21 Sept 2019
I am lying supine on a hard bed, with a size just nice for my body to turn right and left a little.
It is past 9pm and I am on board a sleeper train that will transport us to Lijiang in the next nine hours.
I am in Compartment 21, cramped with a six-berth couchette. I am sleeping on the upper bunk. The ceiling is low that it is impossible to sit up straight.
The bed, although hard, feels comfortable. Maybe because I am just too tired. I have a pillow and a comforter.
Going up the top bunk is challenging and less comfortable. The little steps on the edge are a bit high that I have to step on someone else’s bed while trying to avoid stepping on my fellow ‘roomies’.
Outside the compartment, there is a socket installed in front of each sleeper room. First come, first served indeed. The train provides a hot water dispenser. There are open sink and shared toilets with no toilet paper.
How did I end up here?
I like to think the best time to travel from one Chinese city or district to another is in the evening. And, on a sleeper train if it involves a long journey.
This way, you save one-night accommodation.
According to travel websites, the distance between Kunming and Lijiang is about 517 kilometres. I travelled with a friend to Kunming in September 2019, to trek the Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) on the Haba Snow Mountain from Qiaotou.
To reach Qiaotou from Kunming city, one can opt to fly out or take a bus or take a train to Lijiang prefecture in the northwest. Thereafter, take a bus to Qiaotou.
My plan after arriving in Kunming in the wee hours is to tour the city first thing in the morning and take an overnight train in the evening to Lijiang.
After reading many travel blogs on the how-to, booking a sleeper train turned out to be pretty straightforward. It is advisable to book a ticket in advance. We purchased a roundtrip ticket via China Ticket Online website, a week prior to flying.
If you are taking the train from Kunming Railway Station, Kunming should be your departure point. Not Kunming South, not Kunming West. Select a train schedule and a sleeper.
Once paid, an e-voucher will be emailed to you and you are required to bring it, either hardcopy or electronic, to Kunming Railway Station to exchange your tickets.
When we arrived at the station, I was surprised by the tight security. There was a heavy police presence at every corner of the station.
I googled out of curiosity and learned there was a terrorist attack in 2014. Thirty-five people were killed and over 140 people injured. Most official news reported the authorities were blaming Uyghur Muslim separatists for the violence.
Since then, the police are stationed there to provide security.
Anyway, to go into the station compound you will need to go for a body and baggage check. This is similar to airport security screening. Then head to Counter 28 to get your train ticket. It is on the left side of the station after walking pass the luggage storage.
After that, scan your passport to get into the terminal.
Once in the terminal, you will find two departure halls – ground floor and first floor. Check the big screen to find your departure gate. The ground floor has only one check-in gate. Other gates will be on the first floor.
Because we had arrived four hours early, we went to the ground floor hall for a rest. There were not a lot of passengers and many seats were empty. There was a charging port (free to use) and a convenience store too.
One hour to boarding time, we headed to the first floor. Nothing interesting to note, except more shops and phone charging facilities. To charge, you will need to pay using Chinese WeChat or Alipay apps.
At the check-in gate, you will find locals lining up early (even 30-minute early) just to get to their train fast once the boarding announcement is made.
In one travel blog, a writer shared his experience of getting to his sleeper compartment a little late (imagine going through the crowd) and found someone else’s had taken over his bed. He also noted there was no use of claiming his bed as it would only lead to unnecessary arguments with the locals.
We, however, had a smooth experience from going through the check-in gate to finding our wagon and sleeper compartment. At the end of the day, it was a memorable overnight train experience and I slept like a log.