Ashley / Travel

The Last Train Home – An Adventure on the High Speed Rail

As we find ourselves in the summer months, I find myself with a little time on my hands. Time to reboot, renew, grow a little, relax a little and maybe learn some new things. I thought, in my ever romantic notion of what my summer in China should include, taking a train trip from Shanghai to Chengdu would be a great idea.

The fifteen hour overnight trip, starting with flat countryside and industrial sites of Anhui province, moving on into the dark night through Hebei and Chongqing, waking up in the rolling hills, farm-lined rivulets and quaint misty villages of Sichuan. The rumble of the train lulls you to sleep and your bunk mates share snacks and traveling stories. Sounds pleasant huh?

Well, not quite. Good friends of mine had taken the train and assured me it was just as spacious as a airplane and cheaper too! I had the time and I figured, why not add another China adventure to my list? I boarded the train at the Hongqiao Railway Station expecting a soft seat similar to what you would find on a plane, which I paid 500RMB for, but instead found myself sitting on a hard bunk in a car with four beds and six people. Not the best of odds.

Turns out my train took out the soft seat car leaving me to share a hard sleeper “non-smoking” bunk with a revolving door of travelers, sleeping fitfully in a ball trying to stay on my corner of the bunk even though I was twice the size of my fellow travelers. I was also the only foreigner on the train, and the subject of many a curious traveler’s attention which made for a crowded sleeper car of interested onlookers. A foreigner reading a book is apparently a very fascinating thing to stare at for hours on end. It was a long, cigarette smoke ladened trip that left me wishing for the ability to speak better Chinese and the space to get a good ‘ol sun salutation going.

I survived though, and gained some insight to China’s booming high speed rail industry – a rail that Beijing is pouring tons of money and effort into. The train was on time, clean and well-staffed, minus the unexpected change in seat quality, and it really wasn’t that bad of a trip. Many travelers in fact are choosing the rail over the air because of its punctuality and ease (as always though, there are some speed bumps as in those here and here).

High-speed trains make for blurry pictures

What really changed my perspective about my trip is the night I arrived Phil and I watched a highly recommended documentary on China by Chinese-Canadian film maker Lixin Fan, “Last Train Home.” The film depicts a family of migrant workers, how the parents balance life between the factory and their once a year trip home during the New Year. The trains in the movie are jam-packed, beyond imagination but far more frightening is the boarding process of the train best comparable to a stampede.

For the family in the movie, the train is their one connection to home. The one way the parents can connect to their children and attempt to make up for their long-distance parenting. The one way they can reinforce the authority of grandparents left to care for the farm and the young. The train is how China can try to remedy the population shift of the largest migration in the world – a population that travels once a year, on the same five days, by train. Trains in China are important.

There are questions whether or not this high-speed rail is an upgrade or not. On one hand the country’s poor, migrant worker/peasant population can’t afford the cheapest ticket on these trains, which are over a month’s salary for them. On the other hand, China’s growing middle class is much more mobile and quick, reliable trips between cities is much more convenient and appealing. It’s hard to say how this will pan out, if the high speed rail will help or hurt, if it can overcome problems in funding corruption or if it has outgrown China’s existing power infrastructure. But its going ahead, full speed and is worth keeping an eye on.

Perspective is good. Looking back on my trip I’m glad I opted for the more adventurous route. Looking out the window in the last two anxious hours of my train trip across China I realized I’m only a couple weeks from my one year anniversary of moving here. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle this trip a year ago but maybe that just shows I have learned some new things.


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