How to get a sleeper on the train to Chengdu

Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers a sure-fire way to get a sleeper berth on the train from Kunming to Chengdu

6 mins

I reeled from the smell of leftover stale tobacco when I opened the door to my hotel room in Kunming, China. I quickly opened the window for air, and was surprised to see a group of 20-something Chinese workers being drilled in a morning exercise routine. They were giggling and self-conscious.

I unpacked, showered, and soaked all my sleeper bus clothes.

Delightful. I was glad I hadn't gone for the ongoing sleeper train today, after spending last night on the Chinese sleeper bus. How bad could a seat be on tomorrow’s sold-out train? At least I’d get a night of sleep first.

Hunger eventually sent me out of the hotel, prowling for sustenance. I had the front-desk map, which showed a nearby mall, an ATM, and... a Walmart?

I remembered hearing that Walmart had localised their Chinese stores, and took a peek in to see if this was true – all kinds of regional products were on offer. Either that or it wasn't even Walmart. Given that five unlicensed Apple Stores had been exposed the week before I got to China, I wondered if it was entirely possible I was shopping in a fake Walmart.

The next day, I was more ambitious with my shopping. I’d stayed in my room until lunchtime, when the housekeeper knocked.

"When are you leaving?"

I got the point. Anyway, I was hungry.

I packed up and got out, taking the hotel-supplied disposable paper slippers instead of throwing them away. I could use these on the train, I thought.

With my bag in the luggage room, I took the number 5 bus from in front of the hotel.

Now we were getting somewhere. I wasn't in what I thought of as China – with my preconceptions based on a trip I’d taken in 2001 – but at least I was in the centre of town, in a big pedestrianised zone surrounded by shops.

This was quiet, I thought. At least for China, which has so many people that I remembered everything being packed all the time.

Actually, all of Kunming was quiet for a city. I was shocked to see so few bicycles. Ten years ago, the streets of China had been covered in bicycles, their bells all steadily clanging away. Now, electric scooters did the job, silently, casually. People looked at their mobile phones while scooting, held their kids to their chests, covered their faces with cotton shields against the sun. Most of them drove helmetless.

And buses were easy, stopping at every clearly designated stop. Getting back to my hotel after eating was a cinch.

I restocked in the hotel lobby – pulling my inflatable neck pillow out of my luggage for my imagined nice seat on tonight's train, checked online one last time, inventoried all my snacks.

"How do I get to the train on the bus?" The front desk hadn't been too useful when I'd been searching for food, but surely they'd know this.

"Let me ask my colleague." She went into a back room for a minute.

"My colleague says the bus is too crowded now for luggage and you should take a taxi."

"But earlier when I tried to get a taxi, there were no vacant ones." I had tried for about ten minutes, before revising my approach and taking bus #5.

"There will be a taxi."

I knew there wouldn't be. But I had her write down the train station name in Chinese, just in case. Surely if I stood there long enough, a taxi would eventually show up.

Or not, I thought after standing there for ten minutes, waving at full taxis. A few empty ones actually passed me. Kunming isn't really big on the tourist trail. Few drivers wanted to deal with a clueless foreigner shoving a piece of paper at them.

But one guy on an electric scooter kept hanging around and talking to me in Chinese. He looked at my destination and offered to take me there for 20 yuan. I laughed. That's more than a taxi costs. And I was pretty sure he wasn't legitimately allowed to take me anywhere.

"My bag!" I showed him my heavy pack and asked where he'd put it. He motioned between his knees, same place people always put it. But this wasn't Africa or Indonesia. Could that be acceptable here?

Still, no taxis stopped. He hovered, asked again.


He squished my bag in between his knees and I clambered onto the back. He took back streets, went the wrong way down one-way lanes, and went up on the sidewalk on occasion. And the ride was silent, swooshing rather than whirring. I think I want an electric scooter.

We stopped three blocks away from the train station.

"Okay, money."

Hmmm. That was a little odd. Not one to be cornered, I got off and took my backpack from him first. Now he had no leverage. I gave him the agreed-on 20, twice the cost of an actual metered taxi.

"More to go to train."

I laughed at him.

"No. I walk." Interesting technique, I thought, getting me within sight of the station and then demanding more to finish the job.

He motioned me back on. I shook my head, put on my pack and started walking. He motioned me onto the scooter. It's entirely possible I misunderstood and he just wanted the money out of sight of the official taxis. Anyway, it didn’t matter. I was close enough.

I'd been planning to try to get an upgrade at the railway ticket office, but the queues were crazy. So I headed to my train on platform 3 instead. I showed my ticket to a guard, who motioned me up the escalator. There was a ticket control agent, who motioned me though the x-ray and metal detector. People here don't seem to like lining up and they all pushed to get to the metal detector, so I pushed too.

On the other side of the metal detector, I followed the signs to gate 3, which was empty because everyone else was already on the train with 20 minutes to spare.

I had memorised the guidebooks's passage on "how to read a Chinese train ticket," and to make sure I was on track, I showed my ticket to everyone in a uniform that I came across. I walked up the train to car #8.

And that's where I learned that my visions of delightful Amtrak-style seats were misguided, delusional fantasies. I'd been bamboozled by my own expectations after seeing how bright, shiny and new China was compared to a decade back.

Seats were three across, facing each other in pods of six. They didn't recline.

And I had a middle seat.

Uh-oh. I can't sleep like that.

I ran over my options in my head. “Get off train. Flee. Look for sleeper bus. Get off train. Leave another day. Get off train – be stuck in Kunming. FLEE. FLEE NOW BEFORE THE TRAIN LEAVES.”

This was no good.

Remembering the Irish architecture intern's tip about getting upgraded, I found a conductor.

I pointed back at the seats and shook my head. "Bus?" I motioned to get off the train.

"No bus."

"Sleeper?" I made a sleeping motion.


The one attendant took me to another.

"Follow him to car 8."

I did, my hopes high now. Car 8 was the dining car. I was pointed to a seat.

Hmmm. Was I to sit in the dining car all night? That wasn't so bad, I thought.

I sat for a while, then three teens approached me on the direction of the attendant.

"Hello, do you want to sleep?"

"Yes! Please." So Chinese youths were learning English, and when in doubt, one should grab a teenager to translate.

"One minute, he says. Your bed is almost ready. Where are you from?"

"New York."

They looked delighted. I felt grimy and sweaty. I didn't think my glamour was up to the task, but I was happy to please someone.

Then another teen came by, and queried me. Was I eating? What was I doing in the dining car? He too then checked on my room. "Your room is ready," he said. "You have to pay her."

A ticket agent sat down, asked me for another 120 yuan, and gave me a ticket for car 16.

I didn't mind so much this pushing through eight cars, lost and jostling people and taking off my pack to get through doors. This had been hellish in Moroccan cars and in Congo, but here I was delighted to be getting out of the middle non-reclining seat, and everyone jostles in China.

The sleepers were tired, old, hard sleepers in open groups of six. No matter. I was deposited on a bottom berth. My rucksack fit underneath. Darkness came quickly. The toilets would surely be gross, people were loudly clearly their throats (it's still China, even if all the bicycles have vanished), but we'd be on our way soon enough and have only five more hours to Chengdu.

Where I'd again be completely lost and have to use my Kindle to show the Chinese characters for my hotel to a taxi driver.

All part of the fun of a year around the world by public transport.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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