L28 Idles at Railway Platform
August 29, 2009

Don't take the L-train in China.

I'd never heard of the L line before last week when I bought a ticket for an Urumqi/Beijing run. Times when I don't fly between those cities I would normally take a T-train: the T70 now makes the run from Urumqi to Beijing in under 42 hours. But when I was booking my ticket out of Urumqi there weren't any good discounts on flights, there weren't any other train tickets available... and I had no idea what the L signified.

Let me explain the lettering system that China Railways uses:

Train runs between cities in China are usually designated by a string of numbers. For example, the 5801 shuttles slowly between Urumqi and the Kazakhstan border. If those digits are preceded by some letter of the alphabet, this letter gives an indication as to the speed of the train. With no letter, it's sure to be an ordinary, pokey, slow run--as in the case of the 5801.

Hard-sleeper carriage, L28
If the letter at the beginning is a K, then it's an express train. K stands for kuai 快--which in Chinese means "fast". A run that starts with K (e.g. the K9786 to Kashgar) will be faster than a train serving the same points that has no letter in its routing. T is even better, standing for te kuai 特快, or "especially fast"--as in line T70 from Urumqi to Beijing. Until recent years T-trains were the fastest run I knew of in China. I always tried to book tickets for a T-train when traveling long distances by rail across China.

Then I started seeing Z runs and even D runs. (The D stands for dong che zu 动车组, the bullet trains that now run along China's east coast.)

The only ticket I could book out of Urumqi was for a run a few days later on the L28. This was the first time I'd heard of an L-train. I assumed that with the advent of those increasingly faster Z and D lines, the L would be a speedy operation, too. I was mistaken. The L line is the lousy line, the lame line. It's the only lettered run that must be slower than the regular trains. It took me 65 hours to get from Urumqi to Beijing.

L actually stands for ling ke 临客, a run that has no right of way and is shunted off to a side track at every remote rail station.

Even though taking the train here took the better part of three days, I really can't complain. Many fellow passengers were university students being accompanied by relatives to the beginning of a new school year. When I felt like being sociable I had plenty of people to chat with, usually speaking Chinese. My ticket was in a comfortable class--hard-sleeper--in my favorite location in the carriage: upper berth.

In hard-sleeper class there are usually three bunk levels: upper, middle, and lower. Chinese travelers like the top berth least well. This preference is reflected marginally in the ticket prices. On the L28, middle berth costs about one U.S. dollar less than the bottom bunk, top berth is a buck less than bottom. I've heard reasoning (which I do not subscribe to, myself) as to why the top berth is the least desirable: it has the least headroom and is closest to cool air conditioning coming out of the ceiling.

Erik and Lisa
I actually prefer the top berth. It's the most private place in hard-sleeper class. I like the temperature a tad cool. Above all, I like the placement: I'm so tall that my feet can extend out over the edge of the berth. Only up in the top berth can I be sure that passengers walking down the aisle will never brush against my feet. I especially dislike the lower berth: a ticket there means that my bed turns into everybody else's seat during the day.

When the train finally pulled in, I stayed my first two nights in town at Lisa and Erik's hutong apartment. Even though the train arrived past midnight I immediately took advantage of my first Internet access in weeks to place calls to Seattle. I spoke with Mom and Dad for half an hour then responded to messages left by the Census Bureau. Over the weeks I've been incommunicado they had called a couple times to make sure they had my current contact information. They mentioned an operation on which I might be able to find work over October. I think I'll start looking into flights back to Seattle, returning sooner than later.

Everything about Beijing feels so different from Urumqi: 24-hour convenience stores abound, selling alien products such as Pepsi Light. There may be no minority languages (e.g., Uighur) doubling above the Chinese characters on shop signs out here, but English is everywhere--even in the spoken announcements on the city buses and on the metro. An errand that proved a fruitless quest in Urumqi--finding a print shop that could do a thermographic run of my calling card--took a mere 15 minutes after stepping into the first little copy shop I came across. Everything seems easier here.

Maria-João's Birthday at
Cafe 'Waiting for Godot'
Part of my comfort in Beijing comes not just from it being a larger, more cosmopolitan city, but from seeing so many familar faces. Yesterday, I shifted over from staying at Lisa & Erik's apartment near the Drum Tower to Maria-João and Pedro's place in Jiao Dao Kou. The first night of my visit we took dinner at Maria-João and Pedro's favorite dumpling restaurant, Xian Lao Man 馅老满. I ordered an item from the menu sheerly because it sounded so curious: "cola chicken". It was disappointing, drumsticks marinated weakly in cola. I guess I wouldn't order the chicken dish again, but the pot-stickers were pretty good--so it might be worth coming back for another round of dumplings before I leave.

Yesterday was Maria-João's birthday. We finished the night up celebrating at a nearby cafe, Waiting for Godot. Walking from dinner to birthday party I recognized none of the area we were in--so was surprised to find I knew exactly where I was once we stepped into the cafe. It turned out to be the very place I had spent an afternoon with Tiffany, over milkshakes, when passing through Beijing last year. Pedro surprised Maria-João with a cake he managed to bake on-the-sly. We lit candles, sang Happy Birthday, sipped drinks, and made conversation. It was a relaxed evening surrounded by new and familiar faces: Lisa and Erik stopped by, as did Rafaella, whom I had met only briefly when she joined us for dinner, back when I was last here two months ago. She was sporting a sharp new haircut, we had a longer chance to converse this time.

Later tonight should be dinner again with the three from Portugal. Maria-João, Pedro, Rafaella, and I have made plans for dinner at Hilal-Ai (Crescent Moon) a Xinjiang restaurant. Even though I've just come from Xinjiang, I'm game. This will probably be my last chance to speak Uighur and to eat Central Asian cuisine before what I anticipate being a long stay in Seattle.