• China Trip

  • Tell us where you were and what you saw!
Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by draintree
I just got back from my first trip to China where I got to sample five different rail systems and experienced a near-disastrous freak accident. I also had one of those traveler's moments where you discover something breath-takingly weird and wonder why it isn't big news back home.

Flying over the pole, we were in the air for a little over 15 hours, which I find depressing. It just doesn't seem right that going from New York to Hong Kong should take only about 45 minutes longer than the trip from Penn Station to Toledo, Ohio, though it was neat seeing the polar icecap, Siberia and the Great Wall from the air (if I hadn't nodded off, I would have also gotten to see parts of Mongolia). Hong Kong International is a superbly efficient airport and I made it through customs in about fifteen minutes.

The airport opened in 1998 and with it a brand-spanking new dedicated rail line linking it with the Kowloon peninsula and the main island at Victoria. The train runs every 12 minutes and takes 20 minutes to cover the approximately 20 miles to Kowloon. The fare is $90.00 HK which at present works out to just under $12.00 US. It's almost everything an airport express ought to be. It's easy to get to, runs frequently, is neat and clean, moves fast and is a one-seat ride from airport to downtown. In other words, it ain't American. Compare that to Newark International where you have to go up two levels to get to the monorail which, though it looks futuristic, is agonizingly pokey and, unlike the Hong Kong train, isn't particularly easy to find. Then you have to change to New Jersey transit which runs about four trains an hour but spaces them inconsistently so you often have to wait over thirty minutes before one finally shows up after you've lugged your bags from the Monorail over what seems like two football fields and down yet another flight of stairs. The one immediate drawback to Hong Kong's system was the lack of ticket machines accepting credit cards, which were in a small, hard-to-find minority. I don't like getting local currency at the airport but had to here.

The train was bright and full of "Peanuts" characters to celebrate the train's fifth anniversary. Most of the seats had TV screens so you could check on the news and weather, the train route, or check out local attractions. There were also stylized maps over the door areas keeping track of the train's progress so you'd have some idea of just how far away you were from your next station. Everything was in English and Cantonese.

After detraining the first thing I discovered was that I couldn't find my way out of the station. I spent about fifteen minutes wandering the place before breaking down and asking someone for help. Apparently, it's considered unthinkable to leave by any other means than public transportation. After walking through a parking garage, I finally came up for air and discovered, of all things, a driving range. It's probably a pretty good guess that there aren't too many cities of over six million people where you'll find something like that upon exiting one of its major train stations.

After a night at the Star Guesthouse whose manager is named — and I swear I’m not making this up — Charlie Chan (I was tempted to sign in as Mantan Moreland but had to show them my passport), I headed over to the modern Hung Hom Station of the Kowloon Central Railway (KCR) to pick up my ticket to Beijing. Then, after shopping for food to picnic on along the way, I went back to the station and waited since I had a large heavy bag and nowhere to check it.

After spending about three hours knocking back cappuccinos in a Starbucks to help beat my jet lag it was time to go into the waiting room for passengers going through customs — Hong Kong being part of a special administrative zone for this ostensibly communist state. Because of SARS, the first thing that happened after having my visa stamped was getting poked in the forehead with an instant thermometer. Then, I sat in a dim, simple and not entirely pleasant waiting room, with a fast-food counter and a duty-free shop.

About a half-hour before leaving, we were allowed get into our cars. You could see that the train was well staffed because almost everybody was outside standing tall in dark blue outfits that looked a lot like police uniforms to welcome us aboard. Because I could afford it, I took soft sleeper and had not just the compartment but the entire car to myself. I tried to leave the curtain of the window across the hallway pulled back and my door open so I could see outside both sides of the train but this offended the sensibilities of the attendant who pulled one back into its original position and closed the other.

The compartment looked new and clean and had four berths. There was a little table just under the window and, under that, a plastic garbage pail and a stand for what in China is the inevitable thermos of hot water. The beds have sheets and pillows for you to lie on but just a large comforter to throw on top. The rest rooms were at either end of the car. At the Hong Kong end it was American style, albeit with a wooden seat with the grain arranged in a way that was aesthetically pleasing in a recognizably oriental fashion. On the Beijing end it was Chinese style, which is to say, a hole in the floor. It was a very nice, clean and modern looking hole in the floor. It was a flush hole in the floor. But it was a hole in the floor. How Chinese.

The trip up is about 1,400 miles and takes 26 hours, including a 40-minute layover in Gaungzhou (pronounced, near as I can tell, Gwan-JOE) for customs.

You'd think a place as notoriously cosmopolitan as Hong Kong would look less like the China of your mind than the interior of the main part of the country but exactly the opposite is true — at least based on what I saw out the window of my train. Despite having more tall apartment buildings than I've seen anywhere, including New York, I also saw more rice paddies cared for by people wearing coolie hats per mile leaving Hong Kong than anywhere else in China. And Hong Kong is mountainous like it is in all those beautiful tapestries and paintings. Most of the trip between Hong Kong and Beijing is as flat as Kansas and chock full of nuclear power plants.

Dinner in the diner was greasy but not unpleasant. I had to get up a couple of times because it turns out my seat also doubled as storage space. The beers were large but tasted like weak…um… well never mind. The staff spoke English and translated the menu without being asked. When I was short one yuan to make exact change on a beer, the waitress let it go — despite there being no tipping.

At Beijing West I went through customs again where they confiscated my oranges. Beijing West is easily the largest train station I've ever seen. I'm not coming close to kidding when I tell you that you could fit 10 Grand Centrals inside the thing. I find it hard to believe even now as I type this but I remember measuring it in my head while standing outside. It's huge and has a gate out front that's nothing short of monstrous.

The Beijing subway system now has three lines and though not exactly attractive runs with utilitarian smoothness. The fare is three yuan or about 40 American cents. The fare collection system is decidedly low-tech. After sometimes forcing your way to the front of a mob (the Chinese are not big on patiently standing in line), you buy a paper ticket which is then ripped by a minder in front of the stairs leading to the platform. Everything, including the announcements is in Mandarin and English. Trains will take you to both the north and south of Tianamen Square. To the north is the Forbidden City. That was a genuine wow.

The way back was, as you can imagine, had a lot in common with the trip up except this time there was one scary new wrinkle. We had just left Gaungzhou and were on the last two-hour leg to Hong Kong. Did you even notice how sometimes when two high-speed express trains pass each other, there's sometimes a little thump due to a momentary increase in air pressure? Well, this time the thumps were louder, which impressed but didn't particularly worry me. Since we were close to our destination, I decided it was time to start packing. I was, therefore, quite fortunately at the far end of my compartment when we passed another express train. This time, instead of there being a mere thump, the force and repeated stress apparently caused the window to explode into my compartment as a fusillade of assorted glass chunks came flying in my direction followed by one hell of a draft. My clothes, food and baggage were covered. Still it could have been a lot worse. If it had happened when I was blissfully sitting next to the window admiring the scenery, I could have easily been blinded in both eyes. It was both a freak accident and a narrow escape. The chances of that particular window blowing in on that particular trip must have been astronomical. The chances of it happening during daylight hours at one of the few moments when I was out of range were even more astronomical. I yelled for my attendant. He showed no reaction, simply opened the next compartment and moved my things in. I noticed, however, that workmen were pointing at my car as we passed them.

Once back in Hong Kong my temperature was taken again, only this time using an infrared scanning device so as to invade our personal space less invasively and I passed through easily before heading across the peninsula to grab a ferry to Macau which I found tawdry and depressing but with incredibly delicious Portuguese food.

In Hong Kong I took the MTR subway and the ancient double-decker streetcars. The subway was the very latest in the technology. For one thing they were long articulated units with no doors between cars. Not only does this give them a wonderful feeling of openness but it also allows a cooling breeze to gush through the train. In addition there are glass barriers between the platform and the track, which open only when a train is in the station. That's got to cut way down on accidents, murder, litter and suicides.

The trolleys were great. There's no better way to a quick yet somewhat intimate overview of a city than taking a streetcar through it. Mine headed east until it turned off the main line and went down a street bracketed by butcher and fish shops. The fish were so fresh they were still flopping. One depressing note is that despite being ancient and despite going down the middle of the street, they were generally a lot faster than the new NJTransit line now operating between Hoboken and Bayonne. It's sort of absurd how slow modern trolley lines are in this country. It was the same with the line going from BWI to Penn Station in Baltimore.

One more thing. While in Beijing I dropped by Mao's mausoleum. Love him or hate him, he was definitely an important figure in history, so I thought I'd like to have a look at the remains. Was I in for a surprise. It isn't bad enough that they keep him out in all his embalmed glory like Hitler's brain at a carney show. It's not bad enough that they have the Chinese communist flag tucked up to his chin like a giant bib. What really threw me is that they main light source for the room where he now lies in state is emanating from, of all places, his head.

In other words, they turned him into a lamp.

I suppose that's encouraging, if you really think about it. Despite being the dead prophet of a discredited political system and despite being remembered as a brutal dictator who tormented his people to punish them for his own grandiosity, Mao, nevertheless, continues to illuminate.
  by Gilbert B Norman
Thank you, Mr. Draintree, for sharing this report with our Forum. Also, sharing the several episodes and observations away from the rails adds to the enjoyment of the report.

As for myself, I have been reasonably well traveled in this life; however anywhere between 10E and 100E (roundly: Vienna and Bangkok) is "unexplired" by me and in all liklihood, will remain that way.

Continuing on a non-rail note (we have the liberty to do so at this Forum, as distinct from the several "Railroad Specific" Forums at this site), it must be quite an experience to fly directly over the North Pole. While of course nowadays the aircraft is guided by GPS navigation systems and the magnetic conditions at the top of the world have no effect whatever, I would think that crossing the Pole would result in an instant night into day condition, or vice versa.

Nevertheless, as Forum Moderator, I thank you for your submission; come visit us often.

  by EastCleveland
Thanks for posting your report. It sounds like my kind of trip -- and one I hope to take one day.

Forum members with an interest in international rail travel should take a look at this very thorough, country-by-country guide:


  by draintree
Here's a useful link: http://www.chinatravel1.com/english/tra ... formhk.htm

Figure about $7.5 HK per $1 US.

These guys charge the lowest commission and have an office in Hung Hom station, which is relatively convenient to the international/customs entrance. I was able to pick up my tiket the morning of the trip, though it was on the bottom of the pile and I brought all my documentation just to be safe.

  by Gilbert B Norman
Although China (PRC) presently has an extensive passenger rail system and is contemplating high speed services comparable to those in Western Europe and more developed Asian lands, unless the culture set forth in the linked non-rail New York Times article is reversed (a government decree won't do it - they found that out the hard way during 1989 at a place called Tianiman), Chinese rail passenger service is aiming for the same "market share" as presently exists in the US.

Other developing lands have looked at the US and have noted "this is where we will be in fifty years". It appears that China is one such land.


  by David Benton
I respectfully disagree Mr Norman .With a billion people , China simply cannot allow the levels of car ownership and use that the west , and USA in particular , enjoy . I would expect the level of car ownershipto increase , but i also expect that rail passenger services will increase to provide a viable alternative . that they are planning high speed services , gives me that hope .
i hope , for the sake of the worlds enviroment , that i am right .

  by Gilbert B Norman
For those here with access to the Wall Street Journal's subscription site, here is an article that appeared in this past Saturday's print edition regarding the opening of the rail line into Tibet from Bejing:


Of interest, from the Journal's photo, note that the GE Genesis passenger locomotive has been sold for use outside of North America.

Apparently, the New York Times was denied journalist credentials to cover the event. Here is a brief passage from staff coverage also appearing on Saturday:

  • But the event is being tightly controlled by Chinese officials to ensure favorable coverage. They handpicked 40 foreign journalists to ride the first train. Other news organizations, including The New York Times, that bought train tickets independently were denied requisite permits to enter Tibetan territory.
Secondly to Mr. Benton; I note with respect your disagreement with my thoughts with respect to transportation of where China will be fifty years from now. For the good of the world, I sincerely hope I am mistaken.

  by Gilbert B Norman
Here is additional material appearing in Yestarday's Wall Street Joutnal (subscription site)"


Pertinent "brief passage""

  • Engineers dropped an initial proposal to borrow technology from the airline industry, which wrestles with essentially the same altitude issues. A train lacks the thrust of jet engines that do the work of pressurizing air in fuselages, and stepping out of the train at Lhasa's 12,000-foot altitude after being in a pressurized environment shocks the system, as arrivals to Tibet by air typically discover. Plus, China's air force pointed out that the train windows would also have to be as small as airplane windows -- a definite turnoff for a 48-hour trip that people take for its once-in-a-lifetime sightings of endangered animals, grasslands and remote, snow-capped mountains.

    Instead, engineers decided that train compartments should have more oxygen as they climb in altitude. To boost oxygen levels as high as 25% of the breathable air, from 21% normally, air is pumped through a membrane that works like a tiny net and allows nitrogen molecules, which are smaller than oxygen, to escape, while trapping a mixture with comparatively more oxygen that is circulated through cars.

    The Qinghai-Tibet Railway crosses a bridge near Lhasa, Tibet, on its inaugural run from China on July 1. The engineering marvel will help open the isolated Himalayan region.
    Even as their ears are popping, most passengers found they had enough breathable air in the 15 hours or so between Golmud in Qinghai province and Lhasa. But not everyone did, including a tourist from northern China, Gao Youngwen, who was sprawled on a bed of newspapers on the floor during much of the trip, with an oxygen mask pumping 40% oxygen directly into his nostrils as his wife massaged his shoulders.

    Plugs located throughout the train coaches are more like a hospital's oxygen hookups than the masks that drop from the ceiling in airplanes. Like in a hospital, there's no smoking on board when the oxygen is pumping, and on the 48-hour trip the train stopped just five times.

    One benefit of all the attention to air quality on the two day journey in tight quarters where no one has taken a shower: The air remains fresh. Giant equipment warms water during the trip -- but not for hot showers. Instead, it is designed to keep the waste runoff from the train's squat-style toilets from freezing.
Within the article there is mention that a private-sector "luxotrain" is under consideration. Hopefully such will a few additional amenities, such as showers. At a mentioned US$ 1000/day it better!

  by Gilbert B Norman
Actor cum New York Times guest columnist Richard Gere holds contrary thought to the efficacy of the China-Tibet rail project:


  by David Benton
It does seem to be a politically motivated railroad . Its difficult to see the tibetan people getting any sort of say in it , been stuck between the Chinese government and the Tibetan govt in exile . Will be interesting to see what happens .

  by Gilbert B Norman