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A complete guide to China’s high-speed rail
Four expert tips and 5 top lines travelers shouldn’t miss
High-speed rail (HSR) is China's new designer label travel -- more convenient than flying and far superior to buses -- stitching the country together with an inspirational blend of 21st-century engineering and technology.
In recent years, China has laid almost 10,000 kilometers of HSR track, investing billions of yuan in a state of the art train network.
Although the collision in Wenzhou this July may have slowed progres a little, HSR is still growing rapidly in China -- the authorities aim to build more than 13,000 kilometers of high-speed lines by 2012 and 16,000 kilometers by 2020.
As a train buff, I've ridden the rails both before and after the Wenzhou crash, and I've just traveled 4,000 kilometers from the south of China, Zhuhai, to the northeast, Harbin, in one week by train.
I have been a railway fan since I was young. In my past four years in China, I have logged more than 45,000 kilometers on trains, traveling to around 20 Chinese provinces.
However, my view of Chinese trains wasn't always so adulatory.
For a long time, I regarded Chinese trains as dirty, cramped, and worlds apart from the clean and efficient Swiss railway system, for which I once had a two-year nationwide rail pass. I dumped the rails for many years while living here.
But the quality of China’s HSR took me by surprise, and that was what got me back on board.
Here are five of my favorite HSR lines in China. (Scroll down to the bottom of the post to read four essential tips for first-time China HSR riders).
1. Beijing-Tianjin intercity railway
Length: 120 kilometers
Opened: August 1, 2008
Top speed: 350 kph (The line is now subject to a nationwide temporary speed limit and runs at 300 kph.)
Ticket price: RMB 55-94
This was China’s first official HSR, and I was there at its inauguration -- on a flashy and new CRH2 high-speed train -- at Beijing South Railway Station on August 1, 2008.
That puppy screamed at speeds up to 348 kph and took me to the Tianjin terminus in just 30 minutes.
I got addicted to this line first for the speed, and then for the views -- mainly flat land across north China with occasional buildings popping up on the horizon.
China’s capital city and the nearby municipal city Tianjin march to very different beats.
In Beijing, the street layout looks like a chessboard, whereas most Tianjinese streets are quite random.
You need to travel east of Beijing’s CBD for some before getting a glimpse of any water, but Tianjin boasts a river slap-bang in the middle of the city.
Perhaps reflecting the city layouts, Beijing residents appear too serious and official while Tianjinese are much more relaxed and easygoing.
Must-sees in Tianjin include shopping streets Binjiang Dao and Nanjing Lu, the ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye, Tianjin TV tower and the Chinese-style "Italian Town".
Rail aficionados shouldn’t miss the historic Tianjin West Railway Station, nicknamed the "railway cathedral" for its architecture.
More on CNNGo: Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail line begins service
2. Deluxe high-speed sleepers on the classic Beijing-Shanghai railway
Length: 1,463 kilometers
Last upgrade: July 1, 2006
Top speed: 250 kph
Temporary speed limit: 160 kph
Ticket price: RMB 311-1,392
Some might wonder why I choose the classic Beijing-Shanghai line over the recently launched five-hour HSR; it's the train itself.
For anyone who wants to travel from Beijing to Shanghai in style, the D313 (to Shanghai) and D314 (to Beijing South) night bullet trains are your best bet.
Hop on the train from Beijing (or Beijing South) Railway Station in the evening, and you'll wake up in East China after a whole night of shut-eye. The train terminates in Shanghai, with a midway stop at Nanjing.
D313 and D314 are among the very few bullet trains in China that provide private berths for you and your travel companions.
There's also a sofa right next to each bed. At times, it feels much comfier than the bed itself (though there's no private shower or private toilet onboard).
The other advantage is that travelers end up at Shanghai Railway Station, which is only two stops away from People's Square on Shanghai's Metro. (While the Hongqiao station is bigger, it is at least 30 minutes by road from Shanghai city center.)
3. Shanghai-Nanjing and Shanghai-Hangzhou HSR
Length: 301 kilometers
Opened: July 1, 2010
Top speed: 350 kph
Temporary speed limit: 300 kph
Ticket price: RMB 140-438 (Shanghai-Nanjing), RMB 93-279 (Shanghai-Hangzhou)
Shanghai is in high-speed heaven: it not only boasts a Maglev, but also features direct HSR links to all major cities in the Yangtze River Delta region.
Even with trains making midway stops, Hangzhou is less than an hour away from Shanghai on HSR.
Apart from strolling around West Lake, Hangzhou’s most iconic scenic spot, you can also rent a bike to tour the city.
If you're feeling adventurous, head up the nearby hills for some good locally produced tea, or visit the Leifeng Tower.
The Shanghai-Hangzhou HSR route also pulls over at Haining, a Zhejiang city famous for the annual tides which roll in every year around Mid-Autumn Festival.
On the fastest Beijing-Shanghai train, it takes about an hour to go to Nanjing from Shanghai. Slower trains take longer, but they give travelers more chances to see East China with stops including Wuxi (think high tech), Suzhou (think the Grand Canal) and Yangchenghu (think crabs).
Nanjing used to be the capital of the Republic of China, and the city is best enjoyed with a bit of rain when low-lying clouds add a little extra to the view of Xuanwu Lake.
Another must-see is the Nanjing South Railway Station -- it's one of the largest train stations in Asia with enough glitz and glamour for a former imperial capital.
More on CNNGo: Touring China with 8 stunning hats
4. Wuhan-Guangzhou HSR
Length: 1,068 kilometers
Opened: December 26, 2009
Speed: 350 kph
Temporary speed limit: 300 kph
Ticket Price: RMB 465-990
Covering more than 1,000 kilometers at present, the north-south link is still in the making. Its length will double next year when the line extends north to Beijing and south to Shenzhen. It will even reach Hong Kong by around 2015.
In the meantime, the Wuhan-Guangzhou HSR already has a lot to offer.
The current northern terminal, Wuhan, is where Sun Yat-sen launched his uprising to topple the Qing Dynasty, and the city is also home to the Yellow Crane Tower and the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge.
Wuhan's Railway Station is a sight in itself. My favorite part is the departures level, where you can snap a photo of a station full of trains as far as the eye can see.
The line also goes through Changsha, capital of Chairman Mao's home province, then passing through more hilly terrain in southern Hunan and northern Guangdong before heading into central Guangzhou, host of the 2010 Asian Games and one of China's more open-minded cities.
Don't miss the classic countryside views around Guangzhou, which feature miniature rice terraces.
Future extensions will link this line north into Henan, the cradle of Chinese civilization; Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei; and the China capital city Beijing.
More on CNNGo: 8 China travel tips from a professional fixer
5. Chengguan Express Railway (Chengdu to Qingchengshan)
Length: 67 kilometers
Opened: May 12, 2010
Speed: 220 kph
Ticket Price: RMB 15
This short-distance high-speed line shuttles between Chengdu and Qingchengshan (Qingcheng Mountain) on the outskirts of the city.
Although this bullet train doesn’t travel at lightning speed, it gets you to the mountains within 50 minutes passing Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation system dating back 2,000 years to the Qin Dynasty, on the way.
My favourite bit here is when you pass right next to the freeway tollgate -- and see the poor motorists queued up for the freeway tolls and traffic jams, while you're chilling in the train.
With 36 peaks, Qingchengshan is one of the key Daoism centers in China and houses plenty of mountain temples.
Rail buffs might also spot a bit of a novelty here: platform edge doors right on the line, making you wonder whether this is a train or an average city metro.
More on CNNGo: Shanghai's spice express: To Chengdu in one-third the time
4 expert tips for China’s high-speed rail
1. How to buy tickets
HSR tickets can be purchased at any ticket window in Chinese railway stations.
Major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, operate dedicated English-speaking ticket windows at train stations for international travelers.
Telephone and Internet booking systems are in Chinese language only.
Some Chinese HSR lines have adopted digital ticketing, but only people in possession of second-generation P.R.C ID cards can purchase digital tickets. Everyone else needs to stick with paper tickets.
Passports are required to buy HSR train tickets. Full China driver's license or residence permit sticker in your passport or seaman's book will also work.
Residents of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan must provide the same documents they used to enter mainland China when purchasing HSR tickets.
Be prepared to show your ID along with your ticket in waiting halls and on trains. The same documents are also needed for ticket changes or refunds.
2. Watch out where you point your camera
I've traveled thousands of kilometers on Chinese rails and it has proven to be heaven for photography.
However, some high-speed rail staff might stop you if you want to shoot an empty train compartment -- bad PR, they fear. In addition, if you're shooting older trains, you might get a funny look.
To secure window seat tickets, window seats on the new CRH380 trains are indicated by seat numbers ending either in A or F.
3. Check your station
First-tier Chinese cities also house more than one train station; there are five in Beijing alone -- Beijing, Beijing West, Beijing East, Beijing North and Beijing South.
Pay close attention to which station your train departs. Also, a few HSR-specific stations are located in the middle of nowhere, so be prepared to travel a fair bit for them.
4. Be on time
Leave about five-10 minutes for security check (not as complex as in airports but a big deal nonetheless).
A rule of thumb: ticket gates open 13-15 minutes before departure (some give you 30 minutes) and close five minutes before departure (some close three minutes before, but it's more the exception than the rule).
Hold onto your ticket because you'll need it at the end of the train ride. The ticket has your personal data, so either collect it (like I do) or shred the QR code, your name and ID number after using.