Here’s a clue as to how the train ride has been so far..They just walked through the carriage selling (or giving away?) Haagendaas icecream.
I had the delightful treat of taking a business class train ride to Shanghai – five hours of incredible speeds of up to 300 km per hour. Here’s how I did it.
I was staying at the Renaissance Hotel Wangfujing. This was a great location and the staff were very helpful throughout my four nights there. I bought train tickets twice – once with the help of their concierge, who ordered them online, took my cash, and then delivered the tickets straight to my hotel room door within an hour of buying . The second time, it was quite late at night so using the concierge wasn’t an option, and I had decided to go to Shanghai at the last minute.
I used Ctrip.com which was quite easy. I’ve also used Ctrip for hotels and flights, so I feel confident in saying it’s a great, English-speaking site for your China travel needs. (Click the US/UK flag at the top to change to English.)
Because it was after 10pm, picking up the tickets from the train station was the only option, rather than asking them to deliver. (Because any sales after 4pm are processed the next day for delivery.) I carefully wrote down my ticket number – it starts with “E”, and I took a screenshot of the ticket booking email, just in case. It was easy to use my foreign credit card (MasterCard) on the website.
My train only left at 10am, but the concierge told me that in the morning there may be some road closures, and he couldn’t guarantee that the 30 minute taxi ride wouldn’t turn into 90 minutes. Because I also knew I had to figure out how to collect my ticket, I decided to give myself a lot of time, and leave at 7:30am.
In the morning when I was checking out and mentioned I needed a taxi to Beijing South Railway Station, the hotel staff was very concerned and said, “You better hurry and leave now, because it’s about to be traffic hour. We’re worried about how long it’s going to take.”
Well, I must have just missed the magic hour of traffic jams, because it took me less than 30 minutes to reach the station! I’m always glad to be better safe than sorry, however. So lesson one: Always prepare for the worst, and also always ask hotel staff – don’t assume by looking at a map that you know how long it will take to get there.
The train station was quite large but very clearly labeled; there were plenty of shops and restaurants (including Western options such as Starbucks and Pizza Hut). I had packed a lunch from the hotel at breakfast, because I’d heard that the food options onboard the train were not very appetizing. I made myself a lovely little butter and cheese sandwich, but I know my hotel would also have packed something to go from their restaurant, so make sure you ask ahead of time for your hotel to arrange this. Or, if you get to the station super early like I did, you can just buy something there to take onboard.
When you enter the train station, right away you will have to put your luggage through a scanner and walk through a metal detector. There was also a cursory passport check, but, as at almost all the other train stations I’d been in, as soon as they saw a US Passport they waved me on, since they couldn’t read it.
Security check complete, I headed over to the ticket office….
…Which was closed.
I tried to figure out from the Chinese characters anything about “We’ll open at..” but nothing seemed obvious. Then I tried the automatic ticket machines, but there wasn’t an English option, and I couldn’t figure out where the “Retrieve bought tickets” button was. I think if you were trying to use the machines to buy a ticket right then and there, you would be able to figure it out, as there were buttons for train time, destination, etc. I did hear , however, that you need a Chinese ID card (it’s scannable) to retrieve your ticket. So these machines clearly weren’t going to be useful.
I walked back to the ticket counter and it still wasn’t open. I noticed that it said “Ticket Office No. 2.” Surely that must mean there was a 1 or 3? So I kept walking in the opposite direction, and eventually found another ticket office, which was open! It was right next to the business class lounge, too, which was nice.
Here’s where things got tricky. There were a bunch of different lines, all very long, and with people jostling for the next postion, with different signs, but nothing in English. I had taken a photo of a useful page on Ctrip, that showed the Chinese characters for picking up online tickets, but I wasn’t able to discern them individually on the signs. So I jumped in the shortest line possible and when I reached the front, I showed my ticket voucher to the lady. She pointed to another line.
I say “another line,” but I have no idea what line she was pointing to. I tried to clarify and she just pointed again. She wasn’t really interested in giving me details, so I got into another line.
This happened three more times.
By the fourth time I was getting frustrated at the refusal to do anything else other than point over my head in the general direction of the other lines, but I knew that I had to succeed somehow. Or live the rest of my life in this train station.
So I guess it was good that I got to the station so early! All in all, over 45 minutes had passed by now.
Finally, I handed my ticket voucher number (you don’t have to print it from Ctrip, I just wrote the voucher number down) to the fourth ticket agent. He held out his hand for my passport. Success!
A few minutes later and I had my business class ticket firmly clutched in my hands.
The business class lounge was just next door, so I decided to check it out. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but it was a much quieter place to relax, than the crowded train station. I gave the ticket and my passport to the ladies at the door, who scanned it to verify its authenticity, and then added my name to the list so they could watch for my train’s status.
I waited for about an hour (I briefly was able to find a WiFi signal, but not sure if that was an errant signal or specifically for the business class lounge). There were some small snacks and drinks and hot beverages, if you wanted them. There are no bathrooms inside the lounge, they are right next door and are the general public station toilets. They are not that bad, but remember to always carry your own tissues with you. This particular bathroom had a roll of toilet paper at the entrance for you to take your own, but many bathrooms in China do not restock these public dispensers. The bathroom next to the business lounge had squat toilets; I’m not sure if they had Western toilets, but they did have labels on the doors, which leads me to believe some doors must have been hiding some Western toilets.
Boarding is exactly 30 minutes before the train leaves. No need to worry about this – right on the dot, the business class lounge staff came over to me and told me the train was ready. Then they escorted the business class passengers across the train station, straight to the boarding gate, where they presented the tickets to the security guards and let you cut the line. This was very helpful and a great service.
However, if you don’t have this option: Look on your ticket in the upper right hand corner, this will say the track it’s boarding from, or consult the monitors. My train, for instance, said it was leaving from tracks 6-7 on the monitors, and my ticket had a 6 on it. It will not be possible to go to the track more than 30 minutes before, but you can hang out in the gate area.
Chinese train travel has three classes: Second, First, and Business. Note that unlike a plane, Business is higher than First. And let me tell you, there is a huge difference between Business and First. If your budget permits it, I highly recommend this wonderful and relaxing way to travel. (Just don’t travel Second. It’s the opposite of relaxing.)
Your train ticket will have two numbers on it: For instance 3 03F. This means you are in Car #3, Seat 3F. The train itself is fairly well marked on each carriage’s door , so you know what number car to enter.
I got into my business class car. What a sight for sore eyes! Each business class seat is enclosed within its own pod, and the seats fully recline to turn into beds. Everyone receives tea, juices, blankets, slippers (and yes, everyone put on the slippers immediately!), and a little boxed snack. Later they passed out trays of Chinese food, which I took in order to taste a little, but I mainly munched on the rice and some of the meat before handing it back. It’s basically the equivalent of “airplane food” on a train, so most other people also bring their food as well.
The train is five hours, and if you leave early in the morning like I did you will get hungry, so do plan your snacks carefully.
The seats have enough space in front of them that you can put your large suitcases right in front of your feet (and you can still lay the seat flat!) and your little suitcases on the shelf above your head, although some train riders did put the luggage in the back or the front of the carriage. Most people seemed to want to keep an eye on their belongings, however, so another great benefit of riding business class is that you can keep your luggage with you (as opposed to First and Second where you shove your luggage in a pile at the front of the carriage).
Note: Even in business class, most Chinese are very comfortable talking on the phone loudly, watching a movie without headphones, and keeping ringers on. Bring your own headphones to make yourself more comfortable.
There is supposedly WiFi on the train, but I couldn’t connect either my laptop nor my phone to it.
I passed the time by reading, writing this blog post, and finally sleeping. The train was incredibly smooth. They had placed a cup of tea on the windowsill and it sat there the whole time and the liquid inside barely even moved. The very slight swaying was very soothing and put me to sleep in no time.
Note that a little bit after leaving Beijing station you’ll need to show your ticket to the conductor, so keep it somewhere handy. You will also need it to exit the train station in Shanghai! In other words, don’t lose it!
Not much English is spoken on the train, but you’ll be able to get the idea. The staff were kind enough to try to speak some words such as “Chicken?” or “Hot Water?” The station announcements are in both Chinese and English. The train is very punctual.
There is a dining car (and my car had arrows showing in which direction to walk), but I forgot to go explore it to see what it was like. They also passed through the car periodically with boxed fruit and other items for sale. There are also bathrooms, and the bathroom outside the business class car was clean and had a beautiful sink, although it was a little smelly. But, I’ve seen worse! So no worries on that regard.
The train only stops for a few minutes at each station, so don’t dilly-dally in getting off.
My business class ticket was the same price as flying economy to Shanghai, and even though it is five hours, one could argue that it would have been the same amount of time to go out to the Beijing Airport, go through security, deal with possible flight delays, and then take a taxi into the city from Shanghai Airport. I consider the train to be a much more efficient, safer, and reliable form of transportation.
The train arrives at Shanghai Hongqiao station, which is connected to the smaller, local airport. The station is quite large and there is signage everywhere. I wasn’t sure which taxi door, “North” or “South” to choose from, so I chose North. The line was tremendous, but it shuffled along rather quickly and it took about 20-25 minutes of actively shuffling to get to the front of the line. But at least it was moving. Note: On a second train ride later in the trip, I requested a pickup by the hotel. This was a great idea, although more expensive than a regular taxi, because that taxi line was also very long, and it was already 11pm at night. It would have been another 30 minutes at least just to get a taxi, with another hour drive to my hotel, so if you can arrange someone to meet you and pick you up at the train station, this is also a good option.
If you have the chance to take a high speed train in China, I highly recommend it! It’s a marvelous opportunity to appreciate the wonders of engineering . I also highly recommend the business class ticket. It was worth every penny, and it was the perfect anecdote to a long week of work and travel challenges.
Have you ever taken a high speed train? What was it like ?