Getting to Yunnan the slow way

This is going to be a first of a series of blog entries about my vacation in 云南 (Yunnan). When I decided to go to China, the whole China team was encouraging me to go on vacation and see different parts of the country. That sounds great but you don’t really get to do that when you are busy at work and building your social network. With almost 3 months into a 4.5-month stint, I decided to follow their advice and take a week off to see Yunnan.

Why Yunnan? It’s one of the most scenic areas of China. Yunnan one of the most southern provinces, bordering on Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Of the 56 ethnic minorities in China, 26 of them live in Yunnan. So, it’s a very diverse province. It also happens to be that my Chinese teacher lives in Kunming and she volunteered to be my travel guide and translator for this trip.  This was very generous of her, she even had to take a week off, so I insisted that I compensate her for it and pay all her expenses because I didn’t want to take advantage of her. Besides, everyone at work told me that it was a very good idea to travel together with a local.

The trip itself will take me from Kunming, to Dali, to Lijiang and eventually to Shangrila. Along the way we see different ethnic minorities, enjoy their food and culture, and see spectacular nature. My tour guide has spent hours working with a local travel operator to prepare this trip so I’m looking forward to it.

I didn’t leave everything to my tour guide and her travel operator. I decided to take a high-speed train from Beijing to Kunming. This is an almost 11hr trip that starts at 8am and gets into Kunming around 7pm. Everyone asked me why I didn’t take a plane. It’s faster and cheaper. While that’s true, and I’m taking a plane when I return, I wanted to experience the changing Chinese landscape when going from North to South rather that flying over it.

I used the 12306 app to book my high-speed train ride and like last time I got a business class seat. This is the most luxurious level and it’s a small compartment with at most 4 other passengers. I got a chair by myself, which as I discovered can not only go into a full sleeping position, but it can also turn so you are straight in front of the Window. That’s basically what I did for the full 11 hours, I put on an audio book and watched the changing Chinese landscape roll by.

The journey started at 5am for me. After a shower I got a DiDi to Beijing West train station. My train left at 8am, but I figured I’d show up early because as a foreigner everything is a bit more complicated. These precautions were all unnecessary. With the QR code from the app I could quickly run through all the checkpoints, I didn’t even have to show my passport even though I had it visibly on me. They preferred I scanned the code in the app because it was quicker. Unlike last time, when I exchanged the online QR code for a paper version because that’s what I was used to, they ensured me that wasn’t necessary. That too turned out to be the case, I just needed to scan my QR code at the platform gate to get in. Of course, with all this efficiency I did have almost 2 hours to kill in the VIP lounge. Next time I can show up much later.

Beijing west train station.

The days before the trip I carefully monitored the weather and the train schedules. ZhengZhou, a city on the train route, was inundated by heavy rain the weekend before. Tragic videos of people drowning in stranded subway cars that got stuck in flooded tunnels were all over the news. Much to my surprise the highspeed train was running although it was incredibly hard to figure out which trains were cancelled, and which were not. This surprised me. For a country where everything is high tech it was the hardest thing to figure this out. Even for Chinese people. Eventually a friend sent me the following Baidu query (北京西站7月28日停运列车) that I used everyday, with the appropriate date inserted, to understand what was going on.

The highspeed train and the cabin I was in. I had the bottom left chair.

The train left on time and ran like clockwork at ~298km/h until we hit Zhengzhou. There the train understandably slowed down and we drove through still emerged villages. This delayed us by 15-minutes and at the end of the trip we had a 24-minutes delay, which in my opinion is pretty good on an almost 11-hours ride.

Zhengzhou was hit very hard by the bad weather the weekend before.

The trip itself was uneventful. I left a rainy Beijing and the weather cleared, ironically around Zhengzhou. From that point on it was clear and around Wuhan (of COVID fame) the sun came out. It was also around Wuhan that the landscape changed. Before that it was flat farmland and factories. Around Wuhan it became hillier and by the time we hit Hunan these were steep and jagged mountain peaks. From Hunan on the train also encountered many tunnels. Not too surprising with all the mountains but it made the scenery viewing more challenging.

After Wuhan the landscape started changing.

Halfway through the train ride, I got an update from thebeijinger.com that discussed the two new COVID cases in Beijing and how it has everything on edge. Also, the cases in Nanjing and surrounding areas is getting everyone worried. Thebeijinger.com suggested to cancel all unnecessary travel but at that point it was too late. I was on my way already so I may as well enjoy it.

I’m glad I stuck to my guns and did the train ride. It’s a gorgeous trip and you get to see parts of China that you typically flyover. I can highly recommend doing this, if you have the time.

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