Over our daughter’s Spring Break, my family spent a memorable week in Yunnan Province, China, about which I have already posted several stories, including going with the flow, everyday provincial life, and roughing it in Yunnan.  After flying into Kunming using Delta’s new premium economy service as far as Beijing, we booked Chinese internal flights, first China Eastern Beijing to Kunming and then Shenzhen Air from Kunming to reach Lijiang in northwest Yunnan.

Aiming to see Yunnan up close thereafter, we eschewed airlines and made our way by bus from Lijiang to fabulous Shaxi, and, a few days later, by an all-electric bus from Shaxi to Dali.  We budgeted our time mainly to see those parts of Yunnan, but had to return to Kunming for our flights home on China Eastern to Beijing and Delta again back to the States. To make the trip more interesting, we booked a train from New Dali to Kunming, and then overnighted prior to our early morning flight KMG/PEK.

Here I pick up my real-time notes which begin at the wonderful Jim’s Tibetan Hotel in Old Dali, which I bragged about, along with Jim himself, in my earlier everyday life post:

LEAVING DALI

Before leaving for the train station for our journey by train to Kunming, we enjoyed the Jim’s Tibetan Hotel version of a Western breakfast identical to yesterday, which was green tea, a delicious banana crepe that Jim called a pancake, and a bowl of muesli, sliced apples and pears, yogurt, raisins, and cinnamon. It was all good, but especially the fruit and yogurt, which I will be duplicating at home. I had paid Jim in cash last night, so we departed quickly right after eating.

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We took a private car to the train station in New Dali from Jim’s Tibetan Hotel, which is in Old Dali, a long distance. We splurged on that and paid 100 Yuan ($16), about twice the cost of a taxi. It was a 40 minute drive in light traffic.

The New Dali train station is an imposing edifice, like most in China. Bombastic, like the airports. Long and wide sets of imposing stairs lead up, up, up like one might expect entering an emperor’s palace rather than a mere railroad station.

It’s all hat, no cattle, however. Once inside, it looks like a big city Greyhound station: sterile concrete with some granite veneers and airport style seating. An institutional, dingy feel redolent of the old Mao era. It could easily be converted to an abattoir should the need arise, and none would think it odd.

Getting in was a two-step process. First, collect tickets from the bottom floor. We didn’t know to do that and traipsed up the Lincoln Memorial-like staircases with our heavy luggage, only to be directed back down below to the ticket office. Back down we went. I was already sweating, and it was only 10:15 AM.

We passed through a perfunctory security screen to enter the ticket office. Standing at the bottom floor ticket window, my wife noticed the Chenglish on the yellow line at our feet: “Please wait outside a noodle.”

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We obeyed, I guess, because the agent smiled and issued our ticket without delay after inspecting our passports carefully. Ruth had smartly found a “VIP” compartment on this ordinary train (no high speed trains yet running Dali-Kunming), so I guess we are all set.

Back up the damnably high and long staircase with the concrete blocks someone must have put in my bag, we presented our passports and ticket and were allowed to enter. Another light security screen staffed by 20-somethings in government uniforms, all smiles and waving us welcome.

The station floor was not especially clean, again reminding me of a bus station back home, but the place boasted a very well-stocked and modern convenience store with every product known to man.

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We stocked up for the trip, since the Chinese are notoriously stingy travelers when it comes to buying food. They always bring their own on buses and trains, and thus many Chinese ordinary trains have little or no dining car offerings. Two new-looking fast food establishments were also open and doing a good business in the station.

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We soon discovered that our train departed from yet a higher level waiting room, requiring another drag of bags up steep stairs.

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Steep stairs, but with a concrete ramp thoughtfully added in the center to accommodate roller bags and strollers.

Here we sit, finally, waiting for our 12:36 PM train, and surrounded by prosperous-looking Chinese travelers. Not another Westerner in sight.  More later en route.

BOARDING THE TRAIN

Our train arrived four minutes late, but why worry? Not us. All an adventure.

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With the upper waiting room packed, it was a mad rush when the station gate doors were opened, small children and elderly in danger of being trampled. The Chinese, like the Italians (and like me), abhor honoring queues and squack indignantly as they break the line as if you are the one in the wrong. It felt like the fevered crowds trying to be first into Best Buy on Black Friday morning at 5:00 AM.

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Boarding our train New Dali to Kunming. Note bilevel sleeper (our car) to the right of the stairwell, one of many in the train’s consist. New Dali in the distance.

Our VIP compartment is in the second level of the doubledecker car to the right in the above picture. The lower level compartments are all what the Chinese call “soft sleepers” which are similar to old Pullman compartments. Each “VIP” room is fitted with a single upper bed and a lower almost-double. Very large and comfortable. Also equipped with two tables, electric plug, table lamp, water pitcher for making hot tea, and fake plastic fresh cut flower in a vase. Classy. Puts Amtrak to shame.

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“VIP” compartment on the upper deck of the bilevel passenger car has a double and a single.

To my surprise this train carries a full-service diner (below photo).

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The Chinese Railway crew tend to be quite young. I am impressed with their good humor and sense of enjoying their jobs.

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As seen in the above photo, there is ugly marred paint on the diner ahead of our car, yet inside it is spotless and inviting. This section of the rail network is electrified.

In a tip of the hat to the world outside Asia, one of the two lavatories at the end of each bilevel car has a Western sit-down toilet. The other one has the usual squat toilet arrangement.

This train isn’t going to win any speed awards. I estimate around 100 KPH (about 60 MPH). But it’s great fun, and we are in no hurry.

Our bilevel car has what the Chinese call “soft sleeper” compartments on the lower level that sleep or sit four. The term differentiates that class of rail service from “hard sleepers” which have six berths per compartment.

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“Soft Sleeper” compartment sleeps four.

Our “VIP” compartment, like the rest on this car’s upper level, sleeps three, a double bed below and a single above.

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Looking out at the passing Yunnan landscape from the upper (single) bunk on the train.

Only trouble is, unlike the soft sleepers below us, the VIP berths don’t fold up, so there’s no way to sit comfortably. VIP passengers are forced to lie down or sit awkwardly on the bottom berth facing the compartment door.

It’s a weird arrangement, but we only paid $69 total for three fares, so we don’t much care. I’m propped up on several pillows in a prone position enjoying the view.

The engineering of this line is impressive. Nearly zero at-grade crossings and many long viaducts and bridges over towns and cities. Long viaducts, some several miles-long, are the rule, too, through the countryside so that farmers can work back and forth under the railroad without being cut off. Lots of long tunnel bores, too, some 10 minutes or longer to pass through. All this for a secondary rail line. It’s hard not to compare this to America’s lack of commitment to passenger rail.

On the train we noticed another Chenglish mystery sign, We could not decipher the context of “drinkingwatef roher room”.

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ARRIVING KUNMING

It’s ridiculous to be staying tonight at the luxurious Crowne Plaza in central Kunming after the modest and wonderful places where we’ve rested our heads the past week. My IHG status earned us a primo 16th floor room overlooking the heart of the city. I got a good rate through Travelocity months ago and grabbed it, so here we are.

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Kunming CBD at night from the Crowne Plaza

It was drizzling and 46° F. when we stepped off the train (25 minutes late). Inexplicably, no taxi would take us to the hotel, not far away (but too far to walk) from the central railway station. Getting soaked, I finally hired a tout for 40 Yuan ($6.35) to take us to the Crowne Plaza. Seemed outrageous at the moment, but of course was a bargain in the cold rain.

Kunming is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres (6,234 feet) above sea level and at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer.  In 2014 Kunming had a population of 6,626,000. More about the city here. It has an interesting history. I wish that we had had time to explore it a bit.

As we prepare to leave Yunnan, a lasting impression is how nice and good-humored most Chinese continue to be to each other and to us, strangers in their land. And how prosperous and well-informed the average citizen appears to be. Cultural differences linger, but are shrinking rapidly.

In ignorance, I didn’t expect much from Yunnan. Now at the end, I can say it was a gratifying, even stunning, experience. It is humbling to reflect that we didn’t see much of Yunnan, and Yunnan is just one province in China. It would take a lifetime to know—to really know— just this one area.

Just when I think the world is getting smaller, I realize again how enormous and diverse it is. That’s part of the reward of travel and why I keep going places.

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