My husband and I recently had the experience of traveling west to Ningxia from Northeast China on a standard sleeper train (kuaiche). We started in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang Province and traveled by train through Jilin Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and we ended in the deserts of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
For the first half of our trip, we had a “soft sleeper” ticket, which meant we each had a bed. This was nice because the ride was 27 hours long. Even though it sounds like a long time, this is one of our favorite ways to travel in China because it allows you to see various landscapes and towns.
The rooms in soft sleeper cars have four beds each, so we were traveling with two other passengers in our room.
From the train windows we were able to witness the changing landscapes and the beauty that lies outside of the large and heavily populated cities where we spend most of our time. Along with geographical changes, we saw cultural and language differences emerge as we entered each new province.
The areas of Heilongjiang and Jilin are characterized by prairies, rivers, and miles of farmlands surrounding larger capital cities. The language there is mostly standard mandarin, and the people of the northeast are generally louder and more talkative. The people quickly address strangers, especially when they are foreigners, and ask questions.
We met our bunk mates quickly and learned where they were from, where they were going, what they studied in college, or how many kids they had. We chatted until nightfall and then everyone prepared to go to sleep. When we woke up the next morning, we were in eastern Inner Mongolia. Instead of flat prairies, we saw rolling grasslands dotted with small towns, and of course more farmlands where it was flat enough.
As the day passed, the landscape changed to sandy rolling hills and small shrubs. The landscape eventually flattened out as we passed through the outskirts of the Southeastern Gobi desert. The kuaiche trains stop frequently and at very small train stations, which means we were able to see small towns that barely show up on the map.
Around dinnertime, our train arrived in the capital city of Hohhot, where we planned to stay the night in a hotel and try lamb dumplings and salty milk tea. Hohhot was a beautiful town and we enjoyed the food and local people as well as a break from the train beds.
The next morning we headed back to the train station to board a seven hour long day train from Hohhot to Yinchuan, which is the capital of Ningxia. This time, we had a “hard sleeper” ticket, which means we had a bed in a more crowded car with no room or door. We were looking forward to being able to see the landscape morph into deserts and mountains, and this leg of the trip did not disappoint.
As we left Hohhot, we followed the Yin Shan mountain range west until it ended and gave way to a desert environment dotted with small shrubs and dry riverbeds. We crossed the Yellow River north of a city called Wuhai and followed it the rest of the way to Yinchuan. At this point in the journey, we could look out of one side of the train to see the Yellow River with a background of orange sand dunes and the opposite side to see the Helan mountain range.
We were beginning to see more mosques dot the landscape and become central features in the small towns. The other passengers on the train were, in general, more reserved and soft-spoken, speaking in dialects we could not understand. It was clear that with the changing landscape the culture was also changing. We were excited to arrive in Yinchuan to experience the life of the people there and the differences in language, food, and religion that came along with it.
Guest post written by Ashleigh Moore