In the spring of 2017, we embarked on a 12-day journey from Hong Kong to China’s northeastern territory. Our train passage brought us to Shanghai, Suzhou, Shenyang, Harbin and Beijing.
We had been meaning to take the overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai. As I had quit my previous job and our future in Hong Kong seemed uncertain, we decided to do it before it was too late.
Our journey started with an overnight train that left from Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station in the mid-afternoon. We breezed past the immigration check and showed our tickets to the conductor to board the train.
We had a “deluxe soft sleeper” cabin to ourselves. This is the most expensive option on the Z100 train, costing HK$935 per person (approximately US$120). The modest compartment comes with a bunk bed, a table, a chair, a toilet as well as ample space for luggage. Click here for the train schedule and prices.
Sitting by the large window, we watched the rain as the train rolled through Hong Kong and across the border. The landscape was mostly dotted with buildings and some trees. It was as though we were passing through a contiguous urban sprawl.
When we got hungry, we dived into our lunchboxes and snacks. When we got thirsty, we filled our bottles with hot water for tea. When we got restless, we paced the corridor to stretch our legs. Otherwise, we spent most of time reading and chatting.
This seemed to be what most of our fellow passengers in Coach 11 were doing. Life slows down on a ride like this.
To spend 19 hours on a train between Hong Kong and Shanghai is a deliberate choice. After all, there are faster means to travel between the two cities: A flight takes two-and-a-half hours while the new high-speed rail from Kowloon station covers the distance in around eight hours.
All the passengers we met were at least a decade older than us. They seemed to be in no hurry to get to the next destination. Some of them would hang out on the corridor in their pyjamas, watching the outside roll pass.
After the sun had set, people streamed into the adjacent restaurant car for dinner. The food was mediocre but at least one won’t go hungry.
The train made few stops. While some people would hop out onto the platform for a smoke, others smoked on the train even though it was not allowed. The smoke from neighbouring cabins was the only thing that I didn’t like about this ride.
Sleep came easy as there were little distractions – we were not on roaming mobile service. When we woke the next morning, we were almost in Shanghai.
Our train pulled into the 30-year-old Shanghai Station 上海火车站 shortly after 10.30am. We ambled out of the train, trailing our fellow passengers who swiftly blended into the sea of people at the station. I took a backward glance at our green train with our beige compartment with lace trimmings.
Into the modern metropolis of Shanghai we went…
Rapid urbanisation in mainland China
We were in Shanghai for only one night. It was a stopover to Suzhou where we planned to explore some of its fabled gardens. The next morning we hopped onto a high-speed train that brought us to Suzhou in just 20 minutes.
After a brief sojourn in Suzhou, it was time to head north, to Shenyang. The longest segment of our trip, this took just only nine hours to cover more than 1,800 kilometres.
The Chinese government has been investing a fortune to develop the country’s high-speed rail network in the past decade. I was impressed by the trains that we took. They ran on schedule and were spacious and clean (including the toilets). They also had hot water dispensers, a must-have given the millions of tea-drinking passengers.
As the train sped through China’s eastern cities such as Nanjing, Jinan, and Tianjin, we were struck by the relentless urban development. We would pass massive swarths of uniform high-rise apartment blocks every few minutes. Otherwise, it would be a cleared area for agriculture or a smoking industrial plant.
China’s rapid urbanisation means that millions of people need to be housed in cities. However, how much of the urban development we saw truly served this need and how much of it was due to speculation and the blind drive for economic growth?
While the nine-hour train ride was smooth and comfortable, I was glad to finally arrive in Shenyang. Admittedly, the endless generic urban sprawl was starting to feel monotonous.
Upon arrival at Shenyang Railway Station, we decided to buy the tickets to Harbin and Beijing as we would be travelling around the Labour Day holiday. This turned out to be an interesting cultural experience…
There were counters for different groups of people including members of the Chinese Communist Party. In general, the crowd was orderly and the queues shuffled along.
When we finally got to the front of a line, several of the men behind us immediately leaned over Andrew’s and my shoulders. My first thought was that they were trying to steal our personal details. I soon realised that this was simply the “Chinese” way – people have a different sense of personal space and tend to mind other people’s business!
As we had anticipated, the seats on the trains that we were planning to take were already sold out due to the Labour Day mad-house rush. Fortunately we were able to secure tickets for alternative trains on the same routes.
We spent a few days in Shenyang learning about its history: From its distant past as the former imperial capital of the Qing Dynasty to its pioneering role in China’s industrial revolution. As well as exploring Xita Street, a.k.a. Little Korea Town, where we were treated to a surreal eye-opening performance by North Korean ladies at dinner.
Our next stop was Harbin, the northernmost destination of our trip. We returned to Shenyang Railway Station to take the train to Harbin.
By this point, we were familiar with the general layout of the Chinese railway stations and some of their distinguishing features.
One has to first queue outside the station to go through a metal detector scan and ticket check. Once you’re through, you are immediately in a massive central hall with boarding gates on two sides. There is a constant stream of people and giant LED ads for Maotai liquor (or a competitor alcohol brand). There’s also the ubiquitous takeaway store selling braised duck parts such as necks, feet, and wings.
There are many seats outside the gates for passengers. You can squat while waiting if you prefer. Once the boarding announcement is made, a mass of people gather in front of the gate and gradually flow through the gates as they scan their identity cards or the QR codes on their tickets. In spite of the large number of people passing through the train stations, things are orderly.
From Shenyang, it took us less than three hours to get to Harbin where we explored the old historic quarter and found interesting after-dark activities in Songbei, the new central business district.
Our final leg from Harbin to Beijing took almost eight hours. To be honest, I don’t remember much of it. Was it because we were mostly passing through bland landscapes of power plants and cleared lands dotted with young trees?
What struck me most at the Beijing Railway Station was the mesmerising sunset set against the hundreds of people making their way home for the Labour Day long weekend.
Thoughts fluttered across my mind: Where did all these people come from? What do they do in Beijing? Are they getting a better life in Beijing?
The image below tracks the journey we took from Hong Kong to Beijing, using a map of China’s rail network in late 2016. Since then the Chinese railway has expanded, connecting its people and hundreds of cities more closely than ever before.
As I finish writing this article, I realise how homogenous modern Chinese cityscape can look. What most differentiated the five cities we visited were relics of the past.
As the country hurtles towards more economic growth and urban development, what does it really bring for the future?