Taking the train to Beijing

The highspeed train system (高铁) in China is second to none. It rivals airplanes, especially for 2-4 hours flights, like the one from Shanghai to Beijing. By the time you have checked into the airport, gotten through security, dealt with the inevitable delays that plaque China’s air transportation network, the 4 hour and 28 min train ride from Shanghai to Beijing doesn’t look so bad anymore.

My trip started last week when I bought a ticket through the 12306 app. This is the official Chinese highspeed railroad app and it allows you to book and pay for tickets, rebook them, cancel them, etc. The only complication is that its entirely in Chinese. Fortunately, I knew my way around in the app, and between the translation apps and my knowledge of Mandarin I was able to figure things out. I bought a single first-class ticket from Shanghai to Beijing at 10am. This was train G10 and it is their fastest option available with 4 hour 28 minutes. There are slower trains (5 or even 6 hours) that stop in more places along the way.

The train departed from Hongqiao in Shanghai. This is a massive train station right next to an actual airport. The station is about a 30-minute drive outside of downtown but it’s still in the middle of what most folks consider prime residential area. The train arrives in Beijing South station (北京南站) which is right around ring 2, so its centrally located within Beijing as well.

My usual check-in procedure was that I would buy the train ticket with the app and then at the station I would go to the counter to collect my paper copy of the ticket after they checked my passport. Only then could I proceed to the track itself. This time around this was all changed. I realized that when I bought the ticket. The tool actually gave me a QR code. I still didn’t quite trust it and exchanged it for a paper ticket when I was in the station, but I don’t think that would have been necessary.

Getting into the Hongqiao train station is always a bit of a hassle. There are huge queues for the entrances. This is where they check your id and scan your luggage. For Chinese citizens this is easy. You just swipe your id card and pass a turn style. For foreigners they have to check your passport manually. It’s always unclear to me where the manual queue is, so I just go with the flow and once I hit an automated turn style there is usually someone there that points me in the right direction. At the manual queue they literally do just that. They checked my passport and then wrote down on paper my information. Once done, I could enter the station.

Because I had a first-class ticket, I was able to use the lounge facilities. Don’t get your hopes up, this doesn’t amount to much. It’s a cordoned off area where they serve water and some packaged snacks. It doesn’t have a roof, so you aren’t shielded from the loud terminal hall noise. You also get priority boarding and that is useful, especially since the number of people on the train is huge. When you are carrying two large suitcases it’s nice to avoid this stampede.

The first-class cabin is spacious and seats about 24 persons. The chairs fully recline, and you can sleep like some of my fellow passengers did. You do have to wear a mask the whole time although few folks followed that rule. They keep the mask on but more as a chin protector then that it covers their mouth. There is also a drink and meal service in first-class but that’s water, tea, coffee, and a reheated packaged meal. 

The high speed trains zips by at speeds over 300km/h.

The ride was a quick and an uneventful 4 hours and 28 minutes, as advertised. We only stopped in a few places along the way (Nanjing and Jinan). When we arrived at Beijing Nan the mass of people deboarded the train and we were all lead through, what’s best described as a small funnel, where we had to walk through a temperature sensor. Once we walked through that I followed the signs to the tax stand and before I knew it, I was outside in the taxi line.

Arrival at Beijing South Station.

This surprised me. With all the commotion around health checks, COVID tests, 14+7 quarantine requirements for Beijing, I was expecting many more checks. There were none. Not a single time was I asked for my health or travel code, nor did I have to show my COVID test.

There were probably 100 people waiting in the north-station taxi line, but few taxis showed up. One taxi every 10min or so. Folks started to walk out of the queue and after 30-minutes I followed suit. I decided to walk to the main road, and I was fully expecting another health check or something, but no, when I walked down the ramp, I was in the middle of Beijing, next to a busy road. There I ordered a DiDi Premier and it showed up within 3 minutes to take me to my hotel. I should have done this 30-minutes earlier.

The hotel check-in was pretty expedient as well. They did want to see my COVID and quarantine documents, but only after I pointed that out to them. They simply assumed I had been in China long enough. Once I had alerted them, they had to take photocopies of everything.

I have noticed that Beijing is a lot stricter about checking your health code though. In Shanghai nobody cared but here you need it before you get into the hotel or even a restaurant. That afternoon I went for a walk down the main shopping street next to my hotel. Much to my surprise I realized how close I was to the Longfusi Hutong area, which is where one of my favorite Beijing breweries (京A) is located. I couldn’t let that pass.

When I realized how close I was, I couldn’t pass up on my favorite Beijing brewery.
Busy shopping street in downtown Beijing.

On the way back home, it started raining and I sought shelter in a local restaurant. It was tucked away in the bottom of a modern office building, but it looked cosey enough. The restaurant was so local that they didn’t even have a photo-book menu. Those are very common in China. Instead, I used a translation tool to ask the waiter to pick something small for me: 你能帮我挑一顿简餐吗? She did that and showed me the price. I had no idea what I ordered but it was surprisingly good. A combination of mushroom, spring onions, bacon, red peppers, whole grain rice, and cooked peanuts and some pickles.

My surprise meal in a random restaurant.

When I left the restaurant the rain had subsided. I decided to try my luck with one of the many rental bikes. It took a bit of a fumbling to get it working. The bike’s app refused to work for me but its mini app inside the Alibaba app worked just fine. I’ll write more about that in my upcoming blog entry about simplifying your life with Chinese Apps.

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