25. March 2012

Chinese Trains: the Fast and the Curious

Taking the train is a common way of travelling in China and popular amongst locals and foreigners. Westerners might find some surprising facts about travelling in China by train.

The big cities Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin and Beijing are connected by bullet trains (高铁) that race on elevated rails along the east coast. These bullet trains speed at a constant speed of 300 km/h and stop only very briefly at every station, such that the roughly 1200 km (as the crow flies) between Shanghai and Beijing are accomplished in less than five hours.

The bullet trains come at a price, though. With roughly 500 RMB (around 50 EUR) for a train ticket from Shanghai to Beijing, the bullet train tickets cost nearly as much as a plane ticket.

I also bought a ticket for a comparably slower train from Pingyao to Taiyuan. These two cities are located around 100 km from each other. My ticket did not include a seat, and the 1.5h ride was rather uncomfortable. Yet, it was incredibly cheap: I paid only 8 RMB (0.80 EUR). For about the same amount I could buy a ticket in Munich that just allows me to access the platform in the subway.

The train to Taiyuan was very crowded and at every stop, the passengers were required to play the 15-puzzle to allow passengers to get in and get out. As it weren’t enough, and I could not trust my eyes, staff were actually pushing small carts through the aisles in order to sell food and beverages.

In order to get from Taiyuan to Shanghai, I bought a hard-seat ticket for a direct 13.5h train for 180 RMB (around 18 EUR). The sleeper tickets were already sold out. It turned out to be more comfortable than I thought, but I was equipped with a U-shaped pillow preventing my head to topple to the sides. Yet, I found the Chinese passengers to be extremely inventive in finding a way to sleep while being seated. Some placed their heads on the knees of the companion seated opposite of them. But the most creative I saw was a Chinese guy hurled on top of a low-level luggage rack. Chapeau!

In total, travelling by train in China is much more fun than travelling by bus or even (which I consider rather decadent) by plane. The passengers share food and like to socialize. And I found trains to be extremely punctual.