We are heading for Harbin for the Ice Festival, and have decided to take the sleeper train. If you come from North America or Australia, this might not seem like such a novelty, but Britain is so small, you can hardly go anywhere that takes longer than forty winks. The boys are dizzily excited, and the most mundane things become thrilling innovations.
“This is a sofa! But it’s also a bed! It’s a sofa-bed!”
Joseph reclines luxuriantly on his bunk.
“This is the life,” he says.
“I always thought the life would be bigger,” Noah muses, surveying our cosy compartment. He tries to climb to the upper bunk, with little success, and has to be shoved up in undignified fashion. (It is only afterwards that we find the fold down steps by the door.)
Once aloft he is noisily delighted with his elevation, and Joseph becomes jealous. I tell him he can’t sleep up there, but I lift him up to see what it’s like.
“This is amazing,” Joseph says. “It’s like I’m exploring a different world.” He looks around. “Can I get down now?”
The voyage of discovery has taken around fifteen seconds, and there are still ten minutes till the train goes. Excitement risks degenerating into shenanigans.
“Now, what can we play with to pass the time?” Karen says in her brightest teacher voice.
“I’ve brought a tennis ball,” Noah announces proudly, and we all stare at him in disbelief.
Instead we play cards. The train outside the window begins to slide past.
“It’s moving,” Joseph says.
“No, we’re moving.”
Downtown Beijing at night I always find exciting. The city is a different place after dark, and when you have children it’s easy to forget this other side exists. Tonight the pyrotechnics are provided not only the neon lights but also by New Year fireworks, bursting and glittering to illuminate our departure. Joseph, cocooned in his bunk, gazes out of the window.
“This is just the best night of my life.”
Harbin has a lot to live up to.
Photos: Andrew Killeen