They are known only by numbers - train attendant 1245, 1146, 1122 and so on. It is 1155 who taps me on the leg and asks me to comment on her service in a green 'guest remarks' booklet. I write, truthfully, 'Top class work, keep it up'. Some passengers, however, are less generous. The toilets have no water, they say, the food is awful, ventilation is bad. Before I can finish reading the list of complaints, the train comes to an abrupt halt and I, like other pieces of luggage on the rack, am thrown to the floor. Welcome to through-train No. 106, a 48-hour service that runs on the new Beijing-Kowloon Railway. Opened less than a month ago, the 4,058-kilometre rail network has been billed as 'China's dream of the century'. The 40-billion yuan (HK$37 billion) project is the realisation of a vision that goes back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when a link between the northern and southern part of China was first mentioned in literature. The Beijing-Kowloon Railway is the largest rail infrastructure of its kind in the mainland and it will connect Hong Kong and the Chinese capital after the handover next year. The new railway, which was built in three years, will supplement the existing service that runs from Guangzhou to Beijing. At the moment, the train runs daily only from Shenzhen to Beijing because mainland officials have yet to sort out immigration and customs procedures with the Hong Kong authorities. That, however, did not stop me from wanting to share China's dream. Amid the fanfare at the official opening ceremony, senior government officials in both Shenzhen and Beijing said the service was top-quality and would create great opportunities for businesses. Hundreds turned up at the railway stations just to catch a glimpse of the giant locomotive and its carriages. 'The new rail service will bring prosperity into the southern region and makes travelling into the mainland easier and more convenient for people from Hong Kong and Macau,' said Sun Yongfu , Vice Minister of the Ministry of Railway. At least, that is the theory. Ironically, securing a train ticket itself turned out to be a nightmare. Those for a bunk bed space can be bought not from the official ticket counters - but from touts at a greater cost. While the entire train journey takes slightly over 48 hours (and these trains are punctual), getting a ticket can take days, if not weeks. The first shock comes when China Travel Service, the major vendor for mainland train tickets, tells me that tickets for through-train No. 106 can only be bought from Shenzhen Railway Station. No problem. A train ride from Mongkok to Lo Wu station will not deter me from getting a ticket. However, the ticket officer at Shenzhen does. On my first trip to Shenzhen Station I am told that all bunks for No. 106 are sold out for the day but there are still a few hard seats available. Hard seats? For 48 hours? No way. 'Can I book in advance?' Sure, she says, I can book tickets five days in advance - but they are all sold out too. I think: this is like buying tickets for one of Jacky Cheung Hok-yau's concerts. A few days later, I return early in the morning to be first in the queue at the same ticket office, a brightly-lit area on the second floor of the railway station. At the counter, only two kinds of tickets are available for No. 106 - 198 yuan for a hard seat and 381 yuan for a hard bunk bed. 'Bunks for No. 106 [for five days later] are all sold out,' another ticket officer says. Impossible, I tell her, I am first in the queue. She looks at me and shouts: 'Next.' Then I remember there is another set of ticket counters on the station's ground floor - guarded by eager touts. So I return again a few days later, this time two hours before the train is due to leave. But first I must attract the attention of the touts. So I adopt a 'I-have-no-ticket' face. Within minutes, one man comes over and asks: 'Want a ticket?' The man, whose colleague has a thick pile of tickets in his hands, asks me the number I need and tells me to wait for him near the entrance of the railway station. Within a minute, the tout comes back with a small blue ticket. 'That will be 550 yuan. It is for a hard bunk in the train with air-conditioning,' he says. 'You want only one? I have more.' Thus begins my long train journey that will pass through seven mainland provinces and two cities: Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei, Anhui, Henan, Shandong and Hebei, and Tianjin and Beijing. I have been adequately warned about the conditions in mainland trains. One colleague told me before I left: 'Brace yourself for hardship'. Most passengers board train No. 106 at Shenzhen. While many are businessmen travelling alone with briefcases, others are families on holiday. There are no foreigners (Westerners) and few Cantonese speakers. My ticket, on which is printed the price 366 yuan, is for a middle bunk. I later learn there is a difference in cost between the lower, middle and top bunk beds - they are 378 yuan, 365 yuan and 352 yuan respectively. This is all news to me because there is no such differentiation at the Shenzhen station. There are also soft bunks (572 yuan for the top bunk and 598 yuan for the lower bunk) but they are not even on sale at Shenzhen station. The man who takes up the bunk opposite me is a businessman. The first thing he does is to chain his briefcase to the bed. Maybe he knows something that I don't. Each open compartment has six bunks with the pair of lower bunks being the most spacious. I cannot even sit up on the middle bunk without banging my head against the top bunk. So I decide to lie down for the rest of the journey. My neighbours are friendly people; as soon as they realise I don't speak fluent Putonghua, though, they ignore me for most of the 48 hours. Instead, they chat among themselves about the train, business and even politics. I lie on my bed and enjoy the quiet background music (from Beijing rock to tunes like Happy Birthday) coming from the speakers. But my first day in the train is disrupted by the loud snores from the lower bunk. My head begins to hurt so I take two aspirin before dreaming of Murder On The Orient Express - and of ways to murder the snorer. As we travel into the heart of Jiangxi, the landscape becomes more interesting. Instead of row after row of factories and empty buildings, the railway passes through small villages and farms. In places we pass the backyards of old residential houses. This is the part of rural China that remains untouched by the rapid industrialisation in the south over the past decade. Although these old grey structures (some have beautiful roofs with turned-up eaves) look magnificent at a distance, their backyards are crumbling. Local farmers and children seem as curious about the railway as passengers are about them and their homes. At six in the morning, some stand close to the railway track waiting for the train to pass. When the train shoots quickly by, young children jump and wave at the passengers with huge smiles on their faces. In contrast, the Hong Kong family taking up the next compartment have angry faces and are full of complaints - especially when we are passing through Nanchang, where soaring temperatures make it one of the 'stoves' in China. 'Why is there no air-conditioning?' one woman demands. Then in her accented Putonghua she screams: kai chang. Although she means 'open the window', what she says sounds like 'open fire' in Putonghua. Fellow passengers quickly say: 'There is no need to shoot anyone!' However, the biggest complaint passengers have is the lack of water on the train. For two days. I only have two bottles of water I bought before the journey. I have not eaten much either, fearing I would need to use their toilets without having water to wash my hands. Even the government-controlled China Daily has a front-page story last week about this problem. 'No one, not even the conductors, expected that the train would have to carry its own drinking water, like a mechanical camel trekking across a desert,' it says. 'Loudspeakers in each car repeatedly warn passengers to save water, that the capacity of the onboard water tanks is limited.' But the paper reassures its readers that the shortage along the rail route will be eliminated once more 'water towers' are built and when the travelling time is cut to about 40 hours in the future. On the last day, we head up from north Henan to Shandong and Hebei. It is heaven for photographers. The magnificent view of vast fields of sunflowers, sorghum, apple trees and duck farms is overwhelming. The train also passes areas recently affected by floods, where swathes of fields are covered in red mud. It is a gloomy sight. Throughout the journey, there are brief stops during which passengers alight and buy snacks and water from vendors. At 4.50pm, on schedule, our train pulls slowly into the new Beijing West Station. Tears well in my eyes - from excruciating backache but also for having lived China's dream of the century. Despite the excellent service, I step on to the platform convinced this is the last time I will travel on any mainland train. That is, until I fly back to Hong Kong. The air turbulence is frightening and there is no beautiful scenery to compensate. Flying costs a lot more and airport security is tight. In fact, provide me with a soft bed space, plenty of water and instant noodles, and travel companions who do not snore, and I could be quite happy to board through-train No. 106 again.