The Southern Tour: Train to Dali

After spending time in the far south of Yunnan, I began the second leg of my journey that would lead to Dali, a city several hours to the northwest of Kunming. I had purchased a hard sleeper train ticket a week earlier when I arrived in the city, and was soon at the station waiting to board a train. I have had several experiences with trains in the past, all of them quite memorable. I have always loved trains, and China has been the first place where I have had the opportunity to take extended rail trips with some regularity. Despite being extremely crowded and frequently filthy, trains in China are cheap and very reliable. More than anything, though, they are a great way to see the masses, a perfect spectrum of culture.

During the previous occasions that I have spent on such rides, I have not had the energy or the wherewithal to pull out a camera and document the experience, which is unfortunate as some of the previous trips were far more thrilling than the one which I took between Kunming and Dali. It makes no real difference, however, as almost all such trains look the same, and these pictures will give you a small piece of the life that exists onboard. The author Paul Theroux spent a year traveling through China almost exclusively by train. How he managed to stay sane, I do not know, but by the end of his story he appeared to have lost all interest in continuing his journey. The final 150 pages of the book are shockingly dull. These trips are almost always eye opening, but such travel is nothing if not exhausting.

I have always enjoyed the lack of space that dominates every moment of a train ride. With an aisle little more than two feet wide, there is barely enough room to pass someone coming from the other direction. This is not helped by the large number of bags and random items that typically scatter the floor, along with the not infrequent passenger that has decided to sleep next to or even in the aisle. A large number of migrant workers and various other individuals purchase standing tickets, as they are significantly cheaper. On a 12 hour trip, you are going to sleep at some time or other, and in many cases the floor is as good a spot as any. It is not uncommon to see a pile of blankets in the vestibule between cars, with one or more people asleep inside. On some occasions, typically holidays, it is too crowded to sit down, and people will sleep standing up in the aisle, supported by the complete lack of space that might have permitted them to tip over.

Most people that board for a very long trip plan ahead and bring a sizable number of snacks and a stockpile of instant noodles. The shops inside of railway stations often have some of the most spectacular noodle isles that you will find. If you don’t manage to get anything ahead of time, it is rarely an issue. Despite the impossibly thick masses that block the isles, an attendant from the train will roll a snack cart from one end to the other and back, typically every hour. It is very entertaining to watch them push their way through, as people climb on a variety of seats and bags around to get out of the way. On this occasions, my trip started not with the snack cart, but with a woman who spent a full ten minutes yelling out the qualities of toothbrushes that she was selling. I really do mean yelling. At one point, she insisted that there was no better gift for friends and family that we would be visiting when we arrived in Dali. Seeing as I had neither friends nor family in this location, a toothbrush was not a necessary purchase.

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