Over the next five hours, we stood in torturously long and slow moving lines towards tiny ticket windows. The ground littered with people’s forgotten garbage, year old dirt and saliva, the air riddled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke. We waited in these lines on three separate occasions as people around us screamed at others for cutting in line, and stood uncomfortably close to us. Talk about culture shock. Arriving at the correct window, we found there were only three tickets left for the four of us leaving tonight. No other trains, no other busses, or any other means of transportation to our next destination. We made the quick decision to spend the night in Guangzhou, and purchased four tickets on tomorrow’s night train to Zhangjiajie.
While studying in Hong Kong, we get quite a few more breaks in the school year than our home universities offer us, so my good friends Sanna, Miranda, Pamela, and I decided to take advantage of our time off, and take on the terrifyingly vast country of China for our next backpacking adventure. With minimal planning, and minimal Mandarin skills, we packed our backpacks and boarded a train for a week and half of discovery.
We started with catching Hong Kong’s MTR up to the LoWu station. At this station you can cross over into the Chinese mainland city of Shenzhen, and out of the special administrative region that is Hong Kong. Once crossing the border we stood in a long line so that we could grab the next train to our first destination – Guangzhou. If you’re planning on taking this journey, I recommend stopping in Shenzhen, but we’d already seen it on separate occasions, so it was off to new sights.
Speeding down the railroad at 160 km/h the Chinese country-side whizzed by. Little did we know that this speedy train was actually one of the slower ones in China… Canada, step your game up. The train was efficient friendly, and quick; perfectly juxtaposing our next experience – the Guangzhou railway station.
We found a hotel online, and after a dispute with the front desk over whether or not they were a hotel, with a little Mandarin magic from Pamela, we checked in to our apartment complete with a kitchenette and a washer/dryer.
The next morning we explored the city with the help of our new friend Phoebe, one of Sanna’s mates. We had some traditional dim sum, and checked out a shopping centre / night club… I’m still not sure which it was. With a great day behind us, we strapped on our backpacks and headed for the train station to board our night train.
Clearing security, we spent some time waiting around for our train to be called. Much to our amusement, we were the highlight of the room. I guess people don’t often see two Canadians, a Finn, and a Mexican hanging out in the Guangzhou train station. Our train was called, and we battled it out with the crowd to board the cars. One area of China that didn’t phase us was the pushing to get towards something – Hong Kong taught us all about that months ago.
Jumping on the car, we found that instead of sleeper cars, we had in fact booked seats in cattle class. The next 15 hours were spent trying to sleep on a car where the passengers seemed hellbent to stay awake. At one point at about 2 in the morning, someone entered the car with a megaphone, selling products and yelling in Mandarin. In the moment, I was pretty livid, but looking back, it was a fun experience.
We’d had our first taste of mainland China, and at this point we weren’t sure what to think. Little did we know that in a few hours we’d be treated to some of the best views in the world.