Kunshan station at sunset. Along with the track hardware, the stations are impressive in their design intent.
Beyond the Expo, the biggest impact to my China experience on this trip was the incredible improvements in the transport infrastructure, and in particular, the trains. Most of our suppliers are located in the Yangtze River Delta region; an unimaginably dull expanse of land stretching west of Shanghai for several hundred kilometres. Just imagine The Fens in East Anglia, but many hundreds of times larger, and packed with factories relocated from Taiwan.
Getting around usually means relying on suppliers to send cars out to your hotel; the distances involved and the vagaries of travel in China leave you with little choice. This does rather put you at the mercy of your vendors, though, and usually results in unwelcome round-table lunches and forced conversation, invariably discussing positive aspects of life in England, shortcomings of life in Taiwan, and which local Chinese town has the most famous foodstuffs. Any way to prise this control away, and return the day to me is most welcome. For this reason, the new rail networks being installed throughout China are a breath of fresh air, and offer as formative a change to my life as the Taiwan High Speed Rail. It really opens up the area to exploration, allows increased connection to local travelers, and means I no longer need to stay so close to the vendors in Kunshan; a town of few features beyond the walls of the Swissotel.
The Chinese high-speed rail network is expanding at an exasperating pace; the Beijing-Shanghai line was started in April 2008, and will be completed in Summer 2011, with trains operating at 380 kmh (240 mph). Britain, I am embarrassed to write, has plans for high-speed lines to be completed in 2025, operating at a meagre 250 kmh (155 mph). Our peak speed, Eurostar excepted, has not increased since the Mallard in 1938, when it set a record of 125 mph. Does anyone in Whitehall understand what is going on here? China is going to blow us into the weeds, at a rate that we cannot even begin to comprehend. Britain, time to wake up.
But this isn’t about the British Rail, this is about the newly completed Shanghai-Nanjing Huning Line. Opened in July this year, it connects the major cities along the Yangtze; Shanghai-Kunshan-Suzhou-Wuxi-Nanjing, and several other cities you have never heard of before with populations over 4 million people. But know these city names; they will enter common parlance as the reach of China extends.
I still remember my first trip to Shanghai in 2006; at the weekend, I turned up at the train station wishing to buy tickets to go to Suzhou. Huge queue, wall of people, unhelpful staff, crap Chinese, no dice. Defeat. Several more trips, and late nights, friends and all manner of distractions mean that I still don’t manage to escape. Yes, I manage to make it to Hangzhou with Anke and Lars – but nothing under my own steam, as it were. That is why, turning up to the station, facing the automated touch screens, punching in the coordinates, and receiving those tickets felt so good; I was finally free of the shackles. Kunshan? 17 minutes. Suzhou? 24 minutes, sir. Nanjing, over 300 km away, is dispatched in a mere hour and ten minutes. All your stations are belong to us.
The stations match the track hardware in intent, matching or exceeding the architecture in Taiwan, and certainly better than the great majority of stations in the UK (though they ain’t no St. Pancras). On that note, it was also amusing that at every opportunity China Rail made a point of including Taiwan on their network maps; cheeky, eh? You can see the map here.
With internet ticket sales apparently around the corner, these new tracks really open up this corner of China to exploration; something I really look forward to in subsequent trips. Here are some photos of my first adventures.
Kids hang outside Kunshan station on their rides
Enjoying the sunlight
One of the regional trains.
… and the more Shinkansen-ish high-speed trains.
Transport cops on alert during Expo – all stations had x-ray detectors.
End of the line in Nanjing.
Threads on display outside the station.
The Chinese ability to make pointlessly large displays of flowers is unmatched.
View from near the station over to Nanjing downtown.
… and venturing further away … workpeople at rest.
Novelty petrol stations on the route to one of our vendors.
Amusing views from the car.
Team photos – a common sight.
… but no matter how good the transport system, with 1.3 billion people wanting to travel some people are going to have to wait. And wait they do, for painfully long periods of time.