Nov. 20 – The 0900 from Shanghai to Beijing
Good, fast, cheap. Choose two. For the first land stage of my journey, I chose good and fast. At 1750 Yuan (about $250), my first class ticket on the brand-new high-speed rail line was definitely not cheap, and a small fortune by Chinese standards. On that frustrating first day in Shanghai, when I bought my Beijing ticket, I had opted for the maximum contrast in convenience. So as I strode through the large, new Shanghai Hongqiao station, the reflection of shop signs projecting onto the spotless, polished corridors, my expectations were high. And they were met.
Waiting on platform 2 was a long, white, dolphin-nosed magnetic-levitating land rocket. Since this summer, a fleet of these trains have sped the 1300km between Beijing and Shanghai, one per hour. The first class compartment had 24 wide, fully reclining leather seats, in rows of three. Purple uniformed attendants did their attending – serving a meal and drinks unobtrusively, while us rich folk sat there playing around with power adjust buttons; forward, back, leg rest up, leg rest down, back rest up, back rest down.
The train wasted no time getting up to speed. The acceleration was smooth, but within perhaps five minutes we were over 200km/h, and it only took a further two minutes to get up to 300km/h, where we remained on cruise control most of the way (the LED sign over the door topped out at 310km/h). One of the first high-speed trains had crashed at 340km/h, I was told, so the throttle had been dialed back a bit since then.
As a mode of transportation, riding first class for five hours at high speed (we made one stop in Nanjing) is unsurpassed in comfort. You put your feet up, settle back in the leather, and watch China pass by. There’s actually no real sense of velocity, no blur. Brown and green fields, overpasses, power lines, construction cranes, new apartment blocks, factories, and crumbling brick hovels simply enter, then exit from view. You hear a dull, constant rumble – no Duke Ellington clack-a-clack – and feel gentle swaying as the train banks slightly through the turns. I read some, chatted with the fellow rich folk from Hong Kong and Hamburg, then tested the full recline mode and quickly fell into one of those states from which you arise not sure if you were asleep or not. We glided into Beijing South station just before 1400, no long, protracted arrival. In and done.
So it’s awesome transportation, fine. But it’s not travel. Travel is where you’re bored, you’re uncomfortable, you can’t wait for it to be over, you don’t know when it will be over. But travel is where you’ve got stories to tell. This was quick and painless, and I’ve got nothing more for you than the rail equivalent of Car & Driver. The Trans Mongolian will be different.