Day 5: Beijing to Tangshan , The train to Manzhouli

I sit in the corridor and look out the window.
The repetitive view was preferable to my cramped and smelly bunk.

I’d love to actually see something of Beijing, but I’m worried about what will happen if my bike gets to Manzhouli before I do.

It’s sad to leave because I’m now quite friendly with the staff of the Peking Youth Hostel. They’re the Chinese people that I’ve seen most often.

One of the girls gives me a Pac-Man postcard, full of Chinese writing. I have no idea what it says, or what it says about our relationship. I hope that I can get it translated when I return to China in a few months time.

It seems rude to just leave them, but my train is calling. So I rush out the door, knowing that I’ll probably never see them again.

Clutching my remaining possessions, I catch the subway to the railway station.

I already have my train ticket and have consulted the China Highlights website for instructions about how to read it.

At the station, I double check with an attendant who points me to the correct waiting hall. But the sign at the entrance indicates that two trains are leaving from here.

After a quick toilet break I sit down with the other travellers. As the minutes pass, some people start to leave the room. I become increasingly worried that the people that are left are waiting for another train.

Eventually I decide to see where all the departing people are going. I am surprised to find that they are going to my train and that I am one of the last to board! Phew!

At 10:15 we leave Beijing.

I’m on the K1301. It’s a ‘slow’ train, the ‘K’ rating indicating a maximum speed of 120km/h. But it seems pretty fast to me.

I’m booked in a hard sleeper. I expect the worst but the bunks are actually quite comfortable. They are wide enough for a person, but too narrow for this person who is too scared to part with all of his stuff. I battle for space with my solar panel full of electronics, my helmet, my Camelbak, and my tent. I try to convert the last two into pillows, but it’s not the most comfortable setup.

The bunks are stacked in threes. The ones at the bottom double as sofas, the ones in the middle are for cheap bastards like me, and the ones at the top are for people who embrace claustrophobia.

An elderly lady heads for a top bunk. A younger relative gives her a helpful push in the backside. Another straddles the gap to get to her luggage and it feels like we’re living in a Big Top circus tent.

The train moves away from the platform and we’re off.

Smells of instant noodles and cigarettes waft past, as passengers rehydrate their cardboard food in the Drinking Water Roher Room.

I have my own stash of food, purchased from the station shop before departure. Mystery alcohol, peanut caramel biscuits, eight mini muffins, salty dried kiwifruit and peaches, plus the obligatory noodles and a thick length of spicy sausage.

I am quite proud of my experimental stash. But the half eaten meat and fruit make poor bedfellows and soon my bunk reeks of bad food choices.

I’d love a shower, though I’d settle for a number two. But I still haven’t solved the riddle of where all the used toilet paper goes to die.

Thankfully the cabin sound system is playing gently cascading piano music, which takes the edge off my claustrophobia.

But I don’t fancy lying down for the next two days, so I take the tiny fold-down dining seat in the hall. Unfortunately it faces the wrong way to people watch and I’m continuously angling my gangly legs out of everyone’s way.

But at least I can see the scenery.

Power pylons, cable spaghetti, clusters of high rise buildings and long bridges carrying high speed trains. And then odd, multicoloured architecture using all the left-over pastels. Communistic toy-towns described in logograms of high intensity housing. Then suddenly farmland, corn and far off hedges.

And then, rinse and repeat.

Another metropolis looms on the horizon. It reminds me of that first day in the aeroplane. Looking down on a mystic smog blanket punctuated only by a patchwork of city centres. How many cities are there exactly?

And now, the low rise suburbs of the next city. But here, each abode has its own solar panel and is enrobed in its own greenery. It reminds me of the hutong in Beijing.

And now we’re in another city, with another cluster of high rises. These ones are unfinished but already 40 stories tall.

I’m learning a little Chinese with the little Chinese Skill app.

I like it. It tests from many angles, aural, written, comprehension and revision. But with no data plan much of the app is unusable.

I find some common phrases and practice these until my battery dips to 16%. There’s not a power point in sight.

Later we stop briefly at Tangshan Railway Station.

It strikes me that this place is kind of like The Hutt.

The city centre is built around the trading port and the harbour. Railway lines connect the satellite cities. These settlements extend out as far out as is necessary to accommodate and contain the population.

It gets dark around dinner time. I have a digestive sip of the mystery alcohol, from its squat green hip flask. It tastes pretty good, a bit like sake. But a glance at the bottle tells me that I should be careful – it’s 56%!