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Train travel in China

Beijing-Shanghai high speed train

I was in Beijing today for a few meetings and just like last time the weather in the capital city was awful. It was supposed to be sunny and warm, but instead a thick layer of smog covered the city and kept the temperature much lower than it should have been. I felt the smoky air in my throat as we crossed the city from meeting to meeting, and my colleagues had the same (one even bought a face mask). I still love Beijing, but there is no way anybody can get me to live there anymore. It’s just not healthy and I have the feeling it’s only getting worse each time I go there.

Smog in Beijing (April 23, 2012)

So I was glad I could leave the city at night again, this time by train. Yesterday I flew in because I could not catch the last train anymore, but today I decided to book a sleeper seat on the fast train back to Shanghai. It was a good choice, traveling by train is so much more relaxing than traveling by plane. First of all you can arrive at the train station until a few minutes before departure (try that at the airport!), but you also don’t have the hassle of checking in bags or the annoying security checks.

Beijing-Shanghai high speed train

The trip is much longer (5h22m for my train, it made quite some stops, there are faster trains on this route vs. about 2 hours for the BJ-SH flight), but you save at least 1-1.5 hours with all the airport formalities and the fact that Beijing airport is farther away from the city (of course depending on where your meetings are at). But the best thing is that you can keep on working on the train, during most of the ride there is a great 3G signal (much better than a few months ago, when half the trip I could not go online) and also your phone works during the whole trip.

Beijing-Shanghai high speed train

The seats are superior to the seats on most airplanes and much cheaper than first or even biz class seats on an airplane (RMB 1750 for a one-way trip on sleeper seats). The air on board is obviously much better than on an airplane because cabins aren’t pressurized, and because the train stops every 45 minutes you can step out several times during the trip if you would like to. Just don’t step out too long, normally the train seems to stop for less than a minute!

Beijing-Shanghai high speed train

Food is just as bad as on a plane, but the good thing is that it’s easier to bring your own food and drinks. This time I bought some snacks from Burger King at the train station and only ate a small part of the dinner that the staff served me. I didn’t bring drinks but had a beer: a Tibetan beer called “Green Barley”. I had never heard of this beer before. It was drinkable, but next time I’ll bring my own Tsingtao.

Beijing-Shanghai high speed train

Interesting is that during most of the ride I was the only passenger in the sleeper compartment, only during the first hour (between Beijing and Jinan) there were a few other passengers. After that silence. Except for the 4-5 times when passenger that booked tickets in other classes sneaked in and sat down, only to be kicked out again within a few minutes by the well-trained female train attendants. Some tried to bribe them (didn’t work), one got angry (a foreign business man that thought he had booked the most expensive seats but ended up in first class seats instead), and 3 guys who were just plain drunk and walked out the moment the attendant told them to go.

I enjoyed the train ride and although the trip is longer than the flight I feel like it was a much shorter trip. I highly recommend taking a train to anybody traveling in China, especially during day time when ¬†you can see a bit of the China’s countryside as well.

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  1. To be fair, it’s 57 on the PM2.5 index today and blue skies for the rest of the week. It’s been raining – it gets like that. I’d actually be daring to say since the government came clean about the air, we’ve had more low pollution blue skied days this year in all of last year.

  2. I hope next time you’ll book the fastest Jing-Hu train because it seems to make a bit of a positive difference. It’s obviously a shorter amount of time on the train, and because of less stops you are less physically disturbed and hear less annoying announcements. When you add up a plane’s 1hr50min flight time, the advance time in your departing airport, lines at passport check and security screening, walking to the gate, and then the high probability of delay and/or riding a bus to the plane or some other nonsense, the 4hr45min train becomes a much more relaxing option as you’ve noted.

    I’m glad the attendants are vigilant about that section, I always sit there. They were more lenient when that line first opened. I avoid their food and bring a lot of snacks & drinks. And since you have power on all the time, you can work OR watch a lot of videos on your laptop, and with noise-cancel headphones you can make track & wind noise disappear.