Thursday, April 29, 2010

Train to Beijing

Buying train tickets from Shanghai to Beijing can be difficult. The tickets sell out almost as quickly as they are released for sale. You cannot purchase or reserve train tickets online; you must purchase tickets in person at the Shanghai Railway Station. And buying Deluxe Soft Sleeper accommodations on the T trains is virtually impossible (this is what we had on the Hong Kong to Shanghai train last week). I had contacted a girl in Shanghai several weeks ago and made arrangements for her to purchase our train tickets as soon as the tickets were released for sale. We told her that if it was not possible to buy Deluxe Soft Sleeper tickets on the T trains, then we would take any overnight D train. D trains have 4 berths per cabin room and no private toilets. There are communal toilets at each end of each car. She sent the tickets to our hotel via courier. It was going to be the D322 train departing Shanghai Railway Station at 21:35 on Wednesday night, with scheduled arrival at Beijing South station at 07:25 on Thursday morning.

We arrived at the Shanghai Railway Station early. This gave us plenty of time to sit outside and watch all the crowds. And, wow, does this station get crowded! We spotted a Burger King down the street and treated ourselves to Whoppers for dinner, before entering the station and waiting for several hours until it was time to board the train. Bags are screened and you pass through metal detectors, just like any airport. Once behind security there are a few convenience store shops and a few other shops of no interest to us. We entered the very crowded departure waiting area and stood around until a couple of seats became available. Nothing to do now but wait another 2 hours.

The numbers for departing trains are displayed in red lights in each departure waiting area. About 20 minutes before departure, the lights change to green. The instant the lights change to green everyone who wants to board that train rushes and crowds en mass to the departure gate. People are all pushing and shoving to get there first. Remember… is alien to the Chinese culture to form a queue or stand in a line for anything. And you have to get right in the middle of this crowd and push your way forward too, or you will miss the train. Five minutes before departure, the lights change from green to white and they stop screening tickets at the departure gate entry. You had better be down on the loading platform or already in the train by then. We were.

This time we were in coach number 13, berths 21 and 23. The girl in Shanghai did the right thing when she bought our tickets. We were in the 2 lower berths in this cabin. The top 2 berths were occupied by a young Chinese couple. They never said one word to either Bill or me. They weren't unfriendly. They just did not know how to communicate with the 2 old white people, so they ignored us other than to give us a few smiles.

The bottom berths are more comfortable and convenient than having to climb up top. The lower berths cost more than the upper berths. Each of the 4 beds has its own monitor, private sound system with headphones and a reading light. But obviously it is easier to get up and down from the lower berths. Plus the bottom berths have more storage room for luggage because things can be pushed beneath the beds. I was very pleased to see that one of the toilets at the end of our car was a normal western style toilet. The others were the Asian squat toilets that I avoid like the plague. Truly cannot imagine an old woman squatting over one of those floor toilets with nothing to hold onto on a moving train, even a very smooth riding train. Men have it much easier.

The D trains are the newest trains in China. They travel very fast. This train was going over 200 kilometers per hour (over 120 mph) when I turned off the monitor to go to sleep. The distance from Shanghai to Beijing is approximately 1500 kilometers. The D trains cover this distance in about 10 hours. The D trains are very smooth riding and we slept well and arrived right on schedule into a bright sunny cold Beijing morning.

The signs at the train station were wrong. We followed the signs to the taxis and found nothing except an empty underground parking area. The 50 of us turned and followed yet more signs to where taxis supposedly would be located. That area turned out to be crowded with hundreds of people and no taxis. We decided to follow whichever Chinese person appeared to be the smartest. We decided that person would be a man with his wife and son. They walked away from the crowds and headed toward the north bus exit. We followed. About a half-block away they found a row of taxis and everyone was soon on their respective ways.

Two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic to reach our hotel. The taxi driver went round in circles a few times within a block of this hotel, asking directions from locals every few minutes.

Finally he found the right alleyway and stopped the car. We unloaded our bags and walked down the alleyway until we found Michael's House of Beijing. This tiny hotel was rated number 1 on Tripadviser. It costs about $100 USD per night and is built in the old traditional Hutong manner, which means it faces a narrow alley and is a courtyard style house. Once inside the front alleyway doors, it is a nice little hotel. From the alley it looks like a hovel. Our room is very nice, with a sofa sitting room and computer table area separate from the bedroom area. And, wonder of all wonders, this room has an actual mattress!!!! That is a true rarity in China. Almost all mattresses here are hard as the floor.

We walked the neighborhood this afternoon. The hotel neighborhood in Shanghai was much better. This part of Beijing is not at all impressive. But I will reserve judgment of this city until we have seen more of it.

We have hired a private guide for a couple of days. He has no car and we will be getting around the city on buses or subways. Tomorrow morning we will go to either the Great Wall or the Forbidden City.

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