Train Country

Trip Start Jun 26, 2005
Trip End Sep 14, 2005

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Shanghai station is more like an airport than a railway station. There is certainly plenty of scope to get lost or end up in the wrong place and there are long lines of people waiting to buy tickets, meet travellers or say their farewells across the barriers through which you must pass to enter the promised land of the waiting rooms. Tonight there are 4 trains leaving for Beijing within a 3 hours and as far as I can gather they are all completely full. As a result the comfortable lounges are crushingly full with people waiting for the traffic light system for each train to go green and signal that you can join the scrum rushing down to your train. Occasionally some unfortunate person will attempt to come flying down the aisle to try and make the train they're about to miss. It appears that the mad dash for your train is the primary reason for the invention of wheelie suitcases in Shanghai. You hear panicking people coming before you see them.

For all that the odd person might have problems, the system, including the advance boarding for the express trains to Beijing is highly efficient. Once again, there is an absence of announcements in other languages which is still a surprise in this international city. When I'd gone to buy a ticket, there'd only been one type of ticket available for the non-stop night express to Beijing, but at 420 yuan it seemed a pretty good deal for a night's accommodation and transport. What I hadn't understood is that there are only really two classes of ticket available on these 'Z' trains, and those are comfortable and very comfortable. The four person compartment came with plenty of space, nice bunks, slippers, complementary toiletries, dinner and breakfast and the bar in the restaurant car was quite nicely kitted out too. This was a great way to travel and I had no complaints about not getting a choice of ticket! 12 hours later I was happy and refreshed in Beijing.

I enjoy rail travel wherever I am (delays in London aside!), but here in China it has been a wonderful part of my travel experiences, but not for the normal reasons of simply being able to gaze out of the window. Here I've taken trains akin to a travelling shanty town and others which were like an hotel. As a foreigner, you're always going to be a focus of attention, and every time I've boarded a train there's been a nervous curiosity about what it's going to be like. I've not had the same experience twice, but every one has been enjoyable albeit exhausting on occasions.

The first railway lines in China came with foreign commercial colonisation at the end of the 19th century and there are tales of them being torn up and destroyed as tools of the evil foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion. Today, they are an essential part of the life of modern China, connecting all parts of the country and reaching across vast distances. It's not unheard of for a train to travel 48 hours or more, particularly as the rapidly growing domestic air services still remain out of the financial reach of much of the population.

Taking a train is very much a communal experience and I've stood for what felt like hours to get tickets, queued in sunshine and rain to get into stations, queued to get onto platforms, and quite literally had to scrummage to get onto the platform on more than one occasion. Onboard, I've slept standing up, slept sitting on a bench, slept in a plastic armchair, slept on a rock hard bunk in what looked like an army hospital, and now I'm in the spaceship luxury of an intercity express train. Although I don't share the local skill and penchant for sleeping anywhere and anytime, I can honestly say that it's more troublesome getting a ticket than relaxing once you're on the train.

I've spoken to friends, read the guide books, asked tourist agents and hotels, and I've asked at railway stations, and everywhere I get different information about where you can buy a ticket, when you can buy a ticket, what sort of ticket you can buy etc. As a visiting traveller, the single biggest frustration has been not being able to buy a ticket until you arrive in the place you want to take the train from. In the end I gave up planning and trying to be independent. There are times when you swallow your pride and realise that there are go betweens and agents for a reason even if you do have to pay commissions. Finding an agent, and not knowing when you'll travel is just part of the fun of taking the train in China.

Finding a good agent is still a problem. Some agents have tickets for a given route on a given day, and some don't. Some lie about the reason they don't have them and others are open about what's going on. The better your connections, the easier it is, but otherwise it's a pure market for tickets with either a fixed cost plus variable agent's fee or discounts from the agent depending on the demand for tickets. As a foreigner you can almost always get a ticket for a sleeper - for a price - from the guard on the train. If you want to come over all Mr and Mrs Moralistic Middle Class of Middle England about this then you might starting wondering, "How do the agents get the ticket?" or "Why should I have to pay more?" The system's actually pretty efficient, but it's the classic Chinese one I've come to know and love and hate of, it isn't what it says it is and it doesn't work the way it says it does. That is China!
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