Night train

Trip Start Aug 19, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  , Guizhou,
Monday, September 1, 2008

I am booked on the sleeper train between Dandong and Beijing.
I'm concerned by sleeper trains. Every time a sleeper train is featured in a film, there's a murder. How will I be able to sleep knowing that someone might drive a knife between my shoulder blades at any time? There are certainly some shady characters in the station, but they're possibly a bit too ordinary to murder me. In my mind I think if I'm going to be murdered then it will be in a spectacular way. Maybe by an albino assassin disguised as a ticket inspector who constructs a rifle from parts hidden in a dismantled crutch, then sneaks into my compartment with a pass key. In the flickering half light he pumps gas propelled bullets into my chest while I sleep, then as the train crosses over a bridge, my lifeless corpse is thrown out of the window to land face down on the windscreen of a passing car, the occupants screaming with terror.

Thoughts like this were on my mind as i carried my luggage over the broken paving slabs at Dandong station and up the steep steps into the railway carriage. I and another tourist were sharing a 4 bed compartment with 2 Chinese businessmen. I was on a top bunk. I had a carrier bag full of food and drink, and enough headroom to sit up. There was a small bulkhead light with a toggle switch that made a satisfying click and which, if it hadn't have been for the prescence of other people, I would have switched on and off hundreds of times just to hear the noise. I also had a fold down shelf made of netting where I could put a few loose items.

At 18:31 there's a series of jolts and clunks as the engine takes up the slack in the couplings between the carriages, and train K28 from Dandong to Beijing slowly pulls out from the station. Ahead is a 14 hour, 700 mile journey.

The train runs on standard low speed track, not the smooth high speed lines that link the major cities. I lay in my bunk, rocking with the movement of the carriage. Bags sit on a shelf in the void over the corridor. As the train judders over the joints in the track the hanging luggage labels swing and jiggle.

As the night comes on, the constant movement of the train has a relaxing effect, although it's not quite relaxing enough to send me to sleep, or maybe my sleeplessness was due to me being in the same compartment as strangers, one of whom could be a murderer, or maybe it's the fact that I'm still in my daytime clothes. Whatever the reason, I don't sleep well. I keep going for a stroll up and down the carriage, or standing by the window in the corridor watching the lights of the towns we pass through.

We pass thousands of apartment blocks and warehouses, and patches of wasteland with concrete shacks lit on the outside by hanging bulbs. We pass empty car parks and multi lane highways, and short stretches of country road shining in the headlights of a lonely car. If you look on a map of China there are no towns east of Bejing whose names you'd recognise, but there are so many of them, and the train passes through countless stations in the middle of the night, stopping at some, where a few people get on or off onto deserted concrete platforms.

We arrive at Beijing station at 8:29. Passengers emerge into the morning air, rubbing their eyes. I have survived the night. It seems the albino assassin is biding his time.

In the rush hour crush outside Beijing station I say goodbye to my fellow North Korea tourists. This is it now. For the next 7 weeks I'm a proper traveler. From this point on I'm on my own, it's just me and a billion Chinese. Luggage in hand I head for the entrance to the Beijing subway, pushing my way through the crowd.

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