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The terrain is so harsh that three of them died for every kilometre of road. You have to admire their spirit. But now, we've built the railway without the loss of a single life.
Isn't China great? Wang, a stout and ruddy power factory worker from Hunan, is in the bunk two below mine. He is as keen to demonstrate the conviviality of China as he is to wax lyrical about the country's strength.
As well as cracking open a bottle of beer and sharing his food, he offers a packet of Dongfanghong cigarettes - "I smoke these because it was Mao's favourite brand" - and travel advice: "Actually, there isn't much in Qinghai. It's full of police and soldiers, but we have very good public order. Wang is one of about 60 passengers squeezed into a "hard sleeper" carriage as our overnight train rattles towards the sunset, passing a half-formed rainbow, the world's largest saltwater lake, hillsides quilted with yellow rape seed and the occasional white Tibetan yurt.
With a couple of hours left until lights out, my fellow travellers are looking for ways to kill time and forget the cramped and smoky conditions. Some play cards, others sing with their children, a curious few chat with a Tibetan monk. And when that entertainment runs out, several attempt to talk to me. They are engagingly friendly. A family from Xining pours a pot of instant noodles and offers sightseeing tips.
Two young sightseers from Hong Kong share their herbal remedies for altitude sickness and talk enviously about the mainland. But now we are so conservative compared to the mainland. Anything seems possible in China these days. It's very exciting. As I get ready to turn in, Wang qualifies the level of his friendliness.