First ride on China's historic Shanghai-Beijing high-speed train
Thursday, June 30, 2011. This day is big. The Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail line is about to begin official operations.
The event is so historic for China that, according to reports in the local media, most tickets for the first train out of Beijing South Railway Station were sold out within 10 minutes of going on sale.
Man, do I feel good about snatching two tickets -- one for the fiancé and one for me -- to became the first exapt ticket buyer in this high-speed rail line's history.
I had to get the tickets. I have been waiting for this journey for four years.
For me, a Beijing-born Swiss back in China for a decade with some modest Mandarin mastery, the ticket-purchasing process has been less troublesome than I had thought: just bring a passport (for expats) or ID (for Chinese) to the ticket counters and state which train you want.
The price: RMB 590 per ticket for business class.
I am not taking the train all the way to its Shanghai Hongqiao terminus. Because I have some business to take care of in Beijing tomorrow, I'm heading to Ji'nan West instead -- a little short of halfway down the line.
I arrive at the station in early afternoon and wait to board G1, the very first Shanghai-Beijing HSR heading to Shanghai.
Lots of other riders are already in a special queue.
After three rounds of security checks and ticket registrations, I am in front of my dream train: a sleek, white bullet train.
On Chinese high-speed rail (HSR), business class is one notch above first class. I've heard the seats in business class can actually recline and become a bed -- a vital feature for me as I stand 1.91 meters tall (6-4).
In my experience, even first class seats on airplanes don't help someone my size sit comfortably.
Once I get on the train, I head straight for the button that will change my traveling life once for all: the button that turns the seat into a bed.
The seat takes a while to recline, but it makes it. It is fully converted into a two-meter-long bed.
I am able to lie flat on the bed, with my toes just about touching the back of the seat in front of me.
I pull out a hidden TV in the left armrest and a fold-out table in the right armrest. I switch on a reading light. This feels like home.
My prone position attracts the media -- they're curious to see someone lying flat on a train outside of sleeper coaches.
At 3 p.m. on the nose, the train leaves Beijing South. With a welcome announcement from the attendants, my journey becomes real.
The train runs smoothly through parts of China I have not seen. It cruises across the North China Plain at speeds up to 313 kilometer per hour. Wow, that's fast! (Although, as of yet, it is still not as fast as the Beijing-Tianjin inter-city sprint train, which has a top speed of 350 kilometer per hour.)
If anything is spilled on this HSR train, for example a can of Coke, it will be due to human error. This baby is smooth.
About 10 minutes into the journey, a commotion of cameras and crowds herald the arrival of a very special rider to my coach: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
I am welcomed to board the train by the Premier with a firm handshake.
“What are you doing?” The Premier asks with a smile.
“Oh … just looking at the TV…and posting on Web,” I answer.
The handshake with Premier Wen is a special experience and gift to me on the very first Shanghai-Beijing HSR. After all, he's not the ordinary fellow rider you meet day in day out on the trains.
I spend much of my time onboard chatting with fellow train enthusiasts or posing for hungry media.
The quick sprint to Ji'nan takes less than two hours. The train arrives at Ji'nan West Train Station at 4:48 p.m., a minute ahead of schedule.
I don't really want to leave the train. In an ideal world, I would sleep my way to the Shanghai terminus. But that's for another day.
Despite the long queues in Beijing South Railway Station, my journey with the Shanghai-Beijing high-speed rail line is one of my very unforgettable rides.