The first experience many people have of China’s rapidly expanding railway network is ironically not on the railway itself but hovering some three inches above it.
The Maglev – or magnetic levitation train – whisks you the 30kms from Pudong International airport to a metro station a stones throw from the city in just eight minutes flat. As the train breathlessly accelerates to 430kms per hour you feel like you are being propelled headlong into the future. People stand and take photos of the speedometer.
This short test track – currently the worlds only commercial Maglev – is impressively fast, but after a few return trips you can’t help but think it’s rather bumpy for a train that supposed to float on magnets.
And truth be told, after you’ve ridden it a few times the novelty of its vast speed and rapid acceleration begins to wear off. The cramped interiors and lime green seat covers do nothing for the eye if you’re jetlagged (as you are when you arrive) or hung-over (as you so often are when you leave).
The maglev was launched in time for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo as something of a boost to national pride. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, the top speed is only reached during the peak morning and evening rush hours. At other times it reaches a relatively sedate 300kph – a speed often surpassed on the rails rather than hovering above them.
And pulling into Longyang station the slightly squalid housing around the station is surrounded by rubbish. This slightly ruins the impression of the sleek modern city.
As so often is the case, the future often disappoints.
Over the last few years I’ve gradually started to explore more of China’s railway network.
Flying up and down China’s Eastern seaboard is a frustratingly slow experience with frequent delays and cancellations. Much of the vast airspace is controlled by the military, leaving precious few airways for commercial aviation – leading to delays. Smog also frequently slows down airport operations.
As you leave Shanghai behind and venture out across China you realise that whilst China’s sleek new conventional high speed trains might not match the Maglev for outright speed, they’re light years ahead when it comes to comfort. The huge new railways stations in Shanghai and Beijing feel more like airports than railway stations and have an ambitious architecture to match.
But you don’t have to stray far from the new lines and gleaming white trains to find a much slower and more basic form of travel. Which strangely is somewhat more charming.
Truth be told, I’ve never really appreciated the joys of train travel in the UK. I think it’s all the stopping and starting, and the inherent fear – probably unfounded – that if I nod off, I’ll wake to find that someone has run off with my luggage. Or that you’ll end up without a seat. Or you’ll find your seat is covered in a mess from the previous passenger. Or your seat mate will end up barking away on a mobile phone. You’l be crammed in uncomfortably. It does’t make for a relaxing journey.
For this reason I started looking at booking internal flights around China. But domestic flying here is not the simple business it is in Europe or the US. For foreigners at least online booking, ticketing, checking in and the like always seems a bit overly complicated.
It’s probably for the same reason that they don’t let foreigners rent a car in China – they don’t want you to have too much freedom to travel your own way.
So over various trips I let the train take the strain.
On boarding the high-speed G trains from Beijing to Shanghai all my fears about train travel elsewhere are dispelled. Train number G1 makes the 1,200km trip in a breathless 4 hours 48 minutes. Non stop. No worries about dozing off and missing your station.
When you buy a ticket you’re automatically reserved a seat. There are no tickets sold without seats. What a nice concept.
During the trip, staff come through the train mopping the floors, cleaning the loos and collecting rubbish. And there’s none of that stained carpet that Eurostar are so fond of.
If first class isn’t enough, up front in business class – which, strangely, is more luxurious than first – you can have an airline style flat bed on which to nap.
The only thing I was left wanting was a decent coffee service.
On some of the more basic night trains – like the train from Shanghai to Huangshan there are more flat beds than you can shake a stick at. But I’d not recommend the ‘hard sleeper class’ which is pretty much as described. And according to the guidebook, getting your luggage pilfered is one of the inclusive extras.
This soft southerner took the ‘soft sleeper class’ – a bed in a four-birth cabin which I had to myself as we pulled out of Shanghai, initially north, then west.
At Nanjing I was already asleep when someone else took another bunk in the cabin. But I quickly fell back asleep. The white sheets were clean and soft. The bed was comfortable – certainly more comfortable than the Caledonian Sleeper service I took some years earlier to Fort William.
I woke as we trundled through the countryside somewhere west of Hangzhou in the early light of morning. My fellow traveller had left during the night but helpfully my luggage remained chained to the bunk below me. I peered out of the window to discover a new scenery for me in China – greenery.
And so around 7am we pulled into the little town of Tunxi, the end of the line for this service. It felt more than a nights train ride from Shanghai. It felt like a different country. I appeared to be the only whitey getting of the train.
Some days later, I took the bus to Hangzhou (there is no direct train). As we trundled through the driving rain I saw the construction of various concrete viaduct struts and I wondered how long it would be until the high speed trains came tearing across this corner of China and changed its ways forever. I pondered on how the railroad had spread across the wilds of America, taming new frontiers and connecting the country.
Back at Hongqiao station in Shanghai – conveniently connected to the airport above – I marvelled at the huge queues for tickets. Whenever possible I’d asked the concierge in the hotels I’d stayed at to book tickets for me. And almost without fail the tickets came back later the same day.
But now I needed a ticket myself. I joined the back of a very long queue. As I waited I prepared to use the wonders of google translate to make myself understood. But once I reached the ticket window it actually turned out to be remarkably simple to get the tickets I needed.
Given how wired the young generation of Chinese are, I was amazed that everyone wasn’t booking online. But it wasn’t just the foreigners and elderly in the queue. There didn’t even seem to be enough – or any – electronic ticket booking machines. It seemed a relatively easy thing to fix and a huge flaw making the system massively less efficient. I had plenty of time to consider this problem as I waited. I guessed most people with money just paid someone else – perhaps an agency – to queue for them.
I again realised how easy the convenience and speed of modern China can belie what lies beneath. The government still want some degree of control of movement of people. And perhaps the ticket system – where you have to show a passport, as you do at every hotel, reflects this keeping tabs on people.
So what the excuse is for the huge queues of people at Victoria station in London all waiting to buy tickets, is beyond me.
I had wanted to explore more, taking the train further west to Xian and the impossibly exotic sounding Urumqi.
But these are huge distances. And that’s more of a Great Railway bazaar than a little one.