Sunday, September 06, 2009

Shanghai Railway Station and the Train-phobia

C insisted to experience the true Chinese way of travelling by train. Therefore, I did not purchase tickets in advance from ticketing outlets around the city in order to present the entire train travelling process in its rawest form.

China has a population of 1 billion. It is difficult for Europeans who enjoy large public space and quality life to truly grasp the impact or understand the implication of living in a country of such population from day to day. Huge population puts extreme pressure on urban centres and on practically every tangible and intangible.

I know the Chinese mentality and therefore, I dread taking trains in China. It was like fighting a battle. I can foresee a lot of pushing, cutting queues, shouting, spitting, littering and unreasonable people taking up your seats even though you have a ticket to prove your rights—some of these experiences were shared by friends have travelled in China. Honestly, I cannot remember any bad encounters myself travelling by train in China apart from that 10-hour train ride on a hard seat to the Yellow Mountains. Not any yet.

Low Expectation Higher Rewards
It was a once and a life time experience for C to witness the scale of Chinese public transport. I had done my part to mentally prepare him for the possible horrible experiences that he might encounter in the process. I feel that it is better to start off from a zero expectation to avoid any forms of disappointment.

The walk from the metro to the train station itself was amusing. We have to pass through an underground tunnel which was about 5 metres wide. Both sides of the tunnels were lined up with shops. Space is definitely fully utilized to generate the greatest monetary returns.

There must be like hundreds of thousands of people at the train station. There is a ten metre wide walkway in front of the station building but you can hardly see the ground as it was filled by people—passengers pouring out of the exit of the train stations, hawkers who were trying their business luck put up their goods all over the place; waiting passengers; confused passengers scampering all over; passengers flooding towards the entrance of the station…

Not surprisingly, all the ticketing purchase buildings were flooded with people.

I shan’t describe the ordeal of purchasing train tickets on the day as I have described it earlier in the Lost & Found entry. But I shall mention that we arrived at 9:30 am and I managed to get a ticket for that day by 10:10am which was really fast if you could see the size of crowds at the counters. If you place such crowds at Kings Cross, that will definitely sink the station.

A Serious Mode of Transport
We aimed to catch the 10:26 or 10:44am train to Suzhou. By the time I got to the counter, the earliest train I could get was at 11:59am. All trains were full; and we were looking at full-sized trains of at least 13 wagons long with each wagon with a capacity of about 80 seated passengers and not to mention standing capacity too. Also to point out the fact that between 10:26 to 11:59 am, there were at least 3 other trains leaving for Suzhou.

The tickets were issued with the platform number which the train would be arriving into (wonderful!). All passengers had to pass through screening before entering the main building and there were several waiting rooms and each was used for at least 4 departing trains. C found the system easy to understand even for people who no Chinese ability.
The waiting halls were full of people of course. Looking at the size of the hall and the number of people there and the kinds of goods that they travel with them, you will realize that the train network is of a paramount importance for trans-city travel in this country. It is the artery that channels people between the cities for work, home and leisure. It must have the ability to transport a huge number of passengers efficiently. In short, it has to work.

The station itself was of course equipped with all kinds of eateries and supermarkets. Surprisingly, one could redeem a bottle of water with each train ticket. There was hot water available for free and some passengers were eating pot noodles during their wait.

Just to Suzhou alone, there are more than 60 trains everyday (there is no such thing as weekends, apparently.) And Suzhou is not the only major city in this country. Although there is a South Station in Shanghai to relieve the transport pressure, I can fully imagine the number of trains and passengers that pass through the Main Station every day and the pressure on the railway tracks.

By the way, all trains in our waiting hall were on time. Half an hour before departing time, the gate would be opened and tickets were to be checked before boarding the trains. Of course, there will be a lot of shuffling among “eager” passengers, cutting queue without fail by stepping over the seats and squeezing into the line….and you will think that the queue will take ages to get through the gate….but the fact is, the loooooooong queue vanished from the hall in a matter of 10 minutes. There is order, if you find it incredible.

Numeracy Required for Trains

All trains were numbered and most with beginning with an alphabet. There is no way which you can board the wrong train even if you don’t understand a word of Chinese, unless you can’t understand number. It was therefore easy to check for your waiting room as each room clearly displayed the trains’ numbers. Once you get to your waiting room, you will see huge display boards for different trains.

Actually, there should be no rush to board the train as the seats on the trains were numbered. But knowing how the Chinese could be, I had to be competitive and try to get close to the gate as soon as possible. The queue was formed half an hour before the gate was opened and when it did open, you could see some people squeezing into the front of the line “naturally”.

Once passengers get through the narrow gate, it was just like a water spout, with passengers dispersing all over the platform to get to their wagons.

Hooray! Nobody took our seats! We sat in 3-seaters. Two men came and seemed surprised to see us there and demanded to see our tickets. Apparently, they were the rare ones who couldn’t understand Arabic numbers and so I have to point specifically at the numbers that were displayed overhead and read to him loud and clear in Mandarin and then to point to where his seat should be and where his friend’s was.

D-Trains and Three Pounds Worth

There are T-, K-, Z-, D- and non-alphabet trains in China. We soon found out the D-trains were the fastest and the latest form of trains.

Train tickets in China were classified into “hard seat” (economy class) and “soft seat” (first class). C specially requested for soft ones as I told him hard seats were really hard. But it turned out that the “hard seats” in D-trains were soft and there was a lot of leg space and definitely more than enough space to open a 17-inch laptop easily. C has the experience on UK trains struggling to open his laptop and not to mention stretching his legs.

The train was new and fast—it could travel up to 200km/hr. The arrival time for next station, the name of next stop, travelling speed were all displayed clearly in each wagon. It was air-conditioned and non-smoking (Thank goodness!!). It wasn’t a typical train experience that one would expect to get in China and for the price of 26 yuan (2.50pounds).

Suzhou, approximately 100km from Shanghai, was the next stop for our train and it took us about 40minutes to reach our destination.

But I must still say that the level of comfort and standard of trains vary drastically once you move further westward, away from the coastal regions, into the relatively less developed areas of China.