loudly talked about the possibility of war with Japan – over a quintet of tiny, uninhabited islands that Tokyo controls but Beijing claims – even before they started drinking baijiu, a harsh rice liquor that smells like paint thinner. One of them told me that the People's Liberation Army has eight regional headquarters and the troops in any one of those regions could handle Japan on their own.

What does it sound like? The train sounds like, well, an old Chinese train, tilting and screeching through the night. But the guys in the next room are somehow drowning it out. One of them seems to be having a serious disagreement with the wall, occasionally hitting it for reasons that confuse those of us on the other side.

What does it smell like? Cigarettes. We're near the dining car, which has turned into the smokers' lounge despite the nice new "No Smoking" signs on the wall. It doesn't help that the train staff are among those lighting up.

A dining car! What's the food like? We had a dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes that wasn't too bad, and a plate of beef and greens that looked like it had been cooked 24 hours and 29 minutes ago. Beer was 5 yuan per can, which is suspiciously cheap. Tasted fine though.

What else was on the menu? I'd like to tell you, but they snatched my menu away when I started writing things down.

What? Yep, apparently the rest of the menu is a state secret. Police riding the train also intervened to stop John from filming me eating my scrambled eggs.

Story continues below advertisement

Maybe they were just trying to spare you years of embarrassment. That's possible.

But why would they care? Hard to say. At one point, the train staff pulled Yu Mei, The Globe and Mail's news assistant, aside and asked her to stop showing the foreigners "the dark side of China." They apparently meant the poor people in hard seats, since they tried very hard to keep us from going into the third-class cars.

Was it that bad in third class? Nope. It was filled with students playing cards who seemed pleased to chat with a foreigner.

So? Why did the staff get all Cold War on you? Maybe they thought we were going to write a report on people smoking on the train and how bad the beef and greens were.

You sort of just did. They inspired me.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies