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The Train To Harbin

24 hours on a train is paradise for me. I sit back, drink beer, and watch the scenery move by totally encapsulated from the world while moving through it.

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They were pushing beer on that train up to Harbin. Everyone who sauntered into the dining car was greeted with an invitation to drink. Anyone who ordered a meal without beer was quickly reminded that they may have been forgetting something: “Yao Pijiu ma?” How could we refuse?

These beers even came ice cold — a rare thing in a country that has been conditioned to believe that consuming liquids any colder than room temperature is a pernicious influence on the health. Everywhere through the dining car six packs loaded into plastic carrying racks were being deposited onto tables. The sound of beer cans being cracked open and spent pull tabs jingling after being tossed on the floor blended with the steady thump, thump of wheels speeding over track. I joined in on the guzzling, sat back, stared out the window and just watched the landscape inch past as I moved ever closer to the far northeast of China.

This was the T156 train that runs from Taizhou, in Jiangsu province to Harbin, 24 hours and 2,500 km away in Heilongjiang. It made sense that beer was being distributed in bulk on this train as we were heading up into beer drinking country. Harbin was once China’s gateway to Europe. I would be on this train for an entire day, but that did not worry me: there was no place else that I would rather be.

My vision of paradise isn’t made up of beaches, boobs, or buffets, neither does it include wealth, power, nor property. For me, paradise is a train moving through the countryside, a seat in the dining car, a beer, and a naked sun covering farms and scattered little villages with a blanket of orange light as it slowly drops behind them. Paradise is a feeling, not a place. And it works best when kept simple. A day on a train is a day of relaxation, a day encapsulated away from the rest of the world as I move through it.

I take a sip from my beer and begin inventing stories about the people I see out in the fields and about the villages and cities they live in. Travel is an exercise in cerebral fiction, it’s a game for those perfectly content with entertaining themselves — a show that doesn’t end. As long as the wheels keep spinning there will always be enough to observe to keep the mind rolling. There is perhaps no better movie than staring out the window of a train.

“We’re kings of the world,” an old friend once said as we were sipping beers in the dinning car of a train moving across the south of China. This was my first train ride in this country, and this was a feeling I would never forget. It was the feeling of paradise, of being in a place and knowing that we would rather be nowhere else in the world doing nothing more than sitting back, marveling at the ride. Travel has always been a shortcut to this feeling.

You hop on a train and life all of a sudden simplifies itself as you hang in this suspended animation of passive observation, thought, and memory. There is little else that you can do besides read, write, have conversation, look out the window, eat, and drink. You have nothing to do, nothing is expected of you, there is nobody to answer to, and you can abscond into yourself and just relax and dream. I look out of a window at a countryside basked in orange twilight, I see farmers cutting golden hay, I see a woman watering seedlings, I see a village that I will probably never look upon again, and I know that there is no place that I would rather be and nothing I would rather be doing.

Real life begins again when the train comes to the end of the line.

Inevitably, that moment happened. After a day and night of lounging, loafing, and loitering I looked out the window at the industrial outskirts of the city whose name was printing on my ticket. We rolled into the station and corny Russian sounding music blasted over the intercom as a soundtrack for our arrival. The a prerecorded announcement in shaky English officially welcomed us:

“Beautiful Harbin is made even more beautiful by the flood control monument, the suspension bridge, and the new worker’s gymnasium.”

I burst out laughing, the self-deprecating attempt at flattery was too much: A bridge, a monument, and a stinking gymnasium? Had I just spent 24 hours on a train for this?

Watch a video of this train journey


Filed under: China, Train Travel, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

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