It’s a little after 6am when the sun rises over Changping, a nondescript district in the northwest of the expansive Chinese capital. Flanked by the Mangshan hills, which form a natural limit to Beijing’s urban sprawl, Changping North railway station is small and devoid of distractions. With no cafeteria or convenience store in which to kill time, I settle myself in the spartan waiting room and stare at the clock. Most of my fellow travellers are asleep or fiddling with their smartphones.
Eventually, a green train with a yellow stripe along its flank – No 1458, from Changping North to Zhangjiakou South – slides into the station. I board, find my third-class seat and wait for the engine to shudder back to life. We depart at 6.46am, navigating the last tumbledown extremities of the city before concrete is replaced by jagged hills and steep ravines.
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