Chinese Buffet – Part 10: Day Train to Shanghai

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

When I originally decided that I was going to take a train from Beijing to Shanghai, I figured I’d take the night train, since it’s inexpensive and saves time by transporting you while you sleep. I’d done this to save time and money on several European overnight journeys in the past. But I realized that on this China trip, I wasn’t really in a rush. And I’m a big fan of train travel — I enjoy the experience of staring aimlessly out the window for hours, reading a book or catching up on journal writing.

Since this was my very first train trip in China, and I had the time to spare, I decided to investigate day train options. Seat 61 alerted me to news of the brand new express electric train that began daily runs between the two cities in April 2007. I decided that the D31 bullet train would be the way I’d go.

Budget backpackers on a tight schedule and no extra RMB might skip this pricier option, but since I’d only spent $30 on my four nights in the hutong hostel, I decided that the “splurge” for this train ride was worth it. At 327 RMB for a second class ticket, the D31 ten-hour trip would set me back a whopping $43 bucks. I pay more than twice that for a lousy 4-hour Amtrak from NYC to DC!

But before I get too excited, let me rewind to the ticket purchase process:

Although I didn’t have to persevere as long as Ember and her pals did when purchasing the ticket, it was a confusing process that could potentially cause major headaches, especially if you’re planning to buy on your own. I had heard about rules regarding when you can buy (usually only five days in advance if not purchasing through a travel agency) and so I waited till mid-week, and then feared I had let too much time pass. Thank goodness for my wonderful Mandarin-fluent Couchsurfing host, who sent me off to the main train station with my ticket purchase request written out in Chinese characters.

(Model of Beijing Zhan from the Urban Planning Exhibition – just imagine loads of folks queued up out front!)

It was early morning and the station was swarming with people. I didn’t know about the English language lines, so I just picked one queue from among the millions and waited my turn as best I could. A few folks cut ahead of me, and others just stared. I asked a few young Chinese students if I was on the right line and they said it didn’t matter, I would be fine on any line. And I was — but I think it was just good luck! Eventually I got to the window clerk, showed my precious piece of paper, received a nod, paid up and was given a small orange ticket that said D31 and showed the proper departure date. Relief! If only I had remembered to ask for a window seat!!!

A few days later I made my way back to the station. I was pleasantly surprised to find this comfy setup when I arrived ridiculously early for my 10:50 departure:

I verified with the cafe manager that I was in the right place and then settled down with a cold latte, amusing myself with the English translations of other items offered on the menu: Home gruel, Mexico popcorn, Turkey West disabilities, Toronto allocated winter hamburger fries. I munched on some of my own homemade trail mix instead.

By about 10 am the waiting room was packed and I soon befriended Bobby, a 12-year-old from Beijing who spoke excellent English. He was traveling with his cousin and grandparents, and it was cute how his grandfather motioned for Bobby to come sit next to me, and then began video-recording us as we chatted.

Bobby took me under his wing, asking me all sorts of questions about where I was from and where I was going. We talked a lot about American movies, as he had just seen the new Transformers film. He asked to see my train ticket:

“The train to Shanghai takes eight minutes,” Bobby explained.

“Wow! That is really fast!” I smiled at him, hinting with a wink, so that he would realize his mistake.

He giggled. “Oh!! I mean eight hours! But it used to take 15. Now they have faster trains.”

Bobby and his grandfather escorted me to the next room when it was time to board. I had my own bodyguard buddies! They were waiting for a different train that would take them to the coast. We said our goodbyes and Bobby waved behind me for awhile, as if old pals were parting ways. The last remaining nerves I had about the train trip were gone. I boarded and made myself as comfortable as I could in my middle seat:

The whole point of taking the day train was so that I could SEE things, but that proved to be quite challenging from where my seat was located. I made the best of it and was rewarded about an hour later, when the gentleman on the aisle of our row disembarked at the first stop. (The D31 only stopped two or three times the entire day — I can’t recall what the first stop was, but it did stop in Xuzhou later in the day.)

I still didn’t have a window seat, but I was happy with an “upgrade” to the now vacant aisle seat. I got up every hour or so and would walk to the end of the car, where I could stretch my legs and do my window staring. The landscape consisted mostly of cornfields and construction:

The train itself was very clean and comfortable. But as the day progressed, so did the smells. A woman across the aisle from me pulled a whole cooked chicken out of her purse at one point and just started chowing down on it. I’m sure it was quite yummy, but after awhile all the food smells started to linger. The train staff would move through the cars every hour or so, collecting new trash. I noticed these bags after awhile, piled up where I had been standing to look out the window:

No more landscape gazing for me. I snoozed for a bit, read a great short novel, and then pulled out my collection of compact Shanghai guidebooks. In only a few more hours I’d arrive at my next destination: