The Sleek Silent Bullet: A trip on the Harmony Train from Shanghai to Chengdu

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
For those of you who took the time to read about my visa woes in Hong Kong, you might be surprised to hear that those woes did not end in Hong Kong. No, they drifted on through the Spring Festival Holiday as my passport languished at the Chengdu Public Security Bureau from February 2nd to February 9th, effectively grounding me for the holidays. (Long story, I'll tell it another time.) But thank God China stole Siemens' bullet train technology and ran with it. Instead of spending the holidays in Shanghai, alone and forgotten, I got to take the train from Shanghai's Hongqiao Railway Station to Chengdu's North Railway Station—traveling in style at a brisk, soundless 200 kph wrapped up in soft blankets with my very own movie screen. I'll tell ya what, if China can link the whole nation with bullet trains, then I will never fly again.

Getting a train ticket

So my passport was in Chengdu, but my ass was in Shanghai. That meant I couldn't fly, so what to do? I waited until the last second to book my train tickets because there was still hope as of January 28th that I could get my passport in Shanghai in time to book a flight. When that hope faded away, I was forced to scour the earth for a train ticket... from the big city to the countryside... during the greatest movement of people in the world... the majority of them migrant workers taking roughly the same route I was to take. Needless to say the ticket counter lady barely raised her head up to sneer at me when I asked her for tickets. Nothing doing until well after the Spring Holiday. Fortunately, mankind possesses the Oracle (aka Internet): There are several sites that offer people the option to buy or sell train tickets via a first-come first serve person to person service (see callout box below). So if  I have a ticket to Chengdu, but I can't make it, I can put my ticket up for sale on the site along with my contact info and bam! someone calls up and offers to take the ticket off of my hands.  I made several phone calls over three days and finally found the perfect ticket: A soft sleeper on the D356 Hexie Hao or "Harmony Train" leaving on January 31st. The ticket cost me RMB 1165; I met the young kid who bought the ticket near Xintiandi and we made a swift deal of it. Then I went to Hongqiao Railway Station, walked the sparkling new halls of that massive complex and boarded my train. Some things to note about that train station: 1) If you are coming with the Metro Line 2, you will have to walk a very long way until you get to the actual boarding gates. 2) Grab food on the way from the Metro Line 2 station to the trains, once you go to the second floor where the gates are, food and water become scarce. 3) Hongqiao Rail Station is beautiful. Go early and snap pictures. If you can, bring a tripod.

The Silent Bullet

The inside of the Harmony Train looks like an airplane. Clean, sleek walls with softly glowing numbers and stewardesses clad in pink with hats meet you at the door. Everything is quiet and elegant. I had a soft sleeper ticket and the majority of the people joining me on my trip were families heading back home. It's amazing how the environment can temper behavior. Normally, trains in China are loud, crowded, filled with smoke and covered with peanut shells and orange rinds. Not this one. The bathrooms could have been on a space station—they were clean and modern and everything was automated. Late into the ride I went to the john and I was pleasantly surprised to see that no one had peed all over the sink or left poop and paper on the seat for the next guy to dry heave over. The name of the train "Harmony" has also become another way to describe government censorship ie "Facebook has been harmonized"—but I gotta say, harmonizing the seething masses that normally run roughshod over the trains is an improvement and if saying so makes me a Fascist then hang me. But it's not just the inside that's sleek and silent—the bullet train technology means you don't hear the clackety clack of the tracks as you rumble on by. That startled me at first. As I lay myself down upon the soft bed, shoeless and squirming into the blankets, I noticed that I could actually hear what Iron Man was saying (English language btw. Awesome).[callout title=Tips for the Train]The Harmony Train leaves Shanghai for Chengdu daily at 17:15 and arrives the next morning at 08:45. The return trip also leaves Chengdu at 17:15 and arrives in Shanghai at 08:45. For the Shanghai-Chengdu ticket, you do not need any identification. If you are buying the ticket from Chengdu to Shanghai however, you will need to show ID—Chengdu has been cracking down on scalpers by requiring that every ticket also has the name of the passenger on it. Here are some sites that sell p2p (person-to-person) train tickets: Kunming Baixin Shanghai Ganji Shanghai 58 [/callout]There is something romantic about that sound... it reminds you of where you were and allows your mind to drift off into the future as you watch the present flow by. It's the sound of movement and change and transition. I realize now that the harmony train is something of a time capsule. The silence stole away those 15 hours and perhaps that's sad... but it sure was comfy. The anti-elitist in me balks at the fact that the Harmony Train has only 122 seats (costing RMB 501 a piece) with the rest of the train made up of sleeper bunks (496 berths for a total of 618 people per bullet). In fact, most experts considered the bullet train to be a “product full of flaws” that would never sell. Well I bought. And steeped in comfort,  I leaned back and watched Robert Downey Junior slay evil terrorists as a subtle message passed along the bottom of the screen every few minutes: "Hi Sascha, you look great in that hoodie. Just so you know, we'll be arriving in Suzhou at 17:42, Nanjing at 18:50, Hefei at 19:52. Hankou at 21:54, Ankang at 03:10, Nanchong at 07:19 and Chengdu at 08:45. If you need something. Anything. Just poke the screen with your big toe.  Toodle-oo."

I'll Never Fly Again

I hope Ctrip starts selling bullet train tickets to add to its China flight and hotel bookings. There really is no comparison: The price for a soft sleeper from Shanghai to Chengdu is RMB 1165 (501 for seats, 2035 for deluxe sleepers) and a flight is at least the same price, if not more. On the train you have: 1) your own bed; 2) you can walk around and stretch whenever you want; 3) you have your own private movie screen with classics like A Roman Holiday (love that brawl scene with the Pinkertons when she clocks one with the guitar... ) and entertaining blow em ups like Iron Man (can't... stop... thinking... of... Chaplin... ); 4) you can get a fine meal for RMB 28 or a simple rice and tofu dish for RMB 10 5) you can pop your head out and see some of the scenery (for only 1-2 hours though... ) 6) you can always hit up the dining car for some liquor and stimulating conversation with the cops. I went to the dining car and listened as a stewardess berated a freeloader for boarding the Harmony Train with a ticket for another train. The freeloader answered everything with a stoic: "how much money do you need in order for me to be left alone?" (in Chinese 我就补票吧 wo jiu bu piao ba, which means, "i'll just pay the difference"). A cop was sitting in the adjacent table drinking baijiu with his buddies. He ignored the freeloader, but when I took my camera out he jumped up and started yelling. Some things change; some things never do.
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