Wed. May 18th, 2022

The largest human migration in the world took place earlier in the days before Chinese New Year – which falls on 1 February this year. Millions traveled great distances to reunite with their families, many traveling long-distance trains, sometimes for days. The last New Year of this kind was February 2019, when I joined a packed train en route from frozen Beijing to China’s hot southern province, Yunnan. It was a 35-hour journey.

Perhaps it was only on these train journeys that all the languages ​​and diversity of China from north to south were so intimately brought together. It seems unthinkable today, with Covid restrictions meaning many Chinese are unable to travel home for a third consecutive year. At the time, however, passengers were crammed between stacks of presents and luggage while sipping bottles of tea and Tsingtao beer, all buzzing for the holiday. In my compartment, a group of Hunan Province workers played loud Go as they passed round bags of melon seed. This has a subtle roasted flavor and the chewing promotes reflection – perfect for the long hours on the train.

Progress was slow as we boarded a lupiche, one of the “green skin trains” built in the 1950s under Mao. Characterized by heavy ironwork, sounding doors and faded yellow interiors, these old trains have traveled countless times across the vast country – a part of China that is constantly in motion. Inside, they smell of metal, oil and cigarettes from the smokers hiding between wagons.

But lupiche is fast disappearing in favor of high-speed trains. In the past five years, about 20,000 km of new high-speed track has been built; earlier this month, the China State Railway Group announced that the total has now reached more than 40,000 km, enough to stretch around the equator. Meanwhile, China recently debuted a Maglev cooling train that can reach a speed of 600 km per hour. Tickets are much more expensive; the high-speed train from Beijing to Kunming can cost double my Y600 (£ 70) slow-sleep ticket. Like many on the lupiche, I traveled deeper into the countryside than the high-speed lines reach, to stay with a friend’s family for Chinese New Year.

China's new maglev transportation system in Qingdao, eastern China's Shandong province

The Maglev cooling train, unveiled in July 2021, is capable of up to 600 km per hour © Alamy

My presence as the only foreigner on the train sparked light interest, mostly from parents who gave their children to me for free English lessons. In return, they gave me advice on New Year’s etiquette: take heaps of gifts, especially fruit. Be careful on the baijiu – strong rice drink. Always roast your glass under that of your host, this is a sign of respect. Do not forget to wear red underwear, it brings happiness! I was so taken in by the train’s interior that I forgot for hours to look out the window.

When I did, the view was initially disappointing. The landscapes of Hebei Province were flat and dull, smoke flowed from factory chimneys. But by late afternoon, we were through the cliffs of Xingtai and into Henan Province, where mountains were beginning to loom, promising beautiful views that we would miss during the night. Pots of noodles were sent around while dusk fell, filling the train with umami flavor. Eventually the sun set over the lakes of Xinyang, and the train stopped.

A strict ritual took place before bedtime. Everyone weighed themselves in on one of three levels of bunk beds, feet hanging in the open hallway. A guard went through to check tickets, followed by a man with a mop. Lights went off in the train, a few last cigarettes flared up in the gaps between wagons. I was soon put to sleep by the movement of the lupiche moving through the dark.

passengers sitting on a train as it leaves Beijing for the 26-hour journey to Chengdu before the new lunar year
Passengers on the train from Beijing to Chengdu before the Chinese New Year in 2018 © Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty

We woke up in another world, somewhere close to Huaihua in Hunan Province. Everything was strange and new: the green earth dissolving in mist, hay bales piled up like stupas, fishermen dragging nets in glistening rivers. By noon, we had crawled through Guizhou, a province known for its spectacular limestone orogeny. All around us, white peaks rose like giant stalagmites. The region is also a center of rice cultivation and its hills shone iridescent, tiled in hundreds of water fields, farmers treading lightly in their seams.

Faces on the train changed as the language softened to southern dialect. Many people wore the intricate embroidered clothes of the ethnic minorities in the Guizhou and Yunnan region. Their distinctive dress was captured by photographer Qian Haifeng who traveled 150,000 kilometers through China on the slow trains and documented his subjects with a rare intimacy – the kind encouraged by these long journeys. Indeed, Qian rarely ever shows the camera out the window.

Karst Mountains in China’s Guizhou Province © Alamy

Meanwhile, I have become a window-chair hogger looking at the landscapes with the greed of an enchanted child. At midnight we finally arrived in Kunming, where the air felt warm and clean. 38 hours ago I was skating on a frozen lake in Beijing, now the tropical forests of Vietnam were close by.

I spent the two-week vacation with a friend’s family among Yunnan’s mountainous rice terraces and ate elevated amounts of homemade baijiu and festive food. On New Year’s Eve, we watched the fireworks erupt above a crowded valley. There were views I missed on the night train entrance – Wuchang, Yueyang, Changsha – beautiful places I wanted to return to. Maybe the line will still be open next time I go.

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