No Planes, Trains & Automobiles

It all started with a call from the airline, ‘your flight’s been cancelled’.  We were enjoying a mini break on Hainan Island, apparently also known as ‘Chawaii’ (China’s Hawaii).  I haven’t got enough time to explain why it’s nothing like Hawaii, suffice to say it’s a nice place for a few days but no longer than that.  Apt for us then, our three-day stay was cut short with the menace of Super Typhoon Usagi.  Our one hour flight back to Hong Kong was cancelled and according to the airline, they wouldn’t be able to fly us out for another five days.

Time was against us with Hong Kong Airport announcing its closure in under 24 hours.  After spending hours on hold with the only other airline that flies the Hong Kong-Sanya route, it occurred to me that there could be a Plan B.  To go by land.  This wouldn’t be an easy feat with two kids under four, but at least we could get moving.

My husband disappeared to the hotel’s business centre to try to buy train tickets.  An hour later he burst through the door announcing ‘we’re leaving in five’.  As a family travel blogger, I spend my days advising parents on how to travel with young kids.  This complete lack of preparation was my worst nightmare.

A taxi drove us the 45 minutes to Sanya station.  Our plan: to catch the 8pm train to the north side of the island (Haikou), and then switch to the midnight overnight sleeper train.  Travelling in mainland China is not easy.  And we can barely muster a sentence in Mandarin between us, apart from my daughter who helpfully pointed out she knew the words to ‘eyes, ears, nose and mouth’.
Buying a ticket Sanya station

Our taxi driver (who spoke no English) tried to help us buy our train tickets, but after 30 minutes it became apparent the 8pm train was completely full.  He then came up with the genius suggestion of trying to outrun the train by driving us to Haikou.  We put faith in his plan, purchased our onward sleeper tickets and piled into the back of his taxi.  A 120km four hour car ride ensued, with the driver hurtling down the pitch black motorways while simultaneously playing Candy Crush on his phone.  When we arrived in Haikou however, it became apparent he had absolutely no idea where the train station was. We chased down passing taxis and we eventually found it with just one minute to spare. Sprinting through into the station, little kids and suitcases flying everywhere, we had made it! Or not. Our sleeper train was delayed by four hours…. 

Haikou Train Station

We were too exhausted for tears, so looked around the station waiting room, our home for the next few hours.  Fluorescent strip lighting combined with eager mainlanders gathering around our children to take photos was not where we wanted to wait it out until 4am.  Luckily a friendly stranger practicing his English on us worked out we could catch the Xian bound train now sitting in the station.  My husband tried to exchange our existing tickets, which wasn’t going well until he summoned our blonde haired four year old to accompany him.  That seemed to melt the hearts of the station master and off we were sent to our new abode for the next twelve hours.  The sleeper train to Xian, via Guangzhou.

Chinese Sleeper Train

An overnight Chinese train is an experience that might crack the toughest of travellers.  I had spent long hours as a backpacker dreamily watching the Indian countryside from a wooden bed, happily alternating between scribbling in my journal and reading a book.  Travelling on trains in China and travelling with young kids is a different story.  On viewing our beds for the night, my daughter burst into tears and asked ‘are we in the hospital?’.  She wasn’t far off.  We had been allocated the two bottom bunks of a triple bunk bed.  Thankfully our berth was empty but that’s where the good news ended.  Not only were there bright lights and Chinese opera music filling the carriage, but our berth was slap bang next to the toilet AND where the train staff would have their cigarette breaks.  In addition to the smoke, the air was also filled with the sound of passengers hacking up phlegm.  It wasn’t all bad however.  Although I’d forgotten to pack any food for the long journey ahead, refreshment trolleys would conveniently pass by, one filled with delicious looking fruit.  I was just about to buy grapes for the girls until I saw the vendor sneeze all over them!

Guangzhou Train

After being delayed in the station, our train finally got moving. Slowly, but moving. Then it ground to a halt and started going backwards.  All would could do was laugh as we realized that after all this trouble, we were actually getting further away from home.  Our laughter then turned to concern after we felt an almighty smash and our luggage flew everywhere.  The smash happened again.  And again.  This was really quite worrying until we realised that none of the other passengers were in the slightest bit bothered.  Mechanical clanging and screeching noises soon turned into an eerie silence.  Was that the sea we could hear?  My husband got out his phone and started Googling our journey.  Suddenly it became clear!  They had actually decoupled the train carriages and put them all on a ferry to the mainland.

Eventually we all fell asleep, my husband waking every 30 minutes to check none of the family/luggage had been stolen.  We slept rather well given the circumstances and woke up with only four hours to go. The girls happily watched the iPad whilst we checked the progress of Super Typhoon Usagi, and avoided using the toilet.

Guangzhou station

At midday (17hrs after we left the hotel) we arrived at Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. I have never seen so many people pile off a train and out of a station, with the kids nearly getting swept up in the crush.  Hooray – we were on the home stretch back to Hong Kong thanks to the high speed rail that runs from Guangzhou direct to Kowloon.  Except it doesn’t.  It runs from Guangzhou East.  Delirious from the long journey, I tried to make the family catch the metro which was a 7 stop journey but with 3 changes.  Luckily my husband put his foot down and we found a taxi to take us to the other side of the city.

We wearily joined the long queue for the ticket office, only to eventually be told all trains were sold out for the day.  Of course they were!  I asked hopefully if there were any trains running to another border town, Shenzhen, conscious that it would at least put us a bit closer to home.  Thankfully there were and we treated ourselves to first class and filled our boots with Burger King, our first ‘square meal’ in 24 hours.

The one and a half hour journey to Shenzhen was luxurious in comparison to the sleeper.  Plush seats and even a seat back table.  I started reflecting on the fact that we were 19 hours into our journey home, but passed out with exhaustion.
Shenzhen Train

Shenzhen station was crammed with people frantically trying to cross the border to get back to Hong Kong before the typhoon hit.  The kids had been brilliantly behaved up to this point but this was meltdown hour.  My four year old brought out her arsenal of insults from “Daddy, why don’t you throw yourself in the bin” to “I’m never giving you a hug in the morning again’.  I hate immigration queues at the best of times but with two tantrumming children, I was close to losing the plot.  As we eventually got our passports stamped to leave mainland China, even the immigration officer laughed at us on realising we had travelled all the way from Sanya overland.

We eventually arrived at Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station having spent our last hour traveling down comfortably (think material seats instead of metal ones) through northern Hong Kong.  There was a light drizzle but no sign of impending rainstorm doom.  Super Typhoon Usagi actually took a last minute left turn, and almost completely bypassed Hong Kong.

Once the taxi dropped us home we couldn’t help but giggle at the memories of our trip; 22 hours door to door, 4 taxi rides, 3 trains, 2 kids, 1 tantrum, and an offensively named packet of Chinese crisps.

Who said travelling with kids can’t be filled with adventure!?!?

Sanya to Hong Kong map


This article has been written to recognise the author’s contribution to travel and tourism by Avis Car Hire on the A-List Awards 2013

Voting is now open!  Please click here to vote for Nicola at Jetlag & Mayhem any time between Oct 7th – 31st 2013


  1. Rhi Rhi

    This is brilliant! Made me laugh out loud! I read aloud to Alex who said it was a ‘normal Chinese train journey’ but of course, all very different with two young kids. I can’t believe you made it home with your sanity and that the typhoon didn’t even hit!!!

  2. Justine

    Wow – definitely an adventure/nightmare! Brilliantly written – really enjoyed reading this. Keep the stories coming Nic xx

  3. Keynko (@Keynko)

    Sounds like you need a holiday to recover from your holiday!

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