No sooner were we back in the swing of things at school post Christmas vacation, than we were off on holiday again. This time the occasion was (Chinese) New Year or Spring Festival. Chinese schools get around 1 month off at this time. As I work at an International School (and we just had 3 weeks off for Christmas) we got a not too-shabby 11 days off.
Justin and I have celebrated Lunar New Year in Korea a couple of times before, but New Year in China is a whole different story. This is the time of the largest mass human migration in the world (apparently). For some families, it is the only time they get to be together. This includes parents who may have left children back in their village while they head off to the big city to work.
We were warned (in real life and by the internet) that this is not a time to travel in China. Apparently we wouldn’t be able to get train tickets or visit any sights. We nearly stayed in Beijing but the thought of ‘wasting’ a holiday in Asia gives me seriously itchy feet.A couple of weeks before the holiday we decided to try to book tickets via ChinaHighlights.com. It was an easy process- we picked the train we want and paid with an international debit card (my Chinese card doesn’t work online. Only in stores and ATMs) then we waited for them to buy the tickets for us. The tickets went on sale a couple of days later, they bought them for us and gave us confirmation. Justin picked them up from the train station (or you can have them sent to your home in less busy periods). Easy. So Thursday 30th January (New Years Eve) we set off for Beijing West train station. For this trip we had booked a local driver and left plenty of time to beat the Beijing/holiday traffic. Well, it took as approximately 25 minutes to get from our apartment on the far East of Beijing over to Beijing West train station! I don’t think we have ever gone anywhere in Beijing in 25 minutes before. The roads were empty. As was the train station. There were no crowds and no queues. There was also nothing to do (this station is rubbish compared to Beijing South). For 2 hours we entertained ourselves by looking out for other westerners (I spotted a girl running away from the (actually quite decent) Chinese style toilet shaking her head and that was about it), took turns to go and buy Oreos and other snacks and constantly clock watched. The train was due to leave at 8.45pm but they started letting everyone on at 20 or 30 minutes early. Let me tell you, I was excited! I have never been on an overnight train before (although I’ve been on plenty of 20+ hour bus rides in South America. I’m not sure how I managed those now!) and couldn’t wait. We had booked the deluxe 2-berth soft Sleeper. It was exactly how I imagined thanks to the excellent information on Seat61.com. There was an upper and lower bunk, a table, a chair and our very own private toilet and sink room. There were TV screens but they didn’t appear to work. The heating soon kicked in and it was nice and cosy. We had a look down the corridor and found out we were the only occupied cabin in the whole carriage! So much for the New year crush. Of course, I’m sure it was a very different and uncomfortable story in other parts of the train, so we felt pretty happy and lucky. A steward came round and, in perfect English, welcomed us to the train and asked if we would like coffee and cake in the morning (for a small cost of a 10rmb each). Of course we would! After that, we locked our door, changed in comfy sweat pants and hoodies, watched a movie on the ipad and then settled in for the night. Tip- I was given an excellent tip by some friends to bring our own pillow cases. I did and it made the night feel cosier and cleaner. You are provided with a cosy duvet and pillow but it’s nicer with your own fresh pillow case. Just in case, eh? I also decided to bring a small hand towel which was handy as it meant I could splash by face in the morning and feel a lot fresher.