Stuff I Really Kind of Like About My Life in China: High-Speed Trains

June 8, 2012

I am not a whirlwind traveler by any means. In fact, I like to say I travel at the speed of continental drift.

In the year that I took off from work to travel through Southeast Asia, I managed to hit a whopping total of five countries. And one of those countries was Singapore. So I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.

I guess I’m just one of those people who likes to smell the roses. Or, as the case may be, the dumplings.

Mmm... new dumpling smell.

And while I really enjoy taking my time visiting each place I get to, it’s the getting to the place that makes me impatient — I just want to be there already.

When given the choice between two travel options, I will always choose the faster option. Even if the faster option costs three times as much and includes questionable food choices.

The "roast beef sandwich" on my flight from Qingdao. That dark patch was not a shadow.

This is why I’ve always opted to take the fast train instead of the slow train in China.

Sure, the slow train is usually half the price of the fast train.

And, according to my friends, the slow train is full of all kinds of fun “authentic Chinese experiences.” Like people smoking all the time and squat toilets.

But, frankly, I feel like I get plenty of “authentic Chinese experiences” in my daily life.

I live in an authentic Chinese city — so authentic it’s not listed in any English language guidebooks I’ve seen. Even though we have one of the largest Buddha statues in the world and China’s third largest lake.

That's right, Lonely Planet. Nothing to see here.

I regularly eat in authentic Chinese restaurants. Well, I call them “restaurants” — but they’re usually just tents made out of plastic tarp.

Mmm... everything tastes better when eaten in a plastic tarp tent.

And let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of squat toilets. Including a few I wouldn’t necessarily classify as “toilets.”

While all these “authentic Chinese experiences” are perfectly fine for my daily life, when I travel I like to class things up a bit, you know.

And, well, you can’t get much classier than the high-speed trains in China.

Even the train attendants uniforms match the seats. Classy!

The high-speed trains are always on time and meticulously clean. Like so clean it makes me feel like I’m back in Japan.

In fact, the Chinese high-speed train is a lot like the Japanese shinkansen, except you can’t pick up an elaborately constructed bento box before hopping on the train in China.

Train bento box. Complete with fake decorative grass.

But you can pick up some freshly-made baozi and beer, so it’s all good.

No decorative grass included. Probably a good thing.

Plus, you get a free bottle of water with your ticket before you board, which I don’t remember them having in Japan. I guess Japan Railways wasn’t so concerned about keeping me hydrated.

Tibet Spring 5100 Mineral Water. Heck, even the water sounds fast on these trains!

And lest you need a little entertainment, the high-speed train has its own glossy travel magazine. Even if you can’t read any of the words, the pictures usually provide plenty of entertainment.

What Chinese train attendants do in their time off, apparently.

And there’s always a hot water dispenser in the train for all your tea and instant noodle making needs. Should you have any tea and instant noodle making needs. I usually don’t, but I like just knowing that it’s there, you know?


Like I said, this train is all class, right?

When I was returning home to Wuxi after my trip to Beijing the other week, I opted to take the fast train back to Shanghai instead of flying or taking the slow train.

Lucky seat 13 13B

The trip, which can take almost twenty hours on the overnight train, takes less than five hours by high speed train.

Yep, it’s that fast, people.

In fact, the train, which reaches speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour, is one of the fastest trains in the world. Now, I’m an American, so I don’t really know what a kilometer is. But I do know that’s fast. Like really, really fast.

Practically a kabillion miles per hour. Or something.

And, while taking the fast train takes a little bit more time than taking the plane, it’s not a huge time difference once you factor in the hassle of getting to and from the airports.

Plus, taking the train meant I got to avoid any questionable “roast beef” sandwiches. Or whatever the heck these things were.

Given to me on my flight from Harbin. Don't ask. I'm still not sure.

I knew I was in for a totally classy experience, when I showed up at the train station in Beijing.

It looked much more like an airport than a train station — a really fancy airport with sky lights and palm trees.

Ooo, fahhncy.

And a VIP lounge.

Where the high-speed rail high-rollers hang.

There was an assortment of high-end clothing shops. You know, just in case you want to pick yourself up something pretty before your trip.

Lingerie shop. Because who wouldn't want to do their bra shopping in a train station?

There were also, of course, plenty of stores to buy some last minute treats and souvenirs. Because, God forbid, you visit Beijing without getting preserved fruit for the folks back home.

What? You went to Beijing and didn't get me any dried jujubes? Jerk.

The train itself was even spiffier than the other fast trains I’ve taken in Japan or China — and I didn’t even know that was possible.

Ooo, spiffy.

There was a video monitor in each of the cars which played movies for your in-train entertainment. Against my better judgment, I found myself watching the Jackie Chan movie which was playing for the better half of the trip.

I tried not to.


I even tried to distract myself with the train’s magazine, which, thankfully, had a whole five-page fashion spread with this hottie.

Well, hello there.

But after I’d flipped through that, I went back to watching the Jackie Chan movie. It was quite literally like watching a train wreck – I mean, there I was on the train, and there was this really horrible thing happening on that train, and I couldn’t look away no matter how hard I tried.

Must. Look. Away.

There was a really swish dining car complete with table linens, roses on every table and a doily over each seat.

Ooo, la, la!

Even the bathroom was fancy.

There was a faucet which I’m pretty sure could read my mind. And soap. Which, in China, may be even more unusual than a mind-reading faucet.

Ooo, inductive. I don't know what that means, but I like it.

There was a full-length mirror. You know for all those people who actually care what they look like while they travel. I can’t say I’m one of them, but I appreciated the extra touch.

Working on my disheveled train traveler look.

And, yes, in case you’re wondering, there was a toilet — a real toilet. And not just a scary hole in the ground.

No squatting required! Yay!

While this might have been one of the classiest trains I’d ever been on, it also happened to be one of the loudest.

This really had nothing to do with the train itself but the huge group of Chinese tourists sitting in front of me who spent their entire time on board shouting across the aisles to each other, snacking noisily on sunflower seeds and snapping photos. And, while the seats on the train were rather comfortable, I don’t think I saw a single person in their group sit down. At one point someone started to sing. And I’m pretty sure there might have been some dancing involved.

Party train!

The group trundled off the train at Nanjing, one stop away from Shanghai. This meant I had approximately ten minutes of peace and quiet — punctuated only by the sound of two tiny live turtles scuttling away in a plastic bag that was attached to the luggage handle of the woman who sat behind me.

I settled back into my seat to enjoy the relative silence and watch the landscape race by.

What the Chinese countryside looks like. At a kabillion miles per hour.

And race by it did.

Very, very quickly.

What’s your favorite way to travel?

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On June 8, 2012 at 8:39 am Jaime said:

    Oh wow… I love this. I want to email this entire post to the Indian Railways and tell them to please get their acts together. Just looking at this makes me so jealous… I can’t believe this exist. After 3 months in India using what must be the crappiest, dirtiest, most horrible train system in the world. I just thought luxury didn’t exist. As for my fav way of travel… what ever is cheapest… cus I normally fall asleep anyway.

    Oh I do love India Railways for how cheap it is. I took a 31hours SLOW train ride from Mumbai to New Delhi for $8.. yup $8!

    • On June 8, 2012 at 8:42 am Sally said:

      31 HOURS? HOLY CRICKEY. I don’t know if I could have survived that. I’m planning a few slow, overnight train trips in China this summer (visa extension permitting). Some of the trips I’m looking at are 20 hours long & I’m already worried that I won’t make it.

      • On June 8, 2012 at 9:55 am Jaime said:

        I kept a diary during my 31 hour train ride & will be posting it soon. You can do it… all you need is a good book & be able to accept you are going to hate your self for not flying. In the end you will survive and feel a bit stronger in the world of travel…lol!!!
        Jaime recently posted..Photo Round Up – Week 66 & 67

    • On June 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm Menaka said:

      What?! How could you not love Indian railways? I had some priceless experiences, like taking a dump in a hole and walking into someone else taking a dump with the door unlocked! 😀 Fortunately I only spent 14 hours on the train and it was delayed by 2 hours going from Agra to Varanasi.
      Great post, btw, Sally! I love the fact that you’ve taken pics of every single detail! As someone who has just started blogging, I haven’t mastered such forward-planning capabilities yet!
      Menaka recently posted..BMW, the Bavarian Motor ‘Wonder’…

      • On June 17, 2012 at 7:25 am Sally said:

        Thanks, Menaka. Glad you liked the post. It definitely took me a while to master my ability to take a photo of every little mundane thing. But now I carry my camera with me at all times because you just never know when blog inspiration might hit!

  2. On June 8, 2012 at 9:14 am Sarah said:

    I love high speed trains. I took one from Amsterdam to Paris once, and it was a gorgeous way to see the countryside without having to spend hours on the road. But I love trains in general – if it weren’t so much more expensive, I’d take them over flying any day of the week. I fell in love with sleeper cars when my ex and I were living in Spain and would take weekend trips to Barcelona and Madrid.
    Sarah recently posted..Fun In Translation

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:14 am Sally said:

      Ooo, a sleeper car in Spain sounds awesome and very romantic. I think I’m going to have to put that on my list of things to do… eventually.

  3. On June 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm Dyanne@TravelnLass said:

    Coincidental you should talk of trains… I’m now toying w/ the notion of taking the Trans-Mongolian from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (or vice versa) – 28 hrs. – instead of flying.

    The fare for the flights/train come out the same and how kewl would it be to ride the Trans-Mongolian?

    Then again, apparently I’d need a China visa at $130 even though I’d only be in Beijing for a few hours between train/flight back to Saigon.

    Do you happen to know anything about taking the Trans-Mongolian?
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Mui Ne, Vietnam – a Quick Getaway

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:13 am Sally said:

      Ooo, I’ve always wanted to take the Trans-Mongolian. In fact, I was really hoping to leave China via the Trans-Mongolian and then hopping on the Trans-Siberian — but sadly I don’t have the time or the cash to make the trip. Next time, I guess.
      Unfortunately, I don’t know much about it — but I’m sure there are plenty of other travel bloggers who do.

  4. On June 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm DebbZ said:

    Wow I’ve never tried the fast train in China before, it looks so modern. I should give it a try next time I visit China.
    I really love traveling by train, that’s my fav!
    Thanks for the info, Sally. Great post 😀
    DebbZ recently posted..Blog Award Backlog

  5. On June 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm Kerry said:

    Great photos! I love rail travel…in the UK it’s much shorter than in China and even Europe, but I totally agree that it beats airports and flying. I can’t wait for high-speed rail to take off more in Europe. Some people are very against it because it will supposedly ruin the countryside, but I’d much rather have trains than planes.
    Kerry recently posted..Frugal eating out that’s also delicious: E.mono kebabs in Kentish Town, London

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:09 am Sally said:

      Yeah, me too. Rail travel is usually super expensive in the States for some reason — much more expensive than flying so I never do it. But I’d love to take a cross country trip in the States… but they need to get some high-speed rails there so it won’t take me so freaking long.

  6. On June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm Carmel said:

    I took the TGV in France and it was FAST. I loved it.

    That group reminds me of the Chinese version of my family. We once took over a boat in Catalina and my uncles actually brought a keyboard for some on board entertainment.

    I can completely relate to the terrible movie thing, too. When traveling through Europe, I watched that awful “Bedazzled” movie with Elizabeth Hurley 3 times…all in Spanish. I swear to you it was the only movie playing that month. I wasn’t even listening to the movie soundtrack and it was still irritating, but I couldn’t look away. I’m pretty sure there was a costume change for her in every scene.
    Carmel recently posted..Sriracha Ranch Popcorn

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:08 am Sally said:

      I don’t even know if the Jackie Chan movie had a movie soundtrack or not — I honestly couldn’t hear anything over the din of the partyers in front of me. But that didn’t stop me from watching… obsessively.
      Your family sounds like fun! I want to take a boat trip with them!

  7. On June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm Janice said:

    I’ll take a train over a flight whenever possible (with the exception of a Chinese slow train, of course). However, my preferred method of travel is by boat. I’ll take waves over tracks or clouds any day.

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:06 am Sally said:

      Ooo, I agree. Boats are cool — as long as they are BIG. I get freaked out on small boats as there’s a high likelihood that I will tip the thing. (It’s happened… a lot). But I like boats that are yacht-size or larger.

  8. On June 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm Priya said:

    Traveling fast is always great! I’ve been on long flights and long bus rides, and it’s not very pleasant. But sometimes worth the time depending on where you’re going. Really, I don’t know why they haven’t invented a speedy magic carpet of some sort to ride on yet. One that will live in my closet at all times and entertain me when I need a friend. And while they’re at, they should also provide me a genie and um, maybe an Aladdin. You know, to complete the package.

    Um yeah, yay for high-speed trains in China!

    And you know what Sally, after all this time, I don’t think I’ve never had dumplings. Perhaps because I’m a vegetarian/ picky-ish eater. Just thought you should know : )
    Priya recently posted..Shit I did in Toronto / Almost Punching Some Douche In The Face [Part Two…ish]

  9. On June 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly said:

    Any mode of transport that has “Shadow Ham” is tops in my book!

    But my favorite way to travel would be on someone else’s dime. Like Conde Nast. And their $25,000 Dream Trip. Did I mention I’m a finalist?

    Last weekend to vote and leave a fantastically witty comment, people!

    (Ok, Sally. How was that for a segue?) Sigh. I do try…
    James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly recently posted..Pho — It’s What’s For Dinner

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:03 am Sally said:

      Much better, James.
      And it’s “shadow BEEF,” sir. Despite the scary pink hue, the label on the packaging clearly stated the meat was of the “beef variety.” I’m kind of scared to see what kind of cow it came from.

  10. On June 8, 2012 at 11:52 pm Ceri said:

    Ooh, my favourite way to travel is definitely by train too. 🙂 But 300 k/h ? WOW. I only know miles too but I know that is really freaking fast. That would kind of scare me.
    Ceri recently posted..Five Mexican Cultural Differences I’ll Probably Never Get Used To

    • On June 9, 2012 at 4:01 am Sally said:

      The ride is so smooth that you, honestly, don’t feel like you’re going THAT face. It’s hard to explain.
      I’ve also been on the Maglev to the Shanghai airport, which apparently is the fastest train in the world (over 400 km/hour). And it also didn’t feel that fast. I’m sure watching it from the outside, you’re like, “Woah.” But inside it just felt like your normal train.

  11. On June 8, 2012 at 11:53 pm Emily Cannell said:

    Why we can`t get them approved in the US is amazing to me- I would so much rather travel on one of them then any other form of travel.
    Emily Cannell recently posted..Birds of a Feather Bike Tokyo Together

    • On June 9, 2012 at 3:58 am Sally said:

      I wonder why that is? While I was “researching” this post (yes, I research… okay, mostly it’s on Wikipedia… but still!), I was surprised to find out how many countries use the high-speed rail trains. You’d think North America would go the same route.

      • On June 9, 2012 at 4:55 am James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly said:

        Those high speed trains are usually magnetic, right? I think the vast (and expensive to maintain) railway system in the US is so antiquated, it would need a total rehaul. And since the system in place already needs government subsidy, I doubt the taxpayers would agree to totally rebuild the system. Boo.
        James @ Fly, Icarus, Fly recently posted..Pho — It’s What’s For Dinner

  12. On June 9, 2012 at 1:08 am cynthia said:

    I’m with you on the fastest mode of transport. I haven’t been out of North America but (especially as I get a little older) I find myself choosing direct flights, even at higher costs. I just want to get where I am going!
    Also… “Practically a kabillion miles per hour.” hahahaha
    cynthia recently posted..My Friday’s Fancies

  13. On June 9, 2012 at 2:32 am Daisy said:

    Those trains are really fancy! I can see why you might pass up a airport waiting area filled with fake palm trees.

    My parents live by an all-you-can-eat buffet that has fake palm trees in the parking lot. I never thought it was an Asian trend!

    And that dark spot on the processed meat was scary. Was it there on purpose?!
    Daisy recently posted..Orecchiette Carbonara with Freshly-Shelled Peas

    • On June 9, 2012 at 3:55 am Sally said:

      Nothing says classy like fake palm trees!
      And, I have no idea about that dark spot. My friend got the same sandwich with the exact same dark spot. Neither of us ate it.

  14. On June 9, 2012 at 5:28 am jan said:

    We took the fast train (300kph) from Barcelona to Madrid recently and loved it. 2.5 hours and you arrive in the middle of the city. Being non-Spanish speakers we really appreciated the movie which was in Spanish with Spanish Sub-titles. I do love train travel, even dirty slow trains.

  15. On June 9, 2012 at 8:04 am Daniel McBane said:

    Great advice: always spend a little more on transportation when a better option is available. Don’t worry about the “authentic experience” because sooner or later that will be the only option and you’ll end up hating life a few hours into a 54 hour train journey when the kid with the butt-less pants has taken his third dump right next to your bunk (true story, though I really, really wish it wasn’t).

    Love the picture of the “sandwich” too. That looks exactly like the “food” they served us every morning at one of the schools I worked at in Shanghai. Amazingly, they somehow actually taste worse than they look.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..How to use a toilet

    • On June 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm Sally said:

      I’m just going to pretend this comment never happened. I’d rather not think about babies pooping in my bed… seeing as I’ll be taking a couple sleeper car train rides this summer. Uggh.

      • On June 12, 2012 at 9:35 am Daniel McBane said:

        Just to clarify: the kid did his business on the floor next to my bunk, not actually IN my bed. I know it’s just a small detail, but it was incredibly important to me at the time for obvious reasons.

        I may be oversharing here, but as I knew I would be stuck with that family for over 50 hours, I actually started giving the kid some of my fruit in an attempt to add some fiber to his diet. I’ll leave it to you to work out how that might benefit me.

        Enjoy the sleeper cars…
        Daniel McBane recently posted..A Burmese Train — Seeing Myanmar in Slow Motion

  16. On June 10, 2012 at 2:41 am Andrea said:

    That sandwich makes me want to hurl…

    That train sounds really awesome. I wish the U.S. would get on board with high speed trains!
    Andrea recently posted..La Vita Dolce: Cinque Terre, Italy

    • On June 10, 2012 at 12:37 pm Sally said:

      I know! Me too! Actually after writing this, I was thinking I should take a big train trip when I return to the States but I don’t know if I’d be able to afford it — money or time wise. Why does train travel have to be so freaking inconvenient there?

  17. On June 10, 2012 at 5:42 am Stormie said:

    Sally–I don’t comment enough to let you know how much I love your blog!!! I read it out-loud to my friends and family!! We all feel like we know you!!

    Right now I am reading a book titled, Lost on Planet China. I think of your posts page after page–the author [J. Maarten Troost] is definitely a kindred spirit!

    I can’t wait to come to China!! Thank you—you’re the best Un-brave person!!


    P.S. I am glad to see the modern trains!! I hope they enforce the “No Smoking” rule!! Also, do you need to wear a mask because of the polution or is this just rumor?
    Stormie recently posted..Stuff I Really Kind of Like About My Life in China: High-Speed Trains

    • On June 10, 2012 at 12:37 pm Sally said:

      I’ve seen that book listed on Amazon. I should buy it. Sounds like I could probably relate!
      Oh, and in regards to your P.S. they do enforce the no smoking rule on the train, but not in the train station. I’ve seen people light up directly underneath the sign! And I’ve never worn a mask… but I probably should! It gets really hazy here especially in the summer months. But I’ve never seen anyone wear a mask around here, so I figure wearing one would only make me even more of a freak show.

  18. On June 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm SkiCat Travels said:

    I’ve never been to China (on the list though…), but this sounds a lot like the trains in Europe like the German ICE and French TGV…very nice, vey quiet, and very FAST!

  19. On June 11, 2012 at 11:51 am Roy Marvelous said:

    I’m sold! I want to take a train in China. Like now.
    You should totally email this blog post to the marketing people at China rail. You could be the new face of train travel in China!!

    p.s. Singapore counts. Because their zoo rocks.
    Roy Marvelous recently posted..St Petersburg: Free Hugs To Fighting Part I

  20. On June 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm Waegook Tom said:

    Hahaha this made me laugh a lot, Sally. I love your picture captions! Nice to know I’m not the only one who snaps photos of classy toilets (there was a lot of that going on this weekend in Busan for me).

    I love train travel, by far my favourite way to get from A to B. The photos actually look a lot like the KTX in Korea.

    I’m surprised that I’m able to right this comment as I was drooling and vapidly giggling at the screen at Mr Magazine Cover Hottie.
    Waegook Tom recently posted..Dicing With Death in Suwon

  21. On June 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm Ayngelina said:

    I love all the photos. Can I make a request, show us what a grocery store looks like, is it different?
    Ayngelina recently posted..My mother the assassin

    • On June 17, 2012 at 7:20 am Sally said:

      I did a post on grocery stores a while back:
      There aren’t tons of photos because you’re not really supposed to take photos in the supermarket. Plus, I don’t have a camera phone so it’s hard for me to be sneaky.
      I should really write another post about them, though, because I absolutely love grocery stores here. Aside from the lack of decent cheese, the grocery stores here are really great — big, clean & usually full of all kinds of weird things. I’d say they have the best grocery stores in all of Asia.(Or at least the best I’ve seen!)

  22. On June 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally, 300kph and 400kph are meant about 187mph and 250mph respectively. A train which can speed up to 400kph, may be considering the fastest train in the world!What is the fare and how far from Peking to Shanghai? Among the vehicles for transporting, I love rail traveling most because it is the most cheapest and safe in transport.Hopefully myself have once experience in high speed train in China in future with in short period,in between a year?! Ha!Ha! Local train, 100kph is considered very, very fast! Why? Downward spiral of poor governance? The rail is still remanded a hundred year ago!

  23. On June 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm choi kum fook said:

    Miss Sally, why not you have another rail traveling from Peking to Urumuchi(a town in almost far end in western part of China) before you departure from China.I think it sure makes you more exciting and adventurous tour! A long story could be written on it!! How is the idea? Miss Sally! Good luck!

    • On June 17, 2012 at 7:17 am Sally said:

      This is a really good idea, but I’m actually going to be heading South rather than North. But I would LOVE to visit Urumqi one day. It seems like such a fascinating place — and so different from the other places I’ve been in China.

  24. On June 16, 2012 at 4:01 am Marie said:

    When you said there was no ekiben I thought, why even board that train? But that’s only because, in Japan, while my husband was checking out the features of the uberawesome Shinkansen I was usually already too excited (jumping up and down and clapping like my students had taught me) about my special lunch. I thought that was the whole reason for even taking the Shinkansen rather than flying. The special bento. But I was quickly won back by your photos of lingerie shops (which look totally antebellum to me!)and tea making facilities, of which I would have totally partaken (the tea stuff, not the antebellum dress lingerie).
    Marie recently posted..I’m a runner. Just like that time I became a writer.

    • On June 17, 2012 at 7:16 am Sally said:

      I do miss me some ekibens. It was kind of like a little ritual before boarding the train. I always tried to buy whatever the local or seasonal specialty was.

  25. On June 16, 2012 at 10:38 am oanh said:

    The packet of weird looking stuff is dried salty plums. They’re delicious, although you can only eat one or two at a time, and well, maybe they’re not actually delicious. Just a way of keeping your mouth occupied. Reckon the partying group would have had some of them too.

    Trains and ferries are my favourite forms of non-me-powered transportation!

    • On June 17, 2012 at 7:14 am Sally said:

      Yeah, I figured it was some kind of dried fruit. I actually enjoyed them… well, after I got over the initial sour/salty/weird taste shock.


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