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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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HongQiao Railway Station    

By Garreth Humphris
2857 Views | 10 Comments | 12/13/2013 10:22:32 AM

I am sitting in Hongqiao railway station, just on the edge of Shanghai, waiting to catch the fast train back to my home in SuZhou. I have spent the morning getting my mother onto a plane to go back to my sister's home in HongKong. She has been visiting me for a few weeks and we spent quite a bit of time enjoying the waning warmth of the autumn sun while exploring the gardens, temples and old water villages in this area. It was good being non-tourists - we went to a lot of 'local places' rather than the popular 'tourist traps' and I was able to exploit a few relationships to get extra-fine silk, high quality embroidery and tour the factories and workrooms where it was being made. As well as climbing a few mountains and walking around a few lakes and rivers.



Travelling in China isn't so hard but it means getting a positive attitude and infinite patience if you don't want it to be harrowing. Travel is the time you are vulnerable, tired, partially lost and always seeking obscure signs in non-obvious places to find where you have to be, where you have to wait and how close 1000’s of people will stand to you!



So for me this trip means getting a bit organised to buy train tickets a few days ahead, whisking down mega-smooth rails at 300km/hour, negotiating the 3km of 'shopping experience' in the massive-mall between the train station and HongQiao AirPort, finding the obscure doorway to the unmarked Shuttle Bus collection point, negotiating the pesky taxi touts, hanging on in blind panic as the shuttlebus screams along narrow winding concrete roads to the old Terminal 1 building then repeating said journey to return!



To be truthful, the Chinese transport system is pretty amazing...and it has to be because at peak times such as the week before Chinese New Year (when every person is trying to go home for the holidays) and first week of October (which has a few days for 'sightseeing/travelling' in reasonable weather) the use of the trains, planes, buses and private cars is in epic proportions - in Chinese New Year, Guangzhou Railway Station handles over 400,000 passengers a day! 



The ’car experience' is not much better! My friend recently spent 9 hours getting to a place it normally takes 1 hour to drive to!



IS IT EASY TO BUY TICKETS?



So, for visitors to China travelling to major cities outside of public holidays and festivals, they will find the train network quite well organised and pretty efficient! The new stations have large waiting rooms, approachable staff and well-organised procedures for handling people! Tickets are electronic they are relatively easy to book...each railway station has a booking office and most cities have an additional office or 20 around the city - they are sometimes a little hard to find but the locals can often help you. 



Stations also have auto-ticket machines but to buy any train tickets you need to show a passport or identification and unfortunately the machines can only read Chinese ID cards and not international passports so check on the internet to confirm the ticket office is open. It is usually 9am to 7pm (at least) but check for other times, especially if the station is not in a major city.



Booking online is possible but the same issue with ID and possibly payment exists. Have a Chinese friend help you - these are e-tickets, you print your order number and get the original ticket at the railway station (via the automatic ticket machines or the ticket office).



Tickets are really scarce on the day you want to travel and depending on the route can be sold out 2-3 days before. You can only book 10 days before your trip so you have a pretty small window to buy! Planning longer trips is essential - 5 to 7 days before you wish to leave. You  can book return tickets if they fall within the 10 day window but otherwise this is difficult! A return trip to the ticket office is needed!



WHAT TRAINS CAN I CATCH?



The trains have a nomenclature system - a letter at the front and then a 4 number code. The fast trains are given a ’G’ code and these are express trains, stopping major stations only and travelling 300+ km/hour on special tracks.



The 'D' trains are also pretty quick, getting up to about 250km but they stop at more stations - usually fair size 'middle cities'. These trains may travel on the special high-speed lines or the older lines to other cities. They usually have airline style seats, and a fair bit of space and they are quite smooth and quiet in operation...for me the most annoying thing is the announcing voice ’Welcome to Harmony Train’.



Most foreigners will probably travel on G or D trains, but if you are travelling overnight, a slower sleeper train might be what is available.



The other trains are known as  'T’ trains that are a good service but a little more Spartan and slow! They are usually pretty fun if you are in a good mood and want to share! All the passengers come equipped with bags full of dried fish, dried nuts and seeds, assorted supposedly edible animal body parts, strange concoctions of liquid, cheap and astringent rice spirit wine, wicked card playing skills, cheap cigarette smoke and lots of good-natured gambling and games! 



One of my finest China travelling experiences was on an overnight sleeper train where I won 100rmb in a card game I couldn't understand against 4 builders going home for the first time in 3 years! All happy, very drunk and constant laughing for 20 hours! Took me 3 weeks of hacking up dirt to clear the lungs of cigarette smoke, but worth it!



The slowest trains are 'K' trains that stop at every station, siding and cul-de-sac and stop to allow the faster trains to pass! You need a permanent smile tattooed on your face to go too far in them! 



HOW DO I READ A TICKET?



If you look at the train ticket (see file at the bottom) you can see the important parts.



First line shows the travel date and departure time. On the right hand side is the carriage number and the seat allocation.



Above this is the ticket office and below is the class  - you can see I travelled second class.



The next tall text shows the departing station (Suzhou YuanQu) then the train number (It's a G train) and the arrival station is Shanghai HongQiao.



Under this is the ticket price and use details. Below is my ID number.



The getting on a train is pretty straightforward too - in the waiting room look for the train number and the departure gate - the gate opens about 10 minutes before the train arrives.



As you go to the platform look for the carriage numbers on the signs - the entry to the platform is usually split between carriage 1 to 8 and then 9-16, choose left or right to match your carriage number. In large stations, there might be 2 gates so check this so you don't madly dash down the platform to find your carriage.



Look on the ground and you will see a small metal plate with the carriage number, wait here for the train. It is usual to board from the rear of the carriage and embark from the front.



Seat numbers are usually lowest at the front of the carriage.



Be careful with train stations - some cities have multiple stations. Make sure you check the departure station. When buying a ticket you need to check if you can arrive at different station in the same city! For example, Suzhou has 3 stations, the Suzhou Station, Suzhou Industrial Park, and Suzhou North Station. If you try to buy a ticket to SuZhou, often the ticket seller will only consider the Suzhou Station, and not the other two! They might tell you no trains or no tickets but another train may be going to the other station! 



As a general rule in China, you have to ask pretty specific questions and not expect people to solve your problem for you with lateral thinking! Just a little tip I learned so I didn't go crazy!



Happy Travels!


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Comments
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#2013-12-13 15:31:07 by melcyan @melcyan

Garreth, thank you for the valuable information. So far my travel in China has only been by plane and car(someone else driving!). Next time I will definitely use your information to give fast trains a go.

#2013-12-13 18:33:03 by zhshwu @zhshwu

体验真切,写得很好,

当你对于这些全部心中有数,你就不会头晕发疯,你会轻松安逸愉快。
Real experience, write very well,

When you for these all know fairly well, you won't feel dizzy crazy, you will be happy and relaxed.

#2013-12-13 19:28:54 by Barry1 @Barry1

@aussieghump .

Thanks for this good information, Gareth. Great stuff.

By the way, when I clicked on the "I loved this" "Readers' Say" box and tweeted the relevant message, the CLM website didn't register my vote. This little glitch happens time after time - I'd say nine times out of ten, whenever I try to register a vote such as "Interesting" or "LOL" or whatever, it proves to have been a fruitless exercise. I think this may explain the low number of "Our Readers' Say" votes that some otherwise clearly excellent or informative articles achieve.

Overall though, let me advise that after perusing your article, rather than assuaging my fears of traveling alone in China, they've been somewhat heightened!

If the object of your exercise was to make innocent Westerners who like me, are "navigationally challenged" feel calmer about the prospect of solitarily commuting across a land where the language sounds like gibberish and the writing looks like chicken scratchings, I'm afraid you've failed!! lol

For example, you said,

"Booking e-tickets online is possible but the same issue with ID and possibly payment exists. Have a Chinese friend help you"

But what if for whatever reason, you don't have a Chinese friend immediately at your beck and call to assist? Maybe the lady you've just met has had an emergency call into her work place, for example or perhaps she's just booted you out of her house! What does the ignorant guy do then?

"Tickets are really scarce on the day you want to travel and depending on the route can be sold out 2-3 days before. You can only book 10 days before your trip so you have a pretty small window to buy! Planning longer trips is essential - 5 to 7 days before you wish to leave. You can book return tickets if they fall within the 10 day window but otherwise this is difficult!"

The above information unfortunately illustrates further difficulties that an inexperienced Westerner will haplessly experience whilst attempting to travel across China.

What will he do if he's unsure exactly how long he'll be staying with each lady? I had anticipated staying perhaps an extra day or two with someone I like - and maybe a day or two less with someone I didn't. But given this information, we won't have so much travel flexibility as otherwise hoped for. A person could be stuck with itchy feet, with someone he knows is a waste of time!

It seems that the man needs to book the next leg of whatever journey he's on, almost as soon as he arrives at the first point. Assuming his plan is to stay for just three or four days with each person.

I can see it now:

"Hello darling, nice to meet you. Oh, before I forget, even before sharing our first meal together or meeting your family - can we please immediately book a ticket for the next leg of my journey, to ensure I don't get stuck here!"

It sounds so romantic, doesn't it!

All joking aside, I'll print out this article and keep it for reference on my next trip. It's full of useful (if somewhat disconcerting) information.

One tip - every Westerner should perhaps have prewritten cards, asking "Where is the nearest railway booking office?" and another asking, "Where is the nearest G or D class railway station?"

He can then flash these around in whatever little town or village he's in or maybe use them in a taxi.

Maybe a LARGE emergency card should also be prepared in advance. This can be help up against the flow of traffic on a roadside, when he feels a little lost and lonely,

"HONEST AND KIND WESTERNER LOOKING FOR LOVE
Single or divorced ladies only to respond please"

Thanks Gareth for the very useful information - all the best to you.

#2013-12-15 12:32:10 by doctorj @doctorj

love the trains in china and particularly hongqiao! extremely convenient there to transfer between train and airline. makes you wonder why so called "first world" cities don't offer this convenience. and yes, amazing how quickly you can make friends on the train with a deck of cards and a case of beer!

#2013-12-15 22:24:02 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@barry1, you can do many bookings like this through a travel agent...it cost marginally more than doing it yourself but there are many services now that speak English and can do this, delivering tickets to your hotel etc.

Some are China-wide such as China Youth Travel Service.

Your airline booking agent might be able to help you with suggestions.

#2013-12-16 09:14:15 by Barry1 @Barry1

By the way, Gareth - I seem to be the only person here who spells your name with one "r", which is how you originally spelt it in the little bio beneath your profile photo above.

For the sake of clarity if not downright pedantry - could you please advise how you prefer your first name to be spelt?

#2013-12-16 12:02:13 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@Barry1,
Upon reading your comment again, all I can say is 'you don't know until you try!'

Part of the joy of exploring a new culture is the 'unknown'!
If you are fearful of catching a train, try it a few times in your country just so you get the hang of the 'new' technology - look deeply at it's inconsistencies and it's complexities (as if you are a new person in a country that cannot read and doesn't know local convention) and see if you can cover the details... Challenge some of those assumptions!

Seriously, it is no harder than catching public transport in your own country!
The services are fast and efficient and if you make a mistake or 3, who cares....put it down to experience!

Trains, toilets, hotels, taxis, Western food, basic medical and health and finding your way are relatively easy - if you need to 'worry' then work out how you will ride the roller coaster that is Chinese Dating, deftly negotiate a meal of animal body parts that you cannot identify (and some you can but would never consider eating) or how you will negotiate the sea of paperwork to be able to live with your chosen one in the same country!

But again, stop procrastinating and get over to China and explore!

You seem to have a bit of a 'control' nuance to your personality - I'd recommend you get a smartphone that can run software - install a good Chinese Dictionary (I use one called PLECO that is pretty cool!) or some translation software (Transwiz seems pretty good and works offline) and get an audio-speech training program on basic travel Chinese (Pimsleur or Berlitz) and or do it on paper with a good picture dictionary in Pinyin/Chinese/English (DK Pocket Visual Dictionary www.dk.com) and a phrasebook/dictionary.

It is not like shopping! You can't do all your research online, go into the store and select the 'ideal product!' from off the shelf.
If it were that easy, I'd try find a lady on Taobao! (and they have a 45-day free return policy if it is not as advertised! Haha!)

#2013-12-17 08:49:41 by Barry1 @Barry1

@aussieghump

Once again, many thanks to you, Gareth.

Your advice and guidance here won't be ignored.

Generally speaking, I like to be organised in advance as far as possible with endeavours to be undertaken. I learnt this from my last China trip where I ignored my own rule, doing no research at all and thus half the time stumbled around like a blithering idiot!

Once bitten, twice shy. This is why I'm asking all of these questions right now from experienced people such as your good self, folks who have already "been there and done that". Knowledge is no burden to carry, after all.

Most certainly, your helpful tips will prove to be useful, I'm sure, thank you.

#2013-12-17 16:18:30 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@barry1... You would think that the actual person would know how to spell their own name! But in China, I don't bother fighting how people write or pronounce my name!

Actually, the details about my experiences in China are a bit dated! I no longer own a bar!

I did put an update in a while ago, but maybe it got lost! Will contact John Abbott about my name and details!

#2013-12-19 14:10:05 by Barry1 @Barry1

@aussieghump

Thanks for this, Gareth.

The next time I'm in Suzhou - quite a nice place to live actually - most certainly I'll look you up!

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