The equivalent of first class in China lands you a four-berth compartment, often with a lace doily on the little table, wider if not noticeably softer beds, less fellow passengers to share the toilet with, and if you're lucky, a plush VIP room to wait for the train at the station.
We were attempting to get from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, all the way south to Guilin, Guangxi province, a thousand miles to the south. A mammoth journey using any kind of transport. We briefly considered flying, but since that would take two flights and about the same amount of money anyway, I decided to take us across country so at least we could see something along the way. The problem was, as I have written before, that it's difficult (read: usually impossible) to prebook tickets for the train, especially if it is for a train originating at another station. So, the ticket office in Hohhot could only sell us tickets to Zhengzhou, a major rail hub in central China, but not tickets from Zhengzhou to our final destination. The other option was to go east for several hours to Beijing and change trains there.
Not wanting to waste time going east when we really wanted to go south west, I decided to take our chances on being able to buy tickets to Guilin when we arrived in Zhengzhou.
We set off from Hohhot on a beautiful sunny day, a great contrast to the murky skies on our aborted riding-Mongolian-ponies-on-the-grasslands trip. Mom and I followed the train line on the guidebook map with our fingers, trying to discover where we would again cross the Great Wall. Meanwhile, we munched on dried beef (Genghis Khan's Army brand) and drank rum and coke with unsuspecting passersby.
We were enjoying the beef and the drinks and the fleeting glimpse of the Wall on both sides of a sunlit valley, when it occurred to Mom and I that we were heading pretty much due east and not south, as the map seemed to show the train tracks going.
Sure enough, just after nightfall we pulled into Beijing station,
Beijing! After all my planning to avoid it! We could have stayed over, seen the Forbidden City, eaten roast duck...Oh well. After three years of fighting to make sense of the train times and schedules, I should have known better.
The train carried on into the night, past dozens of power stations (nuclear?), countless villages and ancient ruins.
Thankfully though, when we arrived in Zhengzhou the next morning, I managed to make the easiest of all the train transactions we had experienced in China. We were able to get a soft sleeper cabin on the next train out to Guilin, and I didn't even have to wait in line to get the tickets. We fortified ourselves with a McDonald's breakfast and hit the tracks.