Taking a dream train journey, after 20 years

Updated: 2011-08-17 07:54

By Dinah Chong Watkins (China Daily)

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Taking a dream train journey, after 20 years

Flying out of Shanghai in the summer is a lesson in patience and prayer when seasonal storms play havoc with flight routes.

Arriving at Hongqiao Airport, the departures board was awash in red with delayed and cancelled flight notices. Having experienced five-plus hour delays and outright cancellations twice within the space of three weeks, when we saw our flight delayed along with a backlog of others we decided to take our chances and try the new bullet train to Beijing.

At five hours it was more than double the flight time, but departure was guaranteed, something our flight couldn't claim.

The last time I took a train in China, the Soviet Union was still in one big piece, a "mouse" was something you'd trap in the kitchen, not put on your desk, and big hair for women was matched only by even bigger shoulder pads.

Twenty years ago, the sole perk on domestic trains was the endless servings of hot tea perched on child-size tabletops, and every lurch of the carriage meant a quick grab of the mug to prevent a scalding spill on your thighs.

Devilishly engineered to save costs, the toilet was but a hole in the floor. Two slim handrails sandwiched it and if one looked straight down, one could see the train tracks pass at a dizzying speed. With the constant side-to-side motion of the train, it required, if not an Olympian level of agility, certainly a bravado and skill that the elderly, small children and those who had one too many servings of baiju, are not famous for.

But the thought of spending half a day or more waiting for our flight to depart gave us the impetus to go for the next best option. Conveniently, Honqiao Airport and the train station connect seamlessly and after a short walk, we bought our train tickets 10 minutes before departure.

First class seats on the train were the fare equivalent of economy on the plane and the seats turned out to be comfortably wide with plenty of legroom. An electrical outlet at our feet made it entirely possible for my husband to continue to work on his laptop while I checked out the dining car.

Visions of glamorous white-glove service on the Oriental Express aside, the dining car was definitely the "in" spot to be. It was hopping with couples and small groups obviously enjoying the scenery, drinks and dinner. The meal was a choice of mass produced lunchboxes, filled with rice and indeterminate meat chunks. Clearly this was something a vending machine could spit out but stuck on a train for hours, it took on a sheen of deliciousness and desirability.

After the complimentary snack and water service, it was time to confront the facilities. The washroom was vacant and the doors slid open with a touch. Gone was the pair of life-saving handrails, the middle of the floor was intact and on top rested a shiny white toilet not unlike the ones used on Airbus planes; when flushed, it gave off a cavernous sucking sound. It was modern, clean and similar to the ones in Europe and Japan. The bullet trains are said to have cost billions, but I can say it's certainly worth every fen.

When we pulled into Beijing station, there was no stampede to get off like when an airplane touches down. Everyone took their time to gather their bags and as we happily walked out onto the concourse filled with shops and restaurants, I knew it wouldn't be another 20 years before I took the train again.

For China Daily

Taking a dream train journey, after 20 years


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