Train travel in China: Riding the Iron Rooster from the past into the present

Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 26th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
In the wake of Saturday's horrific train crash in Wenzhou, Sascha Matuszak takes a look at train travel in China. Where it's come from and where it's at, and the reaction to Saturday's disaster in China and beyond. >>> It really can't get much worse than this. After months and months of speculation by the global media and posturing by the Chinese government and railway officials, China's big high-speed rail bubble burst in a hail of blood and stone and metal. Not only did all the hot air come searing out of the China rail fat cats in a high pitched whine, but every doomsday prediction by the China haters around the world came true Zhejiang Province. Then... Instead of a Wenchuan-style effort to make good, the officials instead did the same for the victims of the Wenzhou train wreck the same as they did the schoolchildren of Sichuan: They buried them. The officials issued orders to the VPN or proxy in China). They blamed everything on foreign technology (the same technology that China stole or could not compete with Chinese home-made technology before the crash, links courtesy of Shanghaiist). And then... An impossibly cute toddler is pulled out of the wreckage. And then another.The father of one of the toddlers had a Weibo account; that account was found and has gone viral. The parents of both babies are dead. AND THEN! A video of a toppled railcar spewing passengers goes viral. It's all bad. Will anyone ever ride a train in China again?

Old school train travel

I remember the first train ride I took in China, a RMB 40 hard seat from Kunming in Yunnan to Nanning in Guangxi Province. From there I took a sleeper bus through the swamps to Beihai. I always associate that ride with a scene from the Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo is celebrating his 111th birthday and one of his relatives has her hairy black foot propped up on a chair. She is neither apologetic nor insulting in that scene, it just feels better to have her bare feet propped up, that's all. The hard seat section of most any train around that time, the winter of 2001, was the special domain of the Chinese peasant. Not farmer, but peasant. Because there is a class difference between the two and when one thinks of farmer it isn't of a peasant and vice versa. Peasants in China know to bring sack fulls of oranges, apples, sunflower seeds and peanuts with them on long train rides (the Kunming - Nanning trip takes 13 hours), because train snacks are marked up roughly 400% and you're going to want to munch on something once the green fields and brown paths of the Chinese countryside cease to fascinate. On this ride I sat across from three tree trunk sisters, knee deep in rinds and shells, with a pair of hobbit feet a few inches from my right ear. I also remember an old man with the brightest eyes I have ever seen in this country, who sat kitty corner from me and did not move a muscle for the entire ride, even as three or four little boys clambered over and under the sacks and furniture he had tied together and to himself. I will never forget that ride. Anyone who has taken trains in lands like China and India probably has stories like this one because countries like this are train countries, just like the US and Europe were once, before cars and high speed links replaced the rumbling and clacking of old school trains. Another memorable ride was the squatting room only boxcar trip from Guiyang to Kaili. On that trip I was squished between several Miao men with tall hats on and we sat in dead-eyed silence until the snack hawker forced his way through the tangle of humanity every 30 minutes or so on his run up and down the train. That ride was about eight hours long. One of my favorites was the trip from Lanzhou to Urumqi that took three days. The tracks along the Hexi Corridor are old, so they can't handle the wear and tear of these newfangled trains and their high speeds. We never went over 55 mph on that trip through the featureless brown flatlands that separate the Gobi Desert from the Taklamaklan Desert. Dusty, dry, brown and exposed to the sun like a muddy turtle on its back. Long ride that one. China wants to forget the old school and forget it as quickly as possible. China's bosses want the slick future today and maybe one day all Chinese trains will be soundless sleek Harmony trains—I for one can't wait for that day, because I've been on a Harmony train and it was indeed harmonious. The Wenzhou tragedy is like a boulder on the tracks, reducing speeds to below 55 mph and keeping them there until the big obstacle of mistrust, fear and fury are replaced with confidence. This too, will be a long ride.

Hindsight 20/20?

China High speed rail Media from around the globe focused on, questioned, lauded and ridiculed China's high-speed rail project for months leading up to the crash in Wenzhou that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Much of the speculation dealt with the speed with which China was building the lines and the possibility that quick work meant shoddy work. The Economist asked Beijing-Shanghai line when they led in with this gem here: "Four would be too few. Ten would be too many. Five or nine would presumably produce an unaesthetic, wonky effect. So the smiling attendants on the test run of the Beijing to Shanghai high-speed rail link revealed precisely six to eight of their teeth to display their pleasure as the train pulled out of the capital. It had, admitted chief conductor Gao Dan, taken considerable practice; in some cases, with chopsticks jammed between their jaws." Isn't that so like China? To put chopsticks between the jaws of pretty girls but forget to lightning-proof their cars or link two different railways together or ensure that the emergency mechanisms in place when a train halts are flawless? If China is still building stuff to impress, wouldn't it be wiser for them to stay old school and not risk a huge loss of face? Isn't there anyone in the upper echelons who felt deep inside that chabuduo (chàbùduō, 差不多)or 'good enough' is just not enough when it comes to high-speed railways? Had there been at least one old guy who cautioned against hubris, then maybe China wouldn't have to eat every single ridiculous word they had to say about their achievements, the silly Japanese and the stupid Brits—all listed somewhat gleefully in this Asahi Shimbun article entitled "Chinese technology gets derailed in spectacular crash." So what now? Bloomberg and the markets were quick to react and many travelers will likely now opt to book flights in China instead. Chinese netizens have more to hate about their leaders and the foreign press is just shaking its head over all of the news China manages to produce for the Media Machine. And yet those old school trains with their funky smells roll on. And that smooth ride from Chengdu to Shanghai that I took still lingers in my scrapbook of fond China memories. Life goes on. Remember the Hindenburg Zeppelin? Hubris has its victims, but it also has an expiration date.
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