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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 January 2007, 12:05 GMT
Taking the train to a new life in China
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Beijing

Faced with almost a day in the air, the BBC's newly-appointed Beijing correspondent got out the atlas and saw a long black line which might take him to his destination by train.

Trans-Siberian railway
The Trans-Siberian railway links Moscow and China

For many foreign correspondents, setting off for a new posting is a thrilling, defining moment. But, for me, it is always a moment I dread.

I convince myself I have made a mistake even thinking of moving to another country and I wish I could just turn back.

Partly in order to put off the fatal moment of arriving in a new country, I decided to go all the way to China by train.

So a short time ago, I found myself sitting in London's Waterloo station with my suitcase, munching glumly through a packet of fruit pastilles, feeling nervous and majestically sorry for myself.

Still, the first bits of the journey - London to Brussels to Cologne - were easy enough. But then it was time for the first tricky part: Cologne to Moscow.

I had been expecting a sort of charming Orient Express-style train and a pleasant amble through Eastern Europe.

But instead I found myself getting on board what looked like an industrial freight train.

A Russian guard called Valera took my ticket. He had a fairly dramatic knife scar on his face. I decided this could be a good thing.

I lay awake thinking 'I'm on a train on my way to live in China; what am I doing?'

Having been attacked once, he would clearly be ready to defend himself - and hopefully me as well - if attacked again.

My cabin was a tiny cell with a bed, a window and a sink. And that is where I stayed for most of the trip.

Valera was kind enough to check up on me every few hours, like a kind of personal prison warder.

Hunger pangs

I made the nearly fatal mistake of assuming that there would be some kind of food for sale on the train. But there was none.

Map showing route from London to Beijing

So by the time we arrived in Moscow 36 hours later I felt staggeringly faint.

Still, at least there had been no knife fights although I am sure Valera and I would have handled ourselves pretty well.

The next leg of my trip was the big one: Moscow to Beijing. Six days on one train.

At night I walked through the snow, past a group of women selling make-up, to platform number 2, the Trans-Mongolian Express and a Chinese guard in a green uniform.

I got on board carrying my suitcase and pretty much an entire backpack full of food to ward off possible starvation in case this trip was like the last.

I shared a cabin with a Finnish writer called Stella and two Russian women armed with huge novels.

After four days of champagne and silver birch trees, we crossed into Mongolia and the Gobi desert

The train got going and on that first night I settled down to a good six or seven hours of lying wide awake thinking "I'm on a train on my way to live in China. What am I doing?"

I spent the next day determined to keep looking out of the window to take in all the scenery.

But after eight straight hours of watching rows of identical silver birch trees go by, I decided it was probably okay to look away now and then.

Offering for the guard

I also thought it would be a good idea to make friends with the guard in case of crashes, knife fights or international incidents.

So when the train first stopped, I jumped out and stocked up with the only alcohol I could find - some bottles of pink champagne.

At exactly 32 minutes past two in the afternoon - just as it promised on the timetable - the train pulled into Beijing's main railway station

I went to the guard's cabin and placed one solemnly on his table, like a kind of offering or sacrifice.

He looked quite surprised. But from then on, he laughed when he saw me.

And I felt pretty confident I had an ally if things went wrong and we were diverted to Siberia or something.

After four days of champagne and silver birch trees, we crossed into Mongolia and into the Gobi desert.

For an entire day, inside the carriage you could taste the sand in your mouth.

By now I was sleeping pretty well, having exhausted the list of things I could worry about at night.

But this was another mistake, since I managed to sleep through our entire stop in the Mongolian capital Ulan Batur, which I had been really looking forward to seeing.

Beijing on time

After arriving at the Chinese border at midnight, we spent several hours filling in forms assuring the state we were free of all diseases known to man and were not carrying any materials detrimental to the country's morals.

We were allowed to get out on to the platform.

My friend the guard started polishing the train. There was a loudspeaker playing Moon River, presumably to welcome us to the country.

In a small supermarket you could buy freeze-packed chickens with their heads left on.

And then time seemed to speed up. We headed past the Great Wall and then into Beijing.

At exactly 32 minutes past two in the afternoon - just as it promised on the timetable - the train pulled into the city's main railway station.

I gave the guard a final bottle of champagne, stepped off the carriage onto an immaculately clean platform and into my new life.

I was still nervous. But I no longer wanted to turn back.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 January, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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12 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
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03 Jan 07 |  Country profiles
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19 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: China
14 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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