Traveling on Trains – KL to Moscow in 5 Weeks (Part Two)

written by Carolyn Chon August 7, 2014



Part Two is all about The Motherland, it’s motherland cause I’m third generation Chinese living in the lovely, cultural melting pot called Malaysia.

It’s hard to explain China. Really it is. As a third generation Chinese born and bred outside of China, I’m not gonna lie, I was apprehensive about China. The stories I’ve heard first hand, second hand, the awful viral things you watch and read online, boy, I just had to put on an invisible armour.

We finally entered into China on the 6th or 7th day of our trip via Luang Namtha, and into a small town called Mengla, Yunnan. We had about 6-8 hours to kill before we took an overnight bus to Kunming. So, we found ourselves a little cafe to kill time. The owner of the cafe, wow! He spoke perfect English, it even came with an accent. Curious to know, we asked where did he learn his English from. Lo and behold, he told us it was all through watching movies and listening to the BBC Radio!!

The time came for us to get onto the bus, I remember very clearly that right outside the bus station, there were massive banners with pictures of fatal bus accidents. They weren’t pretty at all. What on earth were they trying to do putting up those pictures? Deter passengers from taking bus?! Despite what could’ve been perceived as a bad omen, we hopped onto the bus anyway.

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How amazing the Chinese are, they managed to squeeze in a (for lack of a better word) busload of people into the bus. As you can see in the photo above, they actually fitted in three rows of bunk beds, I’ve only seen two rows thus far. Anyway, luckily for us, the bus driver was a real proper one, it wasn’t like any of the kan cheong drivers we would get back home…. The bunks are pretty narrow as you can see, but they were pretty comfortable. All bunks come with a safety belt as well, but unfortunately for Jules, hers didn’t have one. We kind of joked about it, you know with the horrifying photos out front, and now she has no safety belt. Luckily, 13 hours later, we both arrived in Kunming in one piece.

Jules and I went into China without a proper plan, the plan really was not to plan. As we were walking to the hostel (which we discovered on Lonely Planet at the cafe before we boarded the bus, that’s the kind of no-plan we were going for), I remember both of us walking around puddles of water on the ground. We avoided the puddles like it was the plague, mainly because when we arrived at the vicinity, the air was filled with some sort of a foul smell. Bleurgh.

We walked in The Hump Hostel and just hoped that we’d get a room or a couple of beds in a dorm. While we were waiting for the reception to check for vacancies, a young Caucasian girl approached the reception and spoke Mandarin so fluent I wanted to hang myself. Jules and I eyeballed each other in surprise and disbelief. Little did we know, this was the beginning of our chance encounters with non-ethnic Chinese people who spoke fluent Mandarin.

Anyway, while Jules and I were in the midst of eyeballing each other,  a middle-aged couple approached us and said “Are you girls Malaysian?” . Obviously, the minute any Malaysians open their mouth, another Malaysian can spot them a mile away. We ended up sharing a very pretty 4-bed dorm with this lovely couple. We were glad we ended up sharing rooms with them, because our next destination was pretty much drawn out for us from their stories.

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We got out of Kunming the next day to check out Dali, after hearing how pretty looking it was from the couple. We caught a bus to Dali. Bear in mind, that you need to have your identification with you when you purchase your tickets. This is the case for purchasing any transportation ticket.Oh, and if you don’t speak Mandarin, please make sure you get someone to write down in Chinese, your desired end point, else you’re screwed. Of course, if you’ve got your guidebook with you, it should help even if it doesn’t have Chinese characters, it should at least have a map.

Dali is quite a touristy area, but it definitely is very charming. We stayed in a very, very lovely little hotel. Tucked in a little alley right on the main street, we couldn’t have asked for more. Really. Jade Garden Inn was a pretty little hotel with the charms of a Chinese Tea House, the owner is from Shanghai and speaks good English. So, no worries about communication.

We explored Dali on foot and on bicycles. I have to say, bicycles are perhaps the best way to explore anywhere. It’s easy to stop at the side of the road(s), you get breeze in your face and hair, fresh or stale, plus you get to work out and hopefully get a decent tan. We saw so much on just that one day cycling around the area, we saw a traditional wedding taking place, we saw elderly farmers attending to their paddy fields, but most of all, we saw dogs! So many of them, big and small, short coat, long coat. They were all so well-behaved!

I guess personally, I was surprised to see so many dogs because my impression was that all Chinese eat dogs. Wrong, Carol. Wrong. Yes, how ignorant I was.

In the evening, we would take a stroll along the main street, looking at funny shops, restaurants, other quirky looking hostels etc. We decided to try out their “steamboat”, as we saw that it was the popular choice and most people were going at it and even lining up. I guess Chinese are the same when it comes to food, no matter where you are in the world, you’d drive out for it, you’d also stand in line for it. So, we decided to join in to have a seat out on the streets. Now, ordering the food was a bit of a challenge, and it was definitely one of the many to come. Sure, I could speak enough to get around and save my life (for sure), but reading it? Boy!! In the end, I went into the restaurant and started pointing at things, at the same time asking what they were. Long story short, food finally and we were excited!!

The minute the soup got inside of our hungry mouths, we made a pretend “Mmmm…so delicious” face at each other. This like many of the previous “firsts” reminded us how little we knew about our motherland.

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Yes, chicken feet in a pack. GELI!!


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This old lady was preparing deep fried baby shrimps on a stick. Trust me, SUPER YUMMY!

This old lady was preparing deep fried baby shrimps on a stick. Trust me, SUPER YUMMY!

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Can someone say POE-TAY-TOE?

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This is the owner of a restaurant on Foreigner’s Street. It was the best food among all the places we visited in China.

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“Oh, not much. Just human watching”


Before this trip, I’ve only been on Malaysian ones, Thai ones and European ones, needless to say I was very much looking forward to the Chinese ones. I love, love, love traveling on trains, and luckily for me, so did Jules, in fact the grittier it was, the better. Personally, trains are awesome because well, it does take up more time than a plane, but you see so much more! Not only you see sceneries outside your window, but most importantly you experience some bits of the culture of the land you’re in.

Again, the Chinese surprised us by having a triple decker for overnighters. Comparing to the Malaysian and Thai ones, no, you will not have any privacy while you’re sleeping, or just lying down. There shall be no curtains for you lot! Mingle! And that is exactly what the Chinese will do. This actually isn’t a big deal, in fact I kind of liked the awkwardness that it gave us.

We got to experience and learn some bits of the Chinese culture by seeing how communal they can be with one another, strangers or not. Oh, and they love their instant noodles in a cup. At every end of each compartment, there will be a hot water tap for their favourite cup noodles. Of course, they also love eating their groundnuts and kuacis(sunflower seeds), but hey where shall they dispose of these once they are done eating them? On the floor and out the window of course! Yes, throwing out plastic/styrofoam cups out the window is Nothing to be frowned upon. Pardon my sarcasm, but I was rather shocked to see an elderly aunty throw out her noodle bowl out the window ever so nonchalantly.

Now, I hope that I’m not putting anyone of you off the Chinese trains or Chinese people, because it is something you need to experience. My favourite thing about the Chinese train is seeing how so easily and quickly the people make friends and chat. Yes, the fact that they can spit anywhere isn’t the most well-mannered of all things, but hey it’s probably an age-old habit practiced in the culture. I also have to say that their trains are really good and efficient, in fact the rides are really smooth. Most importantly, for someone who loves traveling on trains… the Chinese trains did not disappoint.

Traveling on trains in China – Quick Tips

1. You can only purchase tickets in advance of up to one month and you must do so with a Chinese credit card. (unfortunately)

2. There’s two types of sleeping berth categories : one’s the hard sleeper which we took, the one with no privacy and then there’s the soft sleeper, where there’s either 4 or 6 bunk beds in a compartment.

3. There’s also two types of sitting category : one’s the hard seater and the other is the soft.

4. The final category of ticket is the cheapest, it basically is a ticket for you to get in the train and find whatever space you can and sit or stand or lie down on. No kidding. There were people sleeping on the floor outside the toilets on their bags. You have to remember, China does have the largest population in the world.

5. Remember that you need to show identification before you purchase your tickets at the train station.

6. It really helps if you can read Chinese, but if you can’t do try to find someone to write down your destination name and also the type of ticket you’d want to get in Chinese. Only if you’re super lucky, you’ll get someone speaking English at the counter.

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Finally! Traveling on trains in China!

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My favourite shot from all the train rides!

My favourite shot from all the train rides!


I think that’s enough for this post and I’ve not even reached Panda Land yet! Dangit! For those of you who are expecting to see more photos, sorry but I’m trying not to give away everything because you should really experience it on your own, and also because I plan to cut a video of this whole trip (when I find the time). In the mean time, I hope you’ve had enough patience to sit through and read all my blabbering.

Til’ the next post…

p/s I’ve also found my expenditure journal for this trip. So you can see how it is really possible to make this happen with a decent budget!


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