Posts Tagged ‘Railroads’

Railway to the West

Posted: July 26, 2011 in Life, Travel
Tags: , , ,

It would seem that the last great expansion of American railroads commenced on the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, in 1869. The East and West had been joined, and the nation could now be traversed by the all-mighty locomotive. Taking the train anywhere in the USA now has a nostalgic sense to it; boarding an Amtrak tends to be more of a novelty now, than a commonly used mode of transportation.

北京西站 - Beijing West Train Station

Railways are everything in China. Walking into 北京西站 (Beijing West train station), I was entrenched into one of the most chaotic sea of people I have ever witnessed. Occupying a building as large as any airport I have been to, Beijing West has 12 platforms, each of which services a train every hour. There’s continuously a desperate rush of people trying to make their train on time, running all the way across the station. Which is actually even more chaotic than it sounds: there’s a distinct lack of enough seating in Beijing West, so people just sit down on the floor in the middle of the waiting room. As such, running across the station typically involves a cross between ski-slalom and running the hurdles.

Inside of Beijing West

Waiting for his train

Showing up two hours early to make sure I didn’t miss my own train, I found myself just sitting in the middle of the floor as well. On a well placed plastic bag, not on the floor directly. In addition to lacking seating, Beijing West is also lacking in garbage cans. Janitors continuously walk the halls; to dispose of their trash, people simply throw it on the ground in front of the oncoming janitor. The same goes for spitting sunflower seeds and used Kleenex. This is one of the few times that I will pass judgment on someone else’s style of life: it’s disgusting, please stop.

Train Platform

Train Interior

Life on the train can be much more luxurious. 14 cars long, with three different types of berths, the train can easily seat hundreds of people. Some tickets are just for a seat, others are for the “hard berth”, triple-decked bunk-beds arranged in rows along an entire car. I found myself in the “soft berth”, the plushest of them all. A comfortable mattress with a pillow and comforter awaited me on the upper bunk in my cabin, which I shared with three other people (each soft berth cabin has two sets of bunk-beds). A small table sat in the center of the room, complete with fake flowers and an electric kettle. Air-conditioned and with a TV for entertainment, I was more than comfortable. I didn’t even have to put down a plastic bag. In fact, quite the opposite: each passenger is provided with a pair of slippers, such that you can wander around without the burden of wearing shoes.

My Bunk

Soft Berth Cabin


The hallways of the train have seats that fold out by the windows, so that you can gaze at the passing scenery. Attendants push carts by with food, drink, and even magazines for entertainment. I was told there was a restaurant car somewhere down the line too, though I didn’t wander past the cars adjacent to mine.

Window Seat

My cabin-mates (a businessman and his wife, and another businessman) were curious as to why a young American would be traveling via train on his own: when I told them I am here to learn about the Motherland, they were more than happy to help me give my Chinese an exercise. Pretending to be asleep yielded me my rest for that night.

It took me 12 hours to get from Beijing to Xi’an, a journey of roughly 600 miles. Probably the most comfortable 12 hours that I’ve ever spent in transit, I’d pick a Chinese train ride over a plane trip any day. Yet Chinese rail is still developing: there is a high-speed train travels between Beijing and Shanghai in merely 5 hours; that technology is being spread throughout the country. Traveling at 210 miles per hour, this train leaves anything we have in the USA in the dust. Imagine going from Seattle to San Francisco in 5 hours, with the option to lay down on a bed.

Though I could do without the sunflower seeds.