Trains in China
China has the largest network of trains in the world, not surprising, since it is the third largest country in the world. Plane travel is on the rise and budget airlines do exist but for now trains address the workhorse of the nation. Main stations are located centrally with high speed stations being much further out of the cities, high speed trains are a recent phenomena. A great app to help you get around is called ‘China Trains’. With a quick search you can access the train number, time and price of your chosen route. Trains in China are relatively clean and run pretty much to schedule. The are powered by overhead electricity cables and run on standard gauge making the journey quieter and more comfortable than its Asian counterparts in Vietnam, Thailand and India.
There are many types of trains in China. The train network is incredibly busy and the rolling-stock are nearly always full, regardless of destination or type of train. Recently, we took a day train and thus bought a hard-seat ticket, usually we take overnight trains, but this time the journeys were just 6 hours. As a result we have experienced nearly every type of train and also a range of ticket issuers. The last one having the brain the size of a pea. She was confused by the train number we wanted. Which would be understandable if it weren’t for the fact that the trains use the Latin alphabet, so it wasn’t a difficult request. The ticket issuer on the other hand looked as if she were trying to solve a Mensa puzzle.
K-Trains (Sleeper Carriage)
These are the backbone of the train system in China. They are Express trains and on average achieve 40mph over there journey including stops. They make regular stops and run the entire length of the country. Because they run such long distances they are almost always night trains and well over half the train is made up of sleeper carriages.
A night train has many sleeper carriages with ‘hard sleeper’ consisting of bunks arranged into 6. They have bedding and a reasonably comfortable pillow. As long as you get on at the start of the journey, the bed linen will be clean. If you get on part way into the journey it’s best not to even consider as to whom was on the bed before. At the end of the bunk-beds there is an aisle with luggage storage above. In the aisle you have two small seats and a table – you have to sit sideways on these seats to allow people and food trolleys to pass. They are also very uncomfortable, like sitting on a wooden plank. Another place to sit is on the bottom bunk during the day. But be warned Chinese people sleep as soon as their bottoms touch a seat on a vehicle. Many people often want to stretch out during the day meaning there is not enough seating. You either lie down or hope to get the tiny aisle seat. Should you be lucky to gain access to the bottom bunk or if you have paid the extra for the bottom bunk then you get more headroom and therefore a more comfortable seat. The central aisle is even carpeted, it makes mopping a little harder though!
The soft sleeper differs a little, having only four berths in a cabin with a door that closes. You get given slippers and the toilets are generally cleaner. It costs a bit more but you always have somewhere to sit and if travelling as a couple then this is an ideal choice.
Food and drinks
The train has plenty of hot water. At the end of each carriage there is a hot water tap. As tap water is not potable water, the Chinese (indeed most of Asia) carry flasks with tea leaves in. The on-demand got water is also very handy for the pot noodles. I think the dried noodle industry must be a mult-imillion pound industry! Like the ‘K-Trains’, noodles are also what makes China work. It is the fuel of both rich and poor. If you are on a train then you must have noodles along with a multitude of other snacks. Food time is a cacophony of ear-splitting slurping combined with the regular trolley sellers shouting out their wares to the rest of the train.
Things you can buy on the train.
There are many people whose job is to walk up and down the train selling goods. There is the snack cart full of soft drinks and food such as nuts plus undecipherable food stuffs in vacuum-packed bags. Then there is the fruit cart. This has tomatoes, melons, apples, nectarines and other seasonal fruit on it. Around meal times the food cart comes along. On some trains the trolley has large metal containers filled with rice and then another couple with some meat and vegetable dishes. More often the food comes on a plastic tray, like on a plane. It has rice, normally cabbage and some other vegetables. If you pay more or they’ve run out of the cheap dishes there is a meat option too. And finally there is often someone walking up and down with portable batteries and more recently headphones. We’ve also seen flashing ducks which are plastic ducks that light up. On the train to Xi’an they sold a map of the city and guides to the Terracotta warriors. And, if you are still hungry you can go to the dining carriage, where they have an even greater choice, so long as you can read Mandarin.
In ‘hard-sleeper’, which is second class, lights are turned off at 10pm. You have the aisle lights to guide you to the toilet but should you wish to read then you must supply your own lighting. (We later discovered that the ‘T-Trains’ have a reading light). Lights come back on at 6am along with the obligatory shouting of wares and the squeaky trolley being pushed up the aisles.
Most of the time people just sit and do nothing. Chinese people don’t appear to read. Sometimes they watch films and generally appear not to have heard of headphones meaning you have to endure the tedious noise of really crap Chinese TV programs or some militaristic songs about Chinese Patriotism (I presume as I don’t understand). Noise pollution is everywhere on a Chinese train and the Chinese are oblivious to it. You can shout in their ear and they don’t even acknowledge you. Sometimes being able to shout what you really think to a person is quite nice. They have no idea what we are saying, at least we can tell when they are talking about us! Despite being in China for two months I still am unable to get used to the fact that Chinese people ignore everything, be it safety signs, people talking to them, loud noises, people hocking on the street. They also have very different manners to us – I remember my Mum screaming at me should I ever dared to eat with my mouth slightly open and to have made a chomping noise then I’d be in real trouble. Here, it is an acceptable eating habit, as is throwing rubbish under the table and on the floor. I digress and will leave this comparison of cultures to another blog.
Chinese toilets are the worst I have experienced. In Nepal, a poorer country, with limited infrastructure, the toilets were generally better (well until a load of Nepali men used it and missed the toilet). Here in China, a combination of a greasy diet with loads of meat and then tons of vegetables means the loo is a bacterial infested hell-hole. Going to the loo on the train is an art-form. You do not want to touch anything in the cubicle. Most trains have a stainless steel squat bowl. There is also a handle, with a mop and stick next to it. The mop is used to wash the floor of the toilet and the rest of the train. The stick is used to push the toilet waste down the hole. Should you go after a Chinese man then the toilet will not be flushed. Should you go after everyone has just eaten then you may pass out at the stench or think ‘oh dear God’, I cannot fall in now whilst having the pleasure of balancing as the train turns around a slight corner whilst using your calf muscles to steady you all the while looking at a giant turd! This is a regular occurrence. Then there is the acrid smell of stale urine. It is indeed a smell of such power that it could be used as a weapon of mass I destruction. Andrew had the experience of going to a toilet on a train with a broken flush. It was so bad he told me not to go and couldn’t eat anything!
I feel I can digress. Public toilets in China. They are worse than train toilets for many reasons – generally not having a door! To watch people defecate is not something I wish to see. Provincial toilets consist of an open trough with a dividing wall- some have a flush over each open cubicle, others have a single flush at the end. This experience is made worse because queueing is a non-existant phenomena outside of railway stations, people push and stand directly in front of the open cubicle ready to pounce into the toilet area as soon as you have finished and before you’ve even had chance to pukk up your pants. You usually have a little wall to hide behind but when you have someone shoving to get your place over the trough then no privacy is offered. The sign of a really bad toilet is when everyone holds their nose because of the overwhelming smell of stale urine and this is the women’s toilet! Oh, and you usually have to pay for this pleasure!
I admit that foul toilets are not everywhere and in shopping centres they are much cleaner for woman. For those of you who know Ripon in North Yorkshire, the toilets in China are generally worse than the ones that used to be under the market place.
Men’s toilets are worse and they are always have a wet floor. I assume it’s because they men can’t hit the urinal! Maybe they should do like the Japanese since signs such as ‘stand closer and make it cleaner’ do not work, and instead offer games such as hit the target. If they could then bet on it, it might make toilets cleaner.
Just to clarify, many Chinese people also think their toilets are also disgusting. So it is not just me. Be warned, if you come to China outside the comforts of a pre-planned tour then bring your own toilet roll and some smelling salts!
In summary the night trains are the backbone of the whole system. They are generally affordable and as the Chinese go to bed really early they are usually quite quiet. The beds are reasonably comfortable and the carriages are air conditioned. You can gaze out of the window or read a book whilst having somewhere to sleep for the night. They are a much more pleasant way to travel through China than on the day trains in a seat…
K-Trains (Seating Carriage)
There are hard seat tickets and then there are standing tickets. Chinese trains differ to UK ones because you must have a seat reserved. You cannot just get on the train and buy a ticket, nor can you buy a ticket without I.D. Every person is allocated a seat, that is unless you buy standing tickets. The carriage layout is 3 seats facing each other over a small table, then the aisle, followed by two seats, also facing each other over a small table.
If you get on at the start of the journey then you will be secure in the fact that you will have no-one in your seat. Should you get on, as we did, part way through the journey then you have to remove people from seat. This is for two reasons. Firstly, hard-seats are cheaper than sleepers so people will spend the night in them and lay down where possible. Secondly, people buy standing tickets and then pilfer the seats.
On entry to the train to Qingdao getting on the train took an age. The aisle was blocked with people who had standing tickets and the area near the toilet was full of people and bags. In addition, everyone, including us, had a large bag (the Chinese rarely travel light) and everyone was backlogged because of others putting their bags on the luggage rack, in a carriage where there’s not enough room to swing a cat. The train was in the station for just 3 minutes and unsurprisingly the Chinese did their usual thing; stopped and put their bags away. This time they couldn’t sit due to the ‘provincial’ people in their seat, who eventually moved and blocked the aisle. The scene was utter chaos, people all over the place and no consideration for his fellow human. Being selfish gets you so far but more often than not, teamwork is a much better policy. Anyhow, sitting in a seat as a Caucasian means more staring than usual. It is also louder, hotter and smellier than the sleeper carriage. This is because there are at least triple the people in the same space. They are a cheap way of going short distances. We picked this train as the fast train goes to another station and required 3 changes. Only 5 hours to go…
Ordinary Train (Slow)
These trains take the same format as the ‘K-Train’ but are slower and slightly cheaper. They stop more often. They are pretty rare as well, but we managed to get one. Very crowded, but still not as bad as commuter trains in the UK at rush-hour. It does appear that these trains get cleaned less often than all the other trains. Normally, around once an hour or so someone takes the toilet mop and wets the floor. Sometimes they even sweep beforehand. In the ordinary train, this does not happen and the floor was coated with seeds.
These trains are a new addition to the railway network and have separate terminuses to the main rolling stock. The stations are out of the city and are usually huge with sleekly designed curved roofs, much nicer than the rather oppressive concrete squat buildings of Socialist-Realism. The trains are like the Shinkensen but newer. White with a blue line and a long nose at wither end to house the drivers, just like the Japanese bullet trains of old. The Chinese like to copy technology (if you wander around a Chinese city you will see many European style cars think they are an Audi or VW but find a Chinese logo on the front). The G-Class trains are like this, wait for others to do it first then copy. These trains are fast and you get plenty of leg-room. Second class seats all face the same way, like on an aeroplane, in rows of two then three. You have a pull-out table and access to a power socket. The seats even recline for more comfort. The VIP section is in the nose of the train and looked very spacious and quiet but not worth 3 and 4 times the price. The trains cruise at 250-310 kph or speeds up to 190mph. To put it into perspective, on average they achieve 250 kph or 156mph, which is just over three times as fast as the express or ‘K- trains’. Another example, we took a train to Beijing from Suzhou, a journey of 1,238km and arrived 5 hours and 20 minutes later. The same journey on the ‘very fast train’ takes 14 hours and on the ‘ordinary’ train takes 21 hours. In a Communist country it’s surprising what money can buy.
The G-Trains are fantastic. They are clean and you can’t smoke anywhere on the train. The toilets are the same as on a plane and at the start of the journey even have toilet roll. In a country devoid of toilet roll in public toilets this is indeed luxury.
These trains are fantastic but you do have to pay a lot more to travel on them. They are three times faster and usually 3-4 times more expensive. However, when compared to flying there is not that much difference in time once you include the two hours prior to departure in an airport. At a train station you should be OK, 30 minutes before to get through the ticket check, the scanners and the passport check. For the time being I so not see the majority of people swapping to plane journeys in China because they have such a good network of trains that are cheap and reliable.
China has a fantastic train network. The best we have experienced. It puts Britain’s lacklustre disintegrated network to shame. It provides clean and efficient transportation to major hubs as well as tiny places in the middle of nowhere. Being state owned the profits are usually reinvested into the network with big upgrades and extensions happening in Tibet. Having a centralised government does make it easier to get things done.
Posted from here.