I did a big tour of China in the summer of 1997. I started off in Hunan Province and went north to Beijing and then Xi’an. We carried on up to Inner Mongolia and then did the long haul west to Golmud in Qinghai Province. From there we caught the bus to Lhasa. I then said goodbye to my travel companion and caught a bus from the Tibetan capital to Chengdu. I then resumed my train travels to first Kungming and then the long stretch back to Hunan.
It was an epic circular journey that took just over a month. We spent nearly a third of our time on slow Chinese trains in fourth class. It was hard going and full of events. At one point my friend and I helped to save someone’s life. You can read about it here – http://goo.gl/b9Gng4. It was quite a surreal experience.
Trains are the most important means of transport in China still. They cover a vast area with a huge network. They are cheap and there are plenty of them to deal with the huge population. Since 1997 China has seen its economy flourish thanks partly to a mobile work force able to use the train system.
I am reliably informed that now in many train stations in the People’s Republic of China those seeking to buy train tickets are made to queue. Before there was a rush for the ticket counters. It was considered par for the course for people to push in from the side. My friend used to shoulder others out the way while I shouted out our travel needs in my poor Mandarin and strained to understand the replies.
We only ever managed to get fourth class tickets. Sleepers were too expensive and very hard to come by without connections or guanxi. In Kunming I tried to use a travel agent who did no better than I would have done wading into the crowds and fighting for a ticket.
Getting a ticket was only the first obstacle. Passengers were then hemmed into a holding pen. When the doors opened everyone ran for the train. It was bedlam. Before people could alight the crowds were forcing their way on to the train hoping to get a seat. It was a frequent sight to see people climbing in through the windows.
Sometimes we got seats. Other times we made it no farther than the section between carriages, nose to nose with a packed crowd of Chinese. Everyone accepted the situation and tried not to get worked up. Over time people usually find a bit of floor to sit on, or even a seat.
You could smoke on Chinese trains. The Chinese love smoking and I wonder if the authorities impose a smoking ban on trains whether anyone will pay any attention, similar to trains in Thailand where the guards turn a blind eye to those smoking between carriages.
The Chinese don’t usually read on trains. They chat and consume food and drink continuously. Perhaps they play with their smart phones for hours now. On sleepers they all awoke at the same time and queued up for the toilets with a little flannel and a toothbrush. After they hung up their wet flannels and helped themselves to the free hot water at the end of the carriage for pot noodles. After breakfast they continually put stuff in their mouths – cigarettes, pumpkin seeds, food bought from the platform and lots of green tea.
The Chinese I encountered on trains in China were right to come prepared as the journey times were very long; most of the time I did overnight journeys. My longest was 2 nights to get from Kunming to Yueyang.
I believe Chinese trains have speeded up slightly. This means trips are still long, uncomfortable and over-crowded, but over slightly quicker. There are some high speed trains now in China but they only serve a small fraction of the train network and are probably too expensive for the average citizen.
China has a long way to go to provide a train system like Japan where train travel is fast, orderly, comfortable and relatively affordable.
Now that the Chinese economy is showing signs of slowing down it would be sensible to upgrade trains in China not just to the big commercial centres of Beijing and Shanghai but all over China. Such big infrastructure projects bring jobs and stimulate the economy.
The only exception is the Lhasa train. This is bringing cultural genocide to Tibet. Sometimes remoteness is the only way to safe guard a culture.