Tuesday 18th April 2017
Arriving at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, there was really no other option, than to ride the World’s fastest train into the city. Of course in reality there were plenty of other choices, a taxi, a bus, the regular subway train…, but who wouldn’t want to take a ride on a magnetic levitating train at speeds of up to 430km per hour, and arrive in style?
The 50¥ (about $7.25 / £5.80 / €6.80) one way ticket seemed like a snip and I was soon elegantly gliding down the escalator, with all my luggage, from a zen like waiting atrium, to the very calm platform. The fact that this train only goes from the airport to Longyang Road Station, in the outskirts of the city proper, and back, means that it’s not your usually chaotic train station with people frantically crisscrossing each other, but a rare peaceful and ordered railway environment.
Having heaved my suitcase into the rack by the vestibule, I sat back and waited to be wooshed into town. The Maglev, as it’s known, is exactly that; a magnetic levitating series of carriages that “float” about an inch or so above the track, or guideway to use its technical term. Essentially, it has no moving parts and is elevated and propelled forward using just magnets. And I’m guessing a hell of a lot of them!
The ride was surprisingly smooth and quiet, and if you weren’t looking out of the window at the world whizzing by, you’d barely notice that we’d left the station. I was a little disappointed that during the early evening, when I took the train, that the top speed was limited to 300km/h (186mph) not the usual dizzying 430km/h (267mph). Still, when we passed another Maglev going in the opposite direction, I was fairly glad that we were only in “half speed mode”, as it felt like we might being going to orbit into space.
Go East my friends!
It wasn’t the stomach churning ride I was expecting at all. It was virtually silent, the glide was super smooth, the tilt when you turned a corner was a bit like being in a bobsled run, but it felt effortless, and although the scenery slid part fairly rapidly, it didn’t make me want to throw up my recently ingested aeroplane food. Plus, as soon as it had maxed out, it was virtuality time to start slowing down again, as we neared our destination, the entire journey lasting just 8 minutes and ten seconds.
Buoyed by the ease of my trip so far, I decided to take the metro most of the way to my hotel for the night, rather than copping out and hailing a cab. Beware if traveling to China with lots of luggage though, you do have to screen you bags upon entering every train/subway/Maglev station, which involves manhandling then onto the x-ray belt every time.
Finding my way round was much easier than expected. I even purchased my tickets via an automated machine and swanned through the ticket barriers like a professional. The trains have TVs (showing weird little cartoon adverts), WiFi, and even advertising images projected on the walls of tunnels to look at, as you travel from station to station.
Mobile phone addicts anonymous.
From the subway, I ventured back above ground and hailed a taxi the rest of the way. The traffic was kind of insane, but by now it was rush hour, so it wasn’t much different to any major city at its busiest time of night. By the time I arrived at my pre-appointed place of rest, I was fairly wiped, and after a shower just fell into bed, grateful to finally be able to stretch out and sleep.
The next morning, I was up early and after another shower and a bit of rearranging my luggage, it was off to nearby Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station, billed as Asia’s largest Railway Station, at a whopping 1’3000’000 square meters. All I had to do was get there.
No for those of you who know me well, you’ll be surprised to hear that I actually did quite a bit of planning into my trip. Going alone to China for the first time, having absolutely no handle on the writing or the lingo, I was going to need to be prepared. I even bought travel insurance for only the second time in my life ever. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been carrying around my passport and cash in a bum bag or fanny pack for the Americans.
Downtown Shanghai. I’m a tourist!
The extensive research that I’d done also told me that without a Chinese bank card, that I’d need to pay for virtually everything in cash and to book my train tickets in advance. There’s no rocking up and hopping on a train out here.
Despite having pre-ordered my tickets, I still had to collect them at the station, and my lovely helpful train ticket sales people had sent me detailed instructions, (including a video to watch!), of how to collect my tickets and a piece of paper to hand to the clerk with all my details in Chinese.
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. You even need to give your passport details just to book the ticket and verify your passport when collecting them. You also need your passport to enter the station proper. Plus if you want to collect any tickets in advance, to spare yourself the drama of queuing on the day, then you need to pay an extra 5¥ (72c / 58p) per ticket if it’s not the train station that you’re leaving from.
With this in mind, I set o5f from my hotel a full 2 hours ahead of my train time, not the usual 12 minutes to go like I normally would in Europe, despite the fact that my hotel was only 5km from the station. I was starving having not eaten the night before, so figured I’d have time to grab some brunch before my train left.
On checking out, I politely asked in my best/worst Mandarin for a taxi, but was waved outside, with the kind lady motioning that all I had to do was flag one down on the main road in front of the hotel. Even though the early morning rush should be starting to die down, the roads were still chock a block with people fervently blowing their horns. I stood by the busy highway waiting patiently for a free taxi to saunter up to me, like a knight on his white horse, but soon got disillusioned, so crossed the street to try my luck there instead.
Unfortunately this was equally fruitless and I was not the only one trying and failing to catch a cab. The few empty ones, displaying their green vacant signs, angrily waved off not just myself, but the waiting natives also. I decided a new plan was needed, so wandered off down some side streets to hawk myself their instead. The plus side was that their were far less people trying to stop taxis here, but also far fewer taxis as well. In fact their were none. So, I kept walking and waving frantically until finally, some forty minutes later, I stumbled across a metro stop.
BINGO! I could ride the subway to train station instead. I still had about an hour and a quarter before my train left, and even with the fact that I had to catch three different metros to get to where I needed to be, I should still make it. So I bought another ticket, heaved my bags onto the x-ray unit, picked up a map and set off in search of the light blue number 9 line platform.
Unfortunately the map I’d picked up was in Chinese, but even in Chinese it was still far easier to navigate my way around then when going anywhere on the Paris Metro. If you can master that French maze, than Shanghai will be a piece of cake for you. Hell you could even do it blindfolded if you wanted. Actually not being able to see is probably an advantage over here, because there’s hardly a square inch of pavement or sidewalk or flooring, that doesn’t have telling little bobbles on it to assist the partially sighted.
The visually impaired of China must be dancing in the streets with such a comprehensive system of tactile paving, but when you’re humping around a 23 kilo suitcase plus hand luggage all day, you’ll begin to absolutely detest the textured flooring, as it rips your pathetically wheeled bags from you weary arms for the fiftieth time.
I mean it is very good and I do understand the need for it to be there, but is absolutely everywhere, like a huge blistery rash that’s spread uncontrollably. That and the lack of escalators or elevators through many parts of the subway, started to sour my love of the underground network. Thankfully my knight in shining armour finally got the memo and pitched up just in time to save me.
Step in a very friendly young local gentleman who helped heave my big bag up and down the many steps in my first transfer station. He was great, and with lots of pointing and smiling I managed to convey my route and between us we navigated the way to my second train.
Time was ticking on, but I still wasn’t unduly concerned and started up a text translate conversation with my new travelling companion. Trying to explain that my weighty bags were due to the fact that I’d been at sea for the last 9 months and that this was the sum total of my worldy belongings.
When you think that I’ve been to Alaska, Canada, New Zealand, Europe, The Caribbean, The US and now China, all without going “home” (wherever that might be!), 1 regular sized suitcase and a small wheelie hand luggage isn’t actually too bad considering all the different climates that I’ve visited. But for those of you who’ve already contacted me requesting gifts, souvenirs and reduced priced items from out here, then you can forget it! I’ll bring you back some good thoughts and happy memories and that’s your lot!
When I got to the next interchange station, my new friend insisted upon taking me all the way to the next platform, despite the fact that it was miles away and he was going in another direction. What a guy! I felt mortified. He was smaller than I was and in no better shape to lug my big bag up and down steps than me, but he valiantly heaved my belongings from the number 3 yellow line all the way to the number 2 green track. Bravo young man! You are an honour to your country and pathetic English damsels in distress and I can’t thank you enough. I felt that I’d burdened the guy enough, so didn’t want to hassle him for a selfie, and let him escape once he’d waved me onto my final train. Total legend.
It turned out that this wasn’t actually my final train, as a couple of stops before the end, the train terminated and deposited us all in the platform to wait for a separate shuttle to the airport and railway place. Excellent. I was now running seriously short on time. I knew from my video research that I’d have to get up to the departures hall. Through security. Find the correct ticket booths that accepted foreign passports. Figure out where my train waiting area was. Get through check in part and onto the platform at least 5 minutes before my scheduled departure.
Yeah, that was never going to happen. So by the time the fourth and final metro dropped my at my destination, I didn’t even bother to hurry. The ticket queues I knew to be legendary, so even though I was still technically in time for my train, I didn’t bother to try and sprint for it and instead conceded that I’d have to try and rebook for a later service.
Thankfully my little Internet travel fairies had even provided me with this phrase…
Show to ticket lady and smile apologisingly.
God bless them, they must’ve known it was me coming! When I finally got to the front of the queue, the poor harassed attendant looked less than happy to see a tardy little white girl stood in front of her, but we gamely battled our way through and she got me set up in a later departure that meant I could get food before I left (yay!), at no extra cost, and even let me collect the rest of my tickets for free because I didn’t have an AliPay card and she refused to accept the cash that I kept trying to shove through the window to pay the 5¥ collection fee. I think she just wanted rid of me, as did the millions of restless locals all queuing patiently behind me.
Success at last! I even had enough time to eat some “local” fast food, shunning both McDonalds, Burger King and KFC in favour of Dicos, where I pointed at the most edible looking item on the board, which turned out to be soup with rice and chicken or fish.
I know the roundy thing is an egg at least.
It was a bit like being back on the ship and not knowing what your eating, but if I had to guess I’d say it more likely had wings than fins when it was still alive, although it could just as easily have had paws or hooves in its previous incarnation, but whatever it was, it tasted darn good and set me up to find my train in the gigantic waiting hall.
If this is the biggest train station in Asia, does that mean that there’s a bigger one somewhere else in the World???
I found my platform number on the supersize information board, went to the waiting area, checked in and successfully found my carriage. I didn’t have a seat because they’d had to squeeze me on as a last minute booker, so for the first time on the trip, my luggage actually came in handy, as it made a very comfortable pseudo seat.
Now all I had to do was not fall asleep and get off at the correct station, which wasn’t too difficult as they did announce the stop names in English as well as Chinese, although when said with a thick Mandarin accent, a lot of the places did sound suspiciously similar. I calculated the approximate journey length though, and sure enough, right on schedule, we pulled into Ningbo, my place of residence for the next few days…