Sunday, 29 May 2011

Chinese Trains

Trains are definitely my favourite form of transport. Cars are too slow and uncomfortable over long distances and plane travel loses the sense of scale. There’s something romantic about train travel, seeing the scenery change slowly between regions or waking from the sleeper and finding the air a little warmer or more humid nearer to the destination.

In its efforts to modernise and to cater for huge and ever-increasing demand, China has undertaken huge transport projects out from the economic centres, replacing old, chugging trains with sparkly state-of-the-art high-speed services and even super-futuristic Magnetic Levitation (Maglev) technology, the thought of which is enough to give scientists like myself a massive physics hard-on.

However I have some issues with Chinese train travel:

1. Be at the station 1 hour before the train departs.

Having lived in London for 7 years, I find this hard to stomach. Most Londoners spend around 38% of their life running for trains. The thinking being who would arrive more than 10mins early for a train when you could be eating organic hummus and tweeting on your i-Slab in that nice little deli around the corner?

I once arrived only 45mins early for a train in Luoyang and was personally rushed through the airport-style security checks and directed towards the platform by over-attentive staff, only to be packed into a filthy waiting room like cattle for the best part of an hour.

In Chinese stations you’re not allowed onto the platform until a few minutes before your train departs, which means everyone pushes to be at the front of the barriers in the waiting room almost 30mins before the train arrives, despite each person having a reserved seat. China, I’m carrying a rucksack, backpack and suit bag, and I’m taller than you. There will only be one winner if you push.

2. Train toilets

While the toilets in your bog-standard (pardon the pun) Virgin train here in the UK are often not the most sparkling examples of the water closet, the Chinese train toilets can be a little worse. Ok, so they’re not as bad as the average Moroccan train loo, which is essentially a hole cut into the floor, through which you can see the track whizzing underneath as you squat, while simultaneously getting a dry bidet from the draught under the train. The problem with squat toilets vs. western style is balance and on a moving train it appears that even the locals struggle with their aim. Either that, or it’s intentional marking of territory with the whole carriage operating some sort of timeshare scheme for the cubicle floor.

After hyperventilating in order to use one particularly bad example, the experience left me wondering whether you can get diphtheria from just looking at a train loo and had me scrubbing my hands with anti-bacterial gel with a vigour that would put Lady Macbeth to shame.

3. Station signs

“Ok” says China, “I’m going to run some trains with no tannoy announcements or digital displays for the next station.”

“Ok, fair enough,” I say “I’ll just check the sign on the platform as I pull in.”

“Ah, but what if the sign is only in Chinese script?”

“Not to worry, I can do a quick check in the guidebook and quickly match the characters of my destination with the script on the sign. No problem.”

“So what if I only put one sign on the platform at the far end, so you only see it as you leave the station?”

“I hate you.”

4. Your complimentary slippers are too small

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