Anaesthetized by speed

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.

The Payload


Nov. 19 – Shanghai

Outside was the slashing sound of rubber on wet asphalt. The Shanghainese had their umbrellas out, and those who didn’t could easily buy one from the vendors that appeared like mushrooms in the rain. Friends of mine arrived later this morning. They were in town just for the day and stored their luggage in my room. Then together we explored a rainy Shanghai, returning to Yuyuan tourist district and the Bund. But we also did a stroll of contrasts through a nostril-clogging grocery market (I’ll have to write more about this another time) and then the tony, leafy Huahai Road area, whose closest Canadian equivalent would be Yorkville in Toronto.

Given the length of my journey (in distance and time), the variation in climates, and vagaries of my own activities, packing has been tricky. Here’s what I’m carrying.


  •  1 rolling carry-on suitcase
  •  1 large backpack
  •  1 small backpack
  •  1 bag

With the right setup (one pack in front, one in back), I can carry all my stuff with one hand free. The smaller backpack holds my winter gear now, but can easily double as a daypack. The bag is for the clothes that need washing.

Clothing (Winter)

  •  1 coat w/vest
  •  1 fleece-lined pants
  •  1 pair boots
  •  1 pair Goretex gloves
  •  1 tuque
  •  1 pair longjohns

Cumbersome, but essential. I don’t want to stay cooped up inside, telling you how cold it is. I want to go out there and tell you how cold it is.

Clothing (Street)

  •  1 Stormtech jacket
  •  2 pair jeans
  •  1 pair corduroy trousers
  •  1 pair dress slacks
  •  1 heavy sweater
  •  1 light sweater
  •  2 dress shirts
  •  7pcs underwear
  •  6 pair dark socks
  •  2 tee shirts
  •  2 ties
  •  2 belts
  •  dark shoes

I’ll be in jeans/tee shirt most of the time. But I don’t want a repeat of the evening soiree in New Delhi five years ago where I had no choice but to appear in khakhis and running shoes.

Clothing (Sport)

  •  1 wind breaker
  •  1 technical vest
  •  3 technical long sleeve
  •  2 technical short sleeve
  •  1 pair running shorts
  •  1 pair long tights
  •  1 pair running shoes
  •  swim shorts
  •  swim cap
  •  goggles
  •  towel

A key to sustaining travel is finding normality, and for me that means being able to do sport. If I can swim, bike, run, or ski during this trip, I will. I’ve probably gone a bit heavy on this gear, but it overlaps as travel/street clothing.


  •  toothpaste; tooth brush; dental floss; tooth guard
  •  deodorant
  •  shampoo
  •  Vancouver 2010 bodywash and hand sanitizer
  •  vitamin D; Advil; Gravol; Ciprofloxacin
  •  tissues
  •  shaving kit

My bodywash leaked in transit to the hotel, and ended up washing all the other stuff in the toiletries bag.


  •  Macbook Air laptop
  •  Blackberry
  •  small camera
  •  assorted cables and chargers (including power  converter)
  •  USB stick
  •  wristwatch

All the indispensable items of our age. In four years or fewer, I’ll read these blogs again and chuckle at how clunky and outmoded it was. I’ve kept my Blackberry on Pacific time so I can quickly see what time it is in Canada.


  •  passport
  •  wallet
  •  copies of documents
  •  4 books
  •  1 notebook

I’ve made photocopies of passport, credit cards, etc, and my parents have electronic scans of these too. I don’t keep my second credit card in my wallet. Books are necessary on a long trip. I make sure that the subject is not connected to the place I’m in. Even when you’re traveling, your mind needs to escape wherever you presently are.


  •  sunglasses
  •  tape measure
  •  screwdriver
  •  giveaways
  •  The Most Expensive Ginseng Tea I Will Ever Buy

The tools are stowaways. I used them for my move and forgot to leave them in Vancouver.

I’m taking all this with me on the train to Beijing tomorrow morning.