The Big Red and Yellow Train Ride Part 3: Chengdu - Kunming - Hong Kong

Thursday 3rd April

Breakfast, at 8 o'clock, reverted to version 1 at Y15 extra. Today we had fried eggs, toast & jam, and fresh fruit. Andy now seemed to be recovered, but was not quite back to his original form where he could throw huge amounts of food down his throat in no time, which had earned him the nickname 'pedal bin' earlier in the trip. We loaded our luggage into a van for transport to Chengdu station, and we followed in a minibus. In the soft class waiting room our guide Tony informed us that five of the tickets were for 'hard sleeper' class, instead of the usual soft sleeper. Brian, Sandra and Andy got the soft class compartment.

The train departed at 11.08, and we found that the hard class didn't seem too bad. The level of comfort is similar to European couchette cars, but with less privacy as there are no compartments and each coach is more like a dormitory. We sat watching the scenery go by for a while, then a trolley came round with lunch. Dave, Bill, Jim and I decided to risk it, but Ian opted out. It was actually quite good: spicy meat and vegetables, with rice for Y10.

The scenery started to get quite spectacular, as the train was climbing and following a river gorge. At one point, the line looped back on itself twice to gain height. It was on this section of the journey that my SLR camera packed up, with the film wind lever jamming as I was changing a film. I also had a compact camera with me, and Brian had brought a spare Pentax MX body with him, so he offered that to me. I was grateful for the use of an SLR, even though the manual exposure made it difficult to take quick shots such as you sometimes need to do when photographing from a train window.

'Dinner' was similar to lunch, served from a trolley. All our Chinese fellow-passengers started getting ready for bed quite early, so we followed suit and settled down by about half past nine. At 10 o'clock, all the lights were suddenly switched off.

I found it rather warm on my top bunk, but I managed to get some sleep. I was woken at most station stops during the night, as the driver kept sounding the horn every 30 seconds or so, and then giving a long blast before setting off. I think he just liked the sound of it, which I had to admit was quite impressive - at least four tones sounding together, and echoing off the mountains.

The hard class sleeper on the Chengdu to Kunming train

Friday 4th April

We were awoken at about 6 o'clock by other people getting up, and at 6.30 the lights and piped music came on.

The last part of the journey was still very scenic, and the train rolled into Kunming at 8.50, half an hour late. Here, we were once again met on the platform and taken to the Golden Dragon Hotel to check in. As we were too late here, our guide, Emily, took us to another hotel for breakfast, then we returned to the Golden Dragon to shower and decide what to do today.

At 12 o'clock we caught a bus to the North Station to investigate the narrow-gauge railway which goes across the border into Vietnam. A diesel locomotive was doing some shunting, but otherwise there was not much to see. We walked on to Green Lake Park, and had a relaxing stroll around in the warm sunshine, with some Yunnan Green Tea for Y8 at the tea-house.

We walked back to the hotel, looking at shops on the way. We hadn't had a proper lunch today, just a few snacks including french fries and potato crisps from a roadside stall.

Dinner was taken at Wei's Place, a restaurant near our hotel and listed in Lonely Planet. English books were available for loan from the restaurant. We had a good meal, including dessert (chocolate and banana pancake) and Guangming beer, for Y24 each. We did not mention to the waiter the mouse we saw scuttling up the stairs.

Early to bed again, at about 10 o'clock.

A street market in Kunming

Saturday 5th April

Breakfast, at seven, was a buffet service of both Western and Chinese dishes. A Richard Clayderman tape was playing, something which had been compulsory listening in our 1988 hotel in Beijing.

Today we had a sightseeing tour arranged for the Stone Forest, a 2-hour journey by road. The minibus called at a jade jewellery factory/shop on the way, but nobody bought anything. There were lots of sales assistants standing around, no doubt waiting for coachloads of tourists to arrive.

The road followed the Vietnam railway and the new Nanning railway for some distance, and we saw a narrow-gauge train on the former. Emily told us that the Nanning line was 'opened' on 8th March, but that trains had not started running yet. It runs through fairly mountainous terrain and there are many viaducts and tunnels.

At intervals along the roadside there were signs with political or 'moral' slogans, which had an approximate English translation. We could not work out the meaning of the one which said "Refuse to Run Over Invoice Reward for Eating Up".

We saw a lot of ducks - live ones in the rivers, and plucked ones hanging by the roadside.

The Stone Forest is an area of limestone pillars up to 30 metres high, which have been eroded into strange shapes. Paths have been constructed through the rocks for tourists to follow, and there were certainly plenty of Chinese tour groups here. Nevertheless, it was quite interesting to wander around in the hot sunshine. We had lunch at a restaurant in the 'stone forest village', then walked up to a pavilion which gives a good view over a large part of the forest.

On our return to Kunming we called at a freshwater pearl farm, where there were more expensive goods to pretend to be interested in.

Back in Kunming, Emily recommended a street for restaurants, but we found that most were in fact open air stalls, which we did not fancy. Instead, we headed back towards Wei's Place, but on the way came across another decent-looking restaurant on the same street, so went there. There was no English menu, but we successfully used the 'order' written in Brian's phrasebook. What we got was a good mixture of food, although the discovery of a number of birds' claws on one of the plates and in the soup was a bit unnerving. Now it was Jim's turn to feel unwell, and he had to rush out to the toilet during the meal. He didn't eat much and went back early to the hotel. The rest of us didn't stay up late, going to bed at 9.30.

Part of the Stone Forest near Kunming

Sunday 6th April

I was up at 7 o'clock, and I walked with Dave to the railway to take some photographs. We saw a westbound local passenger train and an eastbound freight. We were back at the hotel before nine for a quick breakfast, then seven of us departed in the bus for Western Mountain. Jim had been on the toilet all night so he stayed behind.

Four of us took the chair lift up the mountain, while Dave, Ian and Andy walked. It was a very pleasant, peaceful trip. From the chair lift station, we walked further up to a pavilion, which gives views over Lake Dian to Kunming in the distance. Brian, Dave and Andy walked further, up to the summit.

We all walked back down except Bill (who took the chair lift), following the footpaths via Dragon Gate. The paths are steep, with many steps, and in one place it goes along a cliff edge and through a tunnel. Back in the village we had a look at the tomb of the composer of the Chinese National Anthem (I didn't make a note of his name) and then went into a showroom of expensive prints and other tourist souvenirs. Dave bought a limited edition print for £100 (using Sandra's credit card).

We returned by bus to a strange restaurant, rather like a works canteen, on the outskirts of Kunming, for lunch. There was the option of selecting our own raw ingredients for cooking (none of us did this) or a buffet service of cooked food. There were no other customers in the restaurant, and we got the impression it was only used by tour groups. Here, Bill had to make a dash for the toilet.

In the afternoon, we visited a park by Lake Dian. There were lots of flowers, and a model of the park. The adjacent canal was covered in fleshy green vegetation which has been encouraged by nitrate pollution, and it was interesting to see boats ploughing their way through it.

We returned to the hotel, where I wrote a few postcards. I also bought a Y20 phone card and tried to call my mother, but I could not get through, as the connection dropped out as soon as I dialled the first '4' of the UK country code.

Dinner was at Wei's Place again, and we sat upstairs this time. Jim had joined us, but he was taking it easy and just had an omelette. We only had one beer each tonight, and six of us had apple pie and ice cream after our main course. The bill came to Y19 each, less than £1.50, which was incredible value.

The Pavilion on Western Mountain, with Lake Dian below

Monday 7th April

We got down for breakfast just before eight, fortunately getting there before the large party of Germans arrived. It was a fairly lazy morning, packing our bags and looking round the shops which were attached to the hotel. This morning, it was Brian's turn to feel ill.

The bus took us to the station at 11.30, and the train to Guangzhou (Canton) departed at 12.30. This train was a bit tatty - there were no curtains in the compartments, the door mirror was cracked, the 'Western-style' toilet at one end of the coach did not flush, the wash-basin outlet leaked all over the floor and there was only plain glass in the toilet window. We were going to be on this train for two nights.

We had a picnic lunch of soup and a banana, then I read a bit more of the book I had brought with me, Paul Theroux's 'Riding the Iron Rooster'. Despite all the long train journeys, I had not done much reading and was only on the third chapter. We also had a couple of games of Scrabble.

The landscape outside was becoming very mountainous, with red soil, said to be typical of Yunnan province.

Brian and Ian opted out, while the rest of us went to the dining car for dinner. The menu had three options, in Chinese, and we took pot luck on the first one. We got soup, cold chicken with red chilli sauce, pork with green chilli, beef & potato, and rice. Mouths were cooled down with Guangming beer.

As the evening light faded, the landscape changed, with large, lumpy mountains coming into view. After a game of I-spy in the compartment, we went to bed early. My sleep was interrupted by jerky stops and starts at stations.

View from the train

Tuesday 8th April

I awoke to landscape which was still dominated by large, lumpy, limestone mountains, while closer to the train were paddy fields with water buffalo, banana plants, and peasants wearing lampshade hats. We had a DIY breakfast of ginger biscuits and coffee, kindly supplied by Bill.

During the morning, the weather got warmer and it became very humid. We had a game of Scrabble.

At Liujia the train came to a sudden halt. After a few minutes it moved forwards a short distance, and a crowd gathered and dragged the body of a large animal (buffalo?) from under the train. The train then carried on, about 20 minutes late.

Bill, Andy and I had lunch in the restaurant car. Lunch consisted of a fixed menu for Y30, and was served on a partitioned stainless steel tray. It consisted of chilli soup, pork with broad beans and spring onions, duck with cabbage, a hard-boiled duck egg and rice.

The landscape became flatter, and we got out onto the platform at Liuzhou, where the train reversed. Temperature and humidity dropped later in the afternoon.

The lumpy mountain scenery for which this area is famous re-appeared just before Guilin, but it didn't seem as impressive as earlier in the day, and it was getting too dark to photograph. I briefly got out of the train at Guilin.

Dinner at 19.00 was another tray meal, this time duck with broad beans and aniseed, battered meatballs and cabbage, accompanied with Guangming beer.

We went to bed early at 21.00, but I didn't get to sleep until midnight.

The 12.30 Kunming to Guangzhou train at Mawei, with a pair of "Dong Feng" (East Wind) class diesel locomotives.  The mountains are typical of this part of southern China.

Wednesday 9th April

I awoke before seven, and got up as the train arrived at Shaoguan, so I got out for a few minutes. The weather was cool and misty.

The train arrived at its destination, Guangzhou, at 10 o'clock, nearly two hours late. A representative of China Travel Service met us for the transfer to the International station, and she confirmed that we were booked on the 18.00 departure to Hong Kong. We wanted an earlier departure if possible - Brian had faxed a request for this from Kunming but it had not had any effect. On arrival at the new International station, we were told that we could buy new tickets for the 15.10 train and get a partial refund on our original ticket, so we agreed to this.

We had lunch at a restaurant near the station, with our guide acting as interpreter. We had Y230 in total between us, and we got quite a good meal for this.

On returning to the station we had some time to wait before being allowed through to the departure lounge at 14.10. It is a smart new station but it has few facilities - there is no restaurant and the toilets were smelly despite a Y0.2 charge to use them. We were not allowed to go to the front of the train to take a photograph, and we had to show our passports as we boarded the train. We had also needed them for buying the tickets, and to get through passport control on the station, so clearly the authorities are keen on ensuring that unauthorised persons do not travel to Hong Kong.

Once we were on the train, it was a comfortable 2-hour journey, with complimentary passion-fruit juice or tea served at our seats.

From Kowloon station we caught a train on the Kowloon - Canton Railway to Kowloon Tong, where we changed to the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to Prince Edward. We had bought a HK$70 stored value ticket for the journey, as it allows you to make several journeys until the value is used up. From Prince Edward we walked to our hotel, the Concourse, and checked in - I was in room 812. The first priority was to have a bath. It felt really good to be back in 'civilisation', where things work, everything is clean and tidy and you can cross the roads safely.

Later, we caught the MTR to Tsim-Sha-Tsui, then the Star Ferry across to Central (we could have stayed on the MTR but it's not quite the same as the Star) and then onwards by MTR again. We had a very filling meal at Harry Ramsden's fish & chip restaurant (Harry's Special, HK$128), also Tetley's bitter, and rhubarb crumble. Andy unfortunately missed the meal, as he was not feeling well (again).

Inside the Guangzhou to Hong Kong train

Thursday 10th April

Bill, Dave, Jim and I set off at nine o'clock by MTR to Sheung Wan to buy tickets for the trip to Macau which we had planned for tomorrow. We had a late breakfast in a café in the shopping centre there - orange juice, mushroom & onion omelette, toast and coffee.

We caught the MTR back to Central, then had a ride on a tram and changed some travellers' cheques at a bank. We also spent some time looking for hi-fi shops, as we were all wanting to buy personal CD players at prices cheaper than at home. At Pacific Place, a large shopping centre, we went in Hong Kong Records where Dave bought some CDs, which are also cheap here.

We caught another tram, this time to Causeway Bay, where we looked in the Sogo department store (13 floors) for CD players. We compared prices in a few other small shops, but decided to return to Sogo to buy them there. However, there was a Panasonic representative at Sogo, and he advised us to go to Times Square where there are a lot of hi-fi shops on the 7th floor. There, we found the model we wanted at $1280, as against $1600 at Sogo, so the four of us each bought one there, but then returned to Sogo to get the worldwide guarantee sorted out.

We returned to the hotel by MTR, then with the others set out for Aberdeen on the south of Hong Kong Island. We used the MTR to Central, then bus via the tunnel. We had decided on a meal at the 'Jumbo' floating restaurant, so we made our way to the harbour and onto the landing stage for the boat to the restaurant. A sampan was moored there, so we boarded it, but realised our mistake when the boatman asked for money, so we got off. Just then, the official boat arrived and that took us to the restaurant.

It is a very large restaurant. We ordered a set meal for six, and Brian, Andy and Ian ordered individual dishes. The meal was well-presented but not particularly satisfying, and very expensive - nearly £30 a head when beer and the cover charge were included.

Sandra, Brian and I returned by bus and MTR to the hotel, but the others were busy taking photographs and missed our bus. They caught a later bus, then Star Ferry followed by another bus up Nathan Road, Kowloon's main street. Back at the hotel, Bill, Jim, Dave and I had a CD player testing session until one o'clock.

Friday 11th April

We made an early (6.50) start by MTR to Sheung Wan for the 8.00 hydrofoil to Macau. It was a pleasant journey between islands, and took just over an hour.

I obtained 200 patacas (the local currency) from a cash machine, and we took the bus to the town centre (M$2.30 flat fare, no change given). We bumped into an American tourist we had met at an MTR station yesterday.

After a late breakfast in a café (OJ, bacon & mushroom omelette, toast coffee), we walked through the town centre to the ruin of St Paul's. The old town has very attractive narrow, cobbled, traffic-free streets, and is very Portuguese in style with Portuguese street-names and lots of blue tiles. However, there are also Chinese signs everywhere, and densely-packed tower blocks outside the central area.

We walked up to Fort Monte, and sat in the sunshine for a while, then all except Brian and Sandra walked back to the town centre, and I bought a T-shirt on the way. We caught a bus to Barra and walked around the southern tip of the peninsula and back into the town centre, meeting up with Brian and Sandra again at the main square as pre-arranged.

The American tourist had recommended a restaurant to us, so we went there for dinner and I had onion soup, 'Shredded Cod Special' and a dessert, and we had 3 bottles of wine between us. At £12 a head, it was very good value.

A local bus took us back to the jetfoil terminal, for the 21.00 back to Hong Kong. At Sheung Wan, Brian, Sandra, Andy and I got separated from the others and we made our own way back by MTR, arriving at the hotel at 22.45.

The façade of St Paul's church, Macau

Saturday 12th April

We met up at 8.30 and decided to head for a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet for breakfast. We caught the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui but before reaching our intended restaurant we passed a Delifrance café and dived in there instead (OJ, bacon, sausage and egg, coffee).

The Star Ferry took us across to Central, where there was a long queue for the free open-top bus to the Peak Tram lower station, so we walked there instead. There was also a long queue for the tram, and we waited about half an hour to board. At the top, there was a good view over the harbour, although it was a bit hazy. A new complex of shops, restaurants and entertainments had been built at the Peak since my 1988 visit.

We split up and decided to meet back at the Peak at 18.30 to see HK by night. Bill, Dave, Jim and I walked down via Harlech Road and alongside the escalator link (which operates in the up direction except in the morning peak), and called in at a bar for refreshment (grapefruit juice) on the way.

In the Central district, we called at two branches of KPS Records looking for CDs, but both seemed to be mainly video shops and didn't have a good selection of records. We continued walking to Pacific Place to Hong Kong Records, where we'd been on Thursday, and bought some there. I bought seven, including two doubles, for $820, less than £70.

We bought a snack at the food court in Pacific Place, then walked back to Queensway for the No.15 bus up to the Peak. We had some difficulty finding the right stop, but eventually found it and enjoyed the scenic ride. The fare was $6.10 - it would have been $8.20 on an air-conditioned bus.

At the top, we met up with the others and attempted some photography as it got dark, but railings and glass screens meant that tripods were not tall enough and we had to rely on hand-held shots.

We returned by bus to Central, aiming for the 'Malay' restaurant on Wellington Street that we had picked out of Lonely Planet. When we got there we were not impressed by the menu which seemed to be mostly Chinese, so we went to the 'Mr Rhino' South African restaurant next door (you can find almost any nationality restaurant in Hong Kong). I had an excellent meal of crocodile steak followed by peppermint tart. The crocodile was like a firm fish steak, such as swordfish. This was our last evening in Hong Kong, and I always like to finish a holiday with a good meal.

After taking the Star Ferry back to Kowloon, we lingered to take some photographs across the harbour, then caught the last No.2 bus back up Nathan Road at 00.35.

The eight travellers. From left to right: Dave, Ian, Jim, Bill, Andy, Sandra, Brian and me.

Sunday 13th April

I got up at 8.30 and got things packed for the last time on this holiday. Bill rang Orpheus, a Hong Kong resident that he had got talking to on a tram on Thursday, and arranged to meet up with him at 1.30 for lunch. I took my rucksack down to the concierge for storage until later in the day, then had a snack breakfast from a bakery shop on the ground floor of the hotel.

Andy, Ian and I went for a walk locally in the morning. I was looking for a specific T-shirt which I had spotted in a closed shop last night, but didn't find any like it. There was a street market in Reclamation Street which sold mostly food items, although one stall had a string bag full of live toads (I wasn't sure whether they were food or not). We arrived back at the hotel just before 12, just as Bill was checking out.

Bill and I waited in the reception area until Orpheus arrived, and then he took us to a restaurant off Nathan Road near Mong Kok MTR station, where we had a dim sum meal, which I quite enjoyed, even the tripe. We walked back to the hotel, and then caught the 16.30 bus to Kai Tak airport.

I had time to write some last-minute postcards before departure, which was at 19.40 to Bangkok, on Qantas Flight QF77. The aircraft was a Boeing 767, and I sat next to Ian: Jim and Andy sat in the seats behind, but the others were further back. I listened to the in-flight rock music channel for most of the 2½ hour flight, and a meal of chicken in mushroom sauce, with rice, was served.

It was announced before we left the plane at Bangkok that the connecting flight to London was delayed due to an Indian air traffic controllers' strike, and would leave at 05.00 instead of 00.30, which meant seven hours to wait at the airport. The return flight was always going to be the one low point of the holiday, and this just made it worse.

At the transfer desk we were given authorisation to wait in the first class lounge, where complimentary sandwiches and drink were available. I deliberately stayed awake during the night, with the aim of making it easier to sleep on the flight. The Argentine Grand Prix was being shown live on TV.

A street market in Kowloon

Monday 14th April

At midnight local time we wished Dave a happy birthday, 6 hours earlier than he would have been able to celebrate it at home.

There was an exciting finish to the Grand Prix, which was won by Villeneuve 0.9 seconds ahead of Eddie Irvine, who had been on his tail for the last few laps. For the rest of the night I listened to CDs.

The flight, QF001, a 747, eventually departed at 6.20 local time, almost six hours late. An omelette was served for breakfast after take-off. I tried to sleep, but without any success, and I missed the first film, which was 101 Dalmatians. In between films, the screen showed a map display of the aircraft's position and route, together with speed, altitude and air temperature. We flew over India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.

The second film was 'Daylight', an entirely predictable tunnel disaster movie starring Sylvester Stallone. 'Lunch' was served about 10 hours after breakfast, by which time I was absolutely starving. Arrival at Heathrow terminal 3 was at 12.30, 12 hours after leaving Bangkok, and a gruelling 24 hours after leaving Hong Kong. Thank God that was over.

There was a long wait for our luggage, and when it arrived, the four of us with CD players, being the honest chaps that we are, went through the red channel, but we weren't charged anything.

And then we started going our separate ways: Bill got another flight to Amsterdam, Jim got a bus direct to Woking, while the rest of us took the Piccadilly line. All except me got out at Earl's Court (for Victoria), then I was on my own again, to King's Cross and from there the 15.00 to York. A taxi took me from the station to home, where I arrived just after five o'clock, and had some difficulty opening the door due to all the mail behind it.

I was in bed before nine.

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