Incessant tinny Tannoy announcements and the nagging nip of toy dogs at the nearby airport shop suggested we’d made a terrible mistake. Guilin airport, and China’s domestic flying scene, were and are a total nightmare. When Paul Theroux eulogised the joys of Chinese train travel in Riding The Iron Rooster, I thought he was perhaps overindulging his never ending distaste for flying. In fact, he was spot on. Taking short hops across this vast country is an awkward nightmare of expensive transfers, tedious waits and inflight food that would make a pet dog heave.
That said, the 38 hour trek from Guilin to Chengdu on a crowded sleeper didn’t appeal much either. But when it came to travelling from the ancient capital of Xian to Beijing, the train was the only option. The overnight Z20 service, which departs Xian at 8pm, is one of the few services in this great country that offers Deluxe Soft Sleepers, private two-berth cabins with private bathrooms and armchairs. At around £80 each, this was the smart choice, even if we had to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the Chinese railway system to get a ticket.
On board, we were bowled over. My only experience of sleeper trains, despite a Theroux obsession that suggests they should be the only way I travel, came nine years ago on Vietnam’s Reunification Express. This was some upgrade from the rabbit meat in a dirty Tupperware and narrow beds of that particular train, even if it lacked the breathtaking views and endless smiles of that Vietnamese odyssey. The beds were cosy and spacious, the bathroom cleaner than any which I’d had the misfortune to use in the previous fortnight in China and the armchair a squidgy delight, the kind of which I hadn’t slumped in since I was a student.
A bottle of cheap Kingway beer in hand and the People’s Railway Daily to peruse, I kicked back and realised that there really is no better way to get from A to B. Sleep came quickly and by the time we blinked our eyes open, we were looking out onto the industrial hinterlands of China’s capital. Waking up in a new city, without having to negotiate the endless airport transfers, is a delight I hope to experience more in the coming weeks and months. Although I doubt many train trips will measure up to the plushness of the Z20 from Xian.