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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Sunday, October 13, 2013

China Trains

G train at Hangzhou
Travel Date April 2012.
Click on any picture to see a large version. 

I have always enjoyed train travel. I grew up travelling on country trains in New South Wales in the '50s and '60s. Sadly, the Australian rural train system is slowly disappearing, as I mention here in my rarely up-dated Australian blog: Sentimental Journey - a Lost Railway

On my overseas travels whenever time and funds permit I choose to travel inter-city by train. Consequently, over the past decade I have travelled by rail on America's AMTRAK, from London to Oxford and Ipswich in the UK, the Eurostar from London to Paris, a couple of TGVs in France and on several inter-city trains in Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

When planning my trip to China I spent hours browsing through these web-sites studying their system and learning how to buy tickets, which routes worked best for my itinerary and comparing times to air routes.

Each is useful in slightly different ways; I used them all for planning. China Train Tickets includes a marvellous map which shows the vast extent of the Chinese active train system:

The system in China is massive. Unlike much of the rest of the world they are expanding their system, not letting it decay. There have been some teething troubles with the speed of growth of the high-speed-rail system, but the results have been spectacular in the past couple of decades. 

Click on China Train Tickets to also see an explanation of the different speeds and types designated by G, D, K and other letters.

G train on-board speed indicator
I found that in almost every case trains were faster and much more convenient than air. In two cases air would have been faster: Suzhou to Beijing (5 hours by G train) and Beijing to Xi'An (7 hours plus connections by G and D trains via Zhengzhou). I considered the night train from Beijing to Xi'An but decided against it because of the difficulty of obtaining a two-person sleeper. My wife prefers privacy. 

K train 'Welcome Aboard' at Shanghai

K Train Soft Sleeper Car
K train 4-person compartment Soft Sleeper Berths
K train six-person Hard Sleeper car.

I still chose the train for both routes. By the time I factored in airport security and cabs to and from distant airports at both ends compared to a short ride to Suzhou North and even shorter on arrival in Beijing South, the time and money saving for Suzhou - Beijing was minimal. I paid first class on the G train, which was almost the same as economy air-fare. The saving in frustration and airport hassles was well worth it. For the Beijing – Xi'An section there is now a high speed 5 1/2 hour G train direct, but not then. Instead we decided to break the journey in Zhengzhou for a couple of nights to see a non-tourist Chinese city. I'm glad we did.

K train end-of-car amenities.
We only used air twice in China for our internal travel. The various G, K and T train combinations would have taken too long from Xi'An to Guilin. We tried to book the T101 sleeper from Hong Kong to Shanghai, but could not get tickets. Instead I booked air using ctrip from Hong to Hangzhou and took the G train from there to Shanghai.

G train entering Suzhou North
These were the trains we used on our trip:
  • Hangzhou – Shanghai G train 169 km 1:30 elapsed time.
  •  Shanghai – Suzhou K train 84 km 1:00
  • Suzhou North – Beijing South G train 1237 km 5:10
  • Beijing West - Zhengzhou D train 693 km 4:58
  • Zhengzhou – Xi'An G train 505 km (miles) 2:05
We booked in two ways. For Hangzhou – Shanghai and Zhengzhou – Xi'An I booked personally at the train stations. For the others we used hotel concierge services for a very small service fee.

The ticket offices in Hangzhou and Zhengzhou stations are enormous. Zhengzhou, which is a major rail hub, has four giant booking offices.

In Hangzhou I asked at the information counter for directions to the English-speaking counter and joined the long queue of sub-continental migrant workers at that counter. Look for that queue in the absence of directions. The queue at Hangzhou had about thirty in it when I arrived, but the progress was slowed by those at the front meekly letting queue-jumpers muscle in. I finally reached the front myself and startled several queue-jumpers by being less accommodating and pushing back. It seems they had not had that reaction before. I got some dirty looks, but a cheer from those behind and a smile from the lady at the counter. Unfortunately, after giving her the details I discovered that I needed both passports as a laowai to buy the tickets. I had to go outside, collect her passport from my wife and rejoin the back of the queue. Thankfully it was a little shorter second time around.

Booking Queue, Hangzhou

Station Square, Zhengzhou
You would think I'd learn. I did exactly the same thing in Zhengzhou, but that time I had to return to the hotel. At least it wasn't far from the station.

None of the stations had airport-style security for luggage, although one (Beijing IIRC?) had standard metal detectors at the entrance. I arrived about 30 minutes before travel time, just to be careful. At the major stations all passengers wait in large designated waiting rooms until the train arrives and the passengers leaving the train are gone; only then are passengers allowed on the platform to board the train.

Leaving the waiting room, Zhengzhou
G Train Suzhou - Beijing 1st Class
G train at Zhengzhou
All the trains were clean; most appeared almost brand new although the K train was a bit shabbier generally. On board the G trains it was hard to believe that we were travelling at over 300km/hr. The ride was smooth and quiet. There was almost no feeling of acceleration or deceleration as we left and arrived at stations.

Taxi queue at Beijing
After my experiences on the Chinese train system I am rather sad that our politicians are still closing some lines and debating whether we need a high speed rail at all in my country.

I will close with some views from the window. One of the big differences between air and rail is that you see some of the country as you pass swiftly along.

Apartments Are Being Built Everywhere

Cheers, Alan

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    In addition to the websites you recommend, there still others great websites like http://www.chinahighlgihts.com/china-trains/, http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/ and http://www.seat61.com/China.htm. The first two are tour operators offering train ticket booking service and train travel guides. The last one is an expert from UK providing great tips on China train travel. You can go to visit them.