A ride on China’s High Speed Rail Network
On my way back from the DPRK I made a brief stopover at the Chinese city of Tianjin. I spent a few pleasant hours walking around before boarding a late afternoon bullet train to Beijing.
Tuesday 10th April 2018
After stowing my bag in a left luggage locker at Tianjin Station I walked out into the city ready to explore.
Tianjin (formerly known as Tientsin) is a coastal metropolis of some 15 million people and it is one of the largest cities in China. Like Hong Kong and Shanghai, Tianjin had a heavy presence of foreigners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and it retains many signs of western influence.
Just from looking across from the station square it was easy to feel the interesting mix of east, west, old and new. The streetscape was dominated by old early 20th century buildings and bridges, yet immediately behind were brand new skyscrapers.
It was just after 8am and the place had a nice early morning feel to it. Most people were hurrying on their way to work but I felt relaxed. Strange as it may seem after such a short time in the DPRK, I felt quite liberated knowing that I could now walk around anywhere I liked and go wherever I wanted to go.
The station is located almost directly on the Haihe River that passes through the centre of the city. I decided to walk along the river and I paused a few times to watch the fishermen fishing from the bank.
I continued walking along the river bank watching people doing their morning exercises. The people there seemed really friendly and I nodded and bowed at some of them and got nice smiles and bows in return. In fact I found most of the people in Tianjin very friendly. Curiously I never came across another westerner the whole day.
After about 20 minutes walk I passed Marco Polo Square and came to an area where there was an old catholic church. It had with a memorial to the events of 1949, including a tank, just in front of it.
I finally made it to what they call the “Ancient Culture Street”. It is actually a modern collection of old-looking Chinese buildings opened in the 1980s but it is pleasant enough and I had a walk along the street looking at the stores. The street has the genuine old Niangniang palace at its centre.
I walked towards a temple and went in for a look around. There was a party of school children all dressed in blue and red queuing up to move through the temple performing various tasks, such as banging the drum or ringing the bell, as they went.
I continued to wander through streets old and new.
I finally reached the Nanshi Cuisine street. I was just in time for lunch.
The “Cuisine Street” is another modern mall tastefully made to look older than it actually is. It houses an array of over 100 shops and restaurants.
I wandered around for a while and eventually settled on a place for lunch. I was intent on having the local steam bun delicacy “Go Bu Li”.
The waitress didn’t speak English but used an iphone app to translate for me. Through the iPhone I learned that I could get a lunch set of porridge, pickles and some buns with Chinese tea on the side. I went for that and it was delicious.
Satisfied with my lunch, I set off again along Nanking road, busy with western shops, and eventually I came to the area known as “the five avenues”.
The five avenues are five parallel streets that are named after cities in South West China: Chongqing, Changde, Dali, Munan, and Machang. The area was a popular place for westerners to live during the time of the foreign concessions. There are over 200 residential buildings of all kinds with representative architecture from Britain, Germany France and other European countries.
My walk through the area eventually led me to the old banking district of Jiefang road which used to be nicknamed “Wall Street of North Eastern China”. The street is filled with more foreign-style buildings, but this time mostly banks and financial institutions. These were the places where the residents of the five avenues obviously worked.
Back on the waterfront I visited the beautiful and historic Astor Hotel. The Astor was one of the classic hotels of Asia and the grand dame of old Tianjin. It is still in operation today as a luxury hotel.
I sat down for a drink in the large dining room and reflected on my visit to Tianjin. I had only scratched the surface of the place, I knew, but I was really glad I had stopped off in the city. It was had been an interesting place to walk around and had provided a pleasant interlude between the DPRK and home.
From the Astor it was a short walk back to Tianjin railway station. Just outside the station are murals depicting the story of the first Tianjin station which, in 1888, was the first railway station in China.
The current station dates from the opening of the high speed line to Beijing in 2008. It is representative of many similar ultra-modern high speed stations that are springing up all over China as the high speed network grows.
High Speed Rail (HSR) in China has grown phenomenally since the first trains ran in 2005. The system of 250-350km/h railways now stretches to 25,000 km (10 times each of its nearest rivals; Spain, Germany and Japan). It is a startling fact that nearly 70% of all the world’s high speed railways are now in China. What’s more, the network is still growing and could double again in size before it is complete.
I went into the station and tried to get a ticket from one of the automatic ticket vending machines. I selected “English language” first and I had got as far as selecting my seat on the next service to Beijing when it asked me to insert my Chinese “smart” identity card. I wondered how many people who needed the English function actually had such an identity card but then again I suppose there must be some.
I gave up and reluctantly went to join the long queue of people in the ticket hall. After a bit of a wait I was finally able to get a ticket by showing my passport to the clerk. I noticed the ticket had my name printed on it.
The line that I was about to use was officially named the “Beijing to Tianjin High Speed Line” and it was one of the first lines to open in 2008. Back then it set a record for the fastest train service in the world and reduced the travel time for the 120km distance between the two cities to 30 minutes.
I remained on the central concourse until the train was called about 15 minutes before departure. I made my way through the automatic gates and on to the platform where the train was already waiting.
The HSR system uses a variety of trains from European, Japanese and Chinese manufacturers. The Beijing-bound train that I was about to board was built by Canadian company Bombardier in China.
The interior of the train was very much like a Japanese Shinkansen with 5-across seating arranged in a 2+3 pattern all set out in airline style and all facing the front. All the seats were reserved and I took my place in the middle seat of three. The leg room was also as generous as the Shinkansen
After a few minutes, and bang on time, the train whirred into action and soon we were accelerating smoothly along the viaducts that carried the track high off the ground. The speed was displayed on monitors at the end of each carriage and it wasn’t long before we were had reached the top speed of 300km an hour.
There wasn’t much in the way of interesting scenery but there were constant reminders of China’s stunning economic growth as we crisscrossed motorways and whizzed past rows of skyscrapers in the distance.
Before long the train slowed, passed through the sprawling suburbs of Beijing and, just 35 minutes after leaving Tianjin, reached its Beijing Nan terminus.
Beijing Nan was another impressive airport-like station. There were multiple tracks dedicated to the high speed services and it was the scale of the place that was most stunning. This was all the more remarkable given that Beijing Nan isn’t the only bullet train station in the capital.
My visit to Beijing before and after my DPRK visit was my first there since 1988 and it was obviously amazing to see how the place had changed in 30 years.
One of the biggest changes for me was the transportation system. In 1988 we had struggled to get around Beijing using a series of old buses, one of which even broke down on us. Back then there had only been one line of Metro, but now there were ten and the whole network was very easy to use and seemed to extend everywhere you needed to go.
The city was now crammed with shopping malls that were every bit as modern, and in many cases more modern, than their counterparts in the US, Europe and Japan.
For old time’s sake I visited the Beijing Hotel and I wandered over to the old Beijing Railway Station, still very much in use, and stood outside remembering the morning we had set off from there back to London by train in May 1988.
I also made it to Tiananmen Square, which looked very much the same, apart from the fact that people’s clothing had dramatically changed and there was a lot of extra security.
I also found time to visit the Beijing Railway Museum. Opened in 2008 it is housed in a building that includes the clock-tower of the former Zhengyangmen East Railway Station. The museum is conveniently located at the south east edge of Tiananmen Square.
Although it contains only one full size historic locomotive, it uses a lot of displays, models, maps, photographs, and documents to tell the fascinating story of the development of railways in China.
When it comes to railways, China is the ultimate “late developer”. From small beginnings in 1888 it now boasts one of the largest conventional networks in the world as well as being home to two thirds of the entire high speed infrastructure of the planet.
Also on display in the museum was a bullet train CRH3 cab simulator. Sadly I didn’t have time to have a go in it!