Sleeping Trains, Metro Trains and a Tuk Tuk

It’s a little later than I expected, but I’m finally writing the second instalment of my Shanghai trip. This one’s all about getting to and from and around Shanghai.
I’ve said before that I really dislike flying, and much prefer to take trains whenever possible. By the time I confirmed my days off work and that I’d be able to stay with my friends in Shanghai my preferred trains were fully booked, so instead I booked train T166 to Shanghai for Thursday evening, arriving in the early afternoon on Friday, and train T138 back to Xi’an for Wednesday afternoon, arriving on Thursday morning.

I had nothing to do on Thursday before catching the train, so took the opportunity to head into central Xi’an, get coffee and watch the world go by before walking to the train station through some neighbourhoods I haven’t explored yet. There’s a really cool Starbucks by the Bell Tower, so I went there. It was quite busy, but not too bad. As I waited for my coffee I scoped out the different seats available, and of course when I finally received my coffee all of the available seats had been taken. I thought ‘sod it’ and went outside and sat opposite a pretty woman who didn’t even have a Starbucks mug. She summoned all the English she could and managed to ask if I spoke Chinese. I thought for a moment before replying ‘no’, and she then made a phone call. I only understood one word of her conversation – waiguoren – so I guess she was phoning her friend to say that some foreigner had taken her seat. I got my Kindle out and started reading a book. About fifteen minutes later her friend turned up and they went off together.

My train was due to leave at 9pm, and at 4pm I set off to walk to the train station. I was heading through some parts of the city I hadn’t been to before, so was quite curious. I discovered the Revolutionary Park, and again sat and watched the world go by while I read my Kindle. Eventually I tired of the park and continued towards the train station. I got there at about 6pm, so only three hours to wait. The scene inside the station building reminded me of news clips covering refugee crises. There were people strewn everywhere, sleeping on newspapers or sitting on tatty old suitcases. The light in the station didn’t help, filtered through small dirty windows in the roof leading to a dingy yellow light.

I found a plush waiting room that was empty, wondered why no one else was in there, and bought some snacks for the 16 hour train journey ahead. At 8:30pm I went to the gate to go down to the platform. My train was due at 8:58pm. At 8:53pm, as hundreds of people were still waiting, an announcement was made over the tannoy. I didn’t understand any of it besides picking out my train number ‘T Yi Liu Liu’, but from the reaction of everyone around I understood perfectly well what was going on. The dejected sighing and slumping of passengers despairing at their late train is the same all over the world. The electronic sign changed from 2058 to 2105, but I didn’t have a clue how they were going to get a couple of hundred people down from the waiting area to the platform and onto the train in four minutes. Eventually at 9:03pm the gates were opened and the stampede started.

The stairs to the platform level were by coach 2. I was in coach 15. I had a long walk ahead of me. At coach 13 I heard a whistle blowing somewhere behind me, so looked around and some doors were starting to close. I tried to board coach 13 but wasn’t allowed aboard. I legged it to coach 15 and hopped on board, panting for breath a little bit. I found my bunk, put my bag onto it, said a cheery “good evening” to my fellow passengers, and waited another 15 minutes for the train to depart.

The ‘hard sleeper’ on the train was surprisingly comfortable. The carriages are divided into 10 open compartments, each with 6 beds. I was on the top bunk, which I knew because I showed my ticket to a fellow passenger who pointed at the top bunk. There isn’t much space up there, but since I’d just be sleeping, it didn’t really matter. There was a feature I’d never seen before on a train – oxygen outlets by each bunk so people could plug in over the high mountain passes to prevent getting altitude sickness.

The journey was interesting. The train had started its journey in Lhasa, which explains the oxygen outlets, a day and half earlier, and there were quite a few characters on board. While no one spoke much English, there was one girl called Jing who spoke enough English for me to communicate. I think people watching is more interesting when you can’t understand what is being said; you have to rely solely on observing actions and movements and body language. As the train slowly chugged its way through the night towards Shanghai it quickly became apparent who had established themselves as ‘leader’ of the two last compartments; a big smily guy who was here there and everywhere and seemed to know everyone even if they didn’t know him, and who tried to talk to waiguoren even if the waiguoren didn’t understand anything he was saying. At 11pm the lights were turned out and everyone retired to bed.

I slept really well, there were no snorers and no smelly feet, and the gentle rocking back and forth of the train lulled me into a lovely soothing sleep. As station stops came and went the train gradually emptied out. A lot of people left at Nanjing, and then it was just me and a few others in the carriage. We were due in to Shanghai at 11:17, but we eventually arrived at 12:45. An hour and a half delay on a train that departed 48 hours earlier doesn’t seem so bad.

In Shanghai I found the metro and went to meet Andy.

Getting around Shanghai was really easy. The metro in Shanghai, unlike in Xi’an, is finished, but just like Xi’an, is really cheap. A single ticket is ¥2. By all accounts it’s a pretty nice metro system, the trains are big enough to stand up in and air conditioned (cough-London-cough), it’s clean, it’s punctual, it’s cheap, it’s goes everywhere it needs to.

Apart from the metro and the odd taxi, the only other interesting transport I used was a tuk tuk. My friend Neil lives in Songjiang, and it’s either a half hour walk to the metro or a few minutes in an electric tuk tuk. I hadn’t been in a tuk tuk yet, even in Xi’an, and they strike me as a very good idea. Electric so completely non polluting, small and nippy so they don’t cause congestion, and perfect for journeys that are a bit too long to walk but not far enough to bother with other public transport.

The journey back to Xi’an was much the same as going to Shanghai. Shanghai’s main railway station is really quite nice, it feels much more like a modern airport than a railway station, with light and airy waiting areas and loads of places to buy snacks. On this journey no one spoke English, but I didn’t mind as I was content reading my Kindle and writing my diary from the past few days. The train wasn’t quite as nice as on the way to Shanghai, the toilets were foul and there was nowhere to plug in my phone, but the bed was comfy and my fellow passengers cordial and once again I slept much better than I was expecting to.

Next up I’ll write a short post about a weird place in Songjiang called Thames Town, which is like a replica Milton Keynes in the middle of a Shanghai suburb.

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