Scenes from an Overnight Chinese Sleeper Train

Table of Contents

I sit on the small fold out seats by the window. I can barely fit. The train departs with a jolt and babies begin crying. I look to my neighbors and smile and nod. I want to be their friends. I open my Chinese phrasebook and begin studying, quietly mumbling the words, tones and sentences to myself. I’m hoping my neighbors will understand that I’m trying to learn and that they will try to talk to me, maybe teach me. So far, communication in China has proven to be very difficult.

The scenes outside the train, whizzing past, are not the China that I’ve seen so far. There are dilapidated houses, stacked on top of each other and mashed together side-by-side. Bright colored laundry hangs from the balconies. There are fields and farms; the workers are finishing up for the day. I see six people retreating to their tents from the fields. This is where they live. Small, dirty lakes are scattered next to the train tracks. Waterfront property. This is the simple, third-world life I’ve seen photos of.

Chinese House

There are 11 rows of beds, six in each row. This train car sleeps 66 people. Everybody’s space belongs to everybody else. People are packed in tight. Claustrophobia sets in. From my bed, eight other people sleep within a one meter radius. This is not a setting for those who require personal space. The middle bunks are the best! Top beds are good for privacy and security (because nobody can see or reach that high!), but they lack space and comfort. The bottom bunks are the most spacious, but they become a seating area for the rest of the passengers.

I sit for a while, unsure of my next move. Some people have gone straight to their beds. I go for a short walk through the cars; it’s not like I can go far. The “smoking rooms” are the areas between each car. An older Chinese man with dark, squinty eyes, a weathered face, big teeth and a huge grin holds his granddaughter in one arm, a cigarette in the other hand. I motion for a smoke using two fingers against my lips and he offers me one. I join him for a cigarette and try to motion for food, asking where I can get some. We fumble in our communications, but I get the gist. Either I’m supposed to walk a few cars down and find a place selling food, or somebody would be walking by to sell the food. I thank him by smiling, placing my palms together in front of my chest and nodding slightly. He quickly retreats. I’ve had a very stressful day and I really needed that cigarette.


A woman walks past with a food cart. I snub out my smoke and chase her down. “Excuse me!” doesn’t work, so I tap her on the shoulder. I point and she hands me a paper tray with a plastic lid and a pair of chopsticks. “How much?” doesn’t work either, so I pull out a small wad of cash and stare at her blankly. It’s 15 yuan (Chinese currency), or about $2.50USD. I rush back to the seat and open the container. I’m starved—it’s 6:30pm and I haven’t eaten all day, mostly because I don’t know where or what to eat, but also because I’ve spent half the day trying to book this train.

The flimsy container consists of a large portion of white rice, a beef and vegetable stir-fry, and a very juicy salad with a slice of what tastes like SPAM laying on top. There’s half of a hard-boiled egg, still in the shell. It looks sketchy so I avoid it, but devour the rest. Nourishment.

There’s only one place left to go—my bed. It’s not big, but it’s bigger than this tiny seat. A few hours of reading, writing and movies eventually drift me off to sleep.

I am awakened by a loud Chinese man screaming down the business end of a cell phone. He’s not even yelling–this is just the way the Chinese dialect sounds to the foreign ear. A group of women banter and howl with laughter. Babies are screaming in both terror and delight. The familiar smell of instant noodles passes under my nose. It’s all anybody seems to eat on an overnight sleeper train.

Empty street

Forgotten villages appear through the window. The houses are made of stone and mud. Only half of their structure still remains. Roofs have collapsed, walls have been demolished. The trees surrounding them emerge from the ground like stalagmites. They are tall, skinny and bare. I see people. Perhaps these villages haven’t been forgotten after all.

Some people stare blankly at the wall, some stare out the window. Still, others stare at me. They wonder what I’m doing here. And, as I only speak English, they can’t even ask.

17 hours down. Ten more to go.

All I can do is wait…

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About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
    1. Thank you, mate! If you’re on a sleeper train, definitely try to snag the middle bunk! The top one is a pain and the bottom one is just too public!

  1. We’ve only done one overnight train in our adventures, but it was in Europe and far less intimidating. Pretty sure I’d just stay in the bed the entire time haha

    1. Intimidating is certainly one way to describe it. There aren’t many places to go, so yeah, the bed pretty much does it!

    1. I had enough people staring at me already! Running around the train car with a camera definitely wasn’t going to help my situation.

  2. Oh the trains in China! We have tested out all the options – hard seats overnight, soft sleeper and all bunks in the hard sleeper! The top bunk really is a bit tight – not being able to sit up at all is definitely not too pleasant with long train rides! I prefer the bottom bunk of the hard sleeper – more room and you have the table to put your stuff on!

    1. I’ve only been on the hard sleepers, and I was in the middle bunk both times. I like to sleep during the day so I don’t think the bottom bunk would suit. Good point about the table, though–I definitely could have used it. I’m really curious about the soft sleeper–maybe sometime soon!

  3. Urgh… you’re bringing back memories of some 24 hours train rides I did in China a few years ago.
    I reckon they’re actually quite comfortable and fun if you just accept them for what they are. Watching the old men spitting, the families cooking noodles, the little kids running around – all of that is quite a charming experience.
    I wouldn’t rush back onto one, though! 🙂

    1. You’re right–it is a charming experience if you’re willing to sit back and just let it happen. These train rides are NOT for the squirmish traveler! Luckily for me, I have at least a few more of them on the horizon!

  4. I like the realistic approach to your account on the train it beats the typical sugarcoated blogging. Do you have any pictures inside the train?

    1. I have a couple, but they didn’t turn out very well. I’ll have to go back through and see what I can uncover! It was such a disorienting and wonderful experience.

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