Murder on the Hong Kong-Beijing express train?

Tomorrow, I’m going to make the journey from Hong Kong to Beijing, all 2000km of it, by train. It takes 24 hours, and I’m wondering whether it will be a hoot or, well, murder. It’ll be by far the longest journey I’ve ever done by train. But I’m fairly hopeful…

See, I’ve done quite a few overnight train journeys, in the UK, Spain, Italy, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia… So many that you might think I had a particular fetish for them. But, looking back, I don’t think I ever actually chose to go on any of these journeys. They were all booked by friends, or family, or work.

5 years ago, I would always have chosen to go by plane. Reserve a window seat and get genuinely excited. But as I hit 27, which is pretty much middle age, air travel has lost its glamour. It’s aisle seats all the way for me, now, anyway. No, like the move from Bacardi Breezers to red wine, or Topshop to Debenhams, choosing trains over planes comes with age and experience. It’s simple: you meet more people, you can move around, you can actually see the country you’re travelling through out the window!

So, in honour of tomorrow’s expedition, here are my top 3 overnight train memories. Let me stress, overnight. I’ve had plenty of eye-opening experiences on local train journeys in the UK (the last train from Newcastle to Durham on a Saturday night – words are not enough). Stories for another day, however…

1) Sapa – Hanoi, Vietnam, 2008. Memorable for a variety of reasons. We didn’t have beds and so sat in a very well-lit carriage all night. My feet were attacked by bugs, or termites, or something, and swelled up for the next few days. But, best of all, I stopped a robbery. Sounds heroic, but it was I myself who was being robbed. As we pulled in to Hanoi, in a 6am fug, I put my valuables on the seat in front of me to get my rucksack down. In pure panto style, a little hand sneaked around my side and grabbed my wallet. With heroic disregard for my safety, I turned and blocked the robber’s escape. It was a 14-year-old boy. And he looked more shocked than I did. With the look that primary school teachers use to confiscate trump cards, I got my wallet back and let the young whip go. I seriously doubt he tried that again…

2) Milan – Paris, 2011. Intercity trains in Western Europe are gorgeous, sleek vehicles with headrests and WiFi. Overnight trains in Western Europe don’t seem to have changed, or had the toilets cleaned, in 40 years. On one journey our wake up call was ‘Take It Easy’ by The Eagles. This particular journey we were sitting on the train, near midnight, an hour after we should have left Milan. I was getting frantic as I was leading a group of 20 students and we had a Eurostar to catch the next morning. I went back to the platform to find a guard. I asked when we would be on our merry way. He paused, dragged on his cigarette, and said he didn’t know because ‘we wait for the engine’. I asked when the engine would arrive and he shrugged this question away like the irrelevance it was. All that was left was for me to go back and sit in our un-air-conditioned cabin and wait. We eventually left around 1am and just made the train to London.

3) Bangkok – Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2007. Again, no beds left so we sat for the entire journey. The fans on the roof weren’t working, but with the windows open as we pulled out of the capital on a balmy evening it was just lovely. Fast-forward to 3am, much further north and much, much colder. The windows, it turned out, wouldn’t shut and so we sat until 7am with bitter gusts attacking from all angles and the sounds of the track filling the carriage. God-awful at the time, but very fondly remembered from the safe distance of 5 years.

Here’s to more, slightly better, memories en route from HK to Beijing. I’ve decided that all these journeys are building up to the day that I take the 6 day Trans-Siberian Express journey to Moscow – the Ultra-Marathon-Ironman-Decathlon of train travel.

I’ve also been on many, many overnight bus journeys, but the less said about them the better…


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