The following is a report of a journey I took in 2011.
- Train: T97
- Origin: Beijing West
- Destination: Hung Hom (Jiu Long)
- Distance: 2475 km
- Travel Time: 23:48
It was time to leave Beijing and China, and head for Hong Kong. My train was due to depart Beijing West at 13:08, and I had to check in 90 minutes in advance for immigration inspection. As I had no time to do anything else before check in time, I left my hotel and headed straight for Beijing West station.
At the time of writing, Beijing West station was not connected to the subway network (now connected to line 9). The desk clerk at my hotel had told me to catch the subway from the hotel (at Dengshikou) to Dongdan, then catch bus 52 in Chang’an Lu to Beijing West station (Beijingxizhan). As I had plenty of time, I walked the 20 minutes instead of taking the subway. At Chang’an Lu, I looked for the stop for bus 52. None of the bus stops seemed to list 52, so I scanned the stop lists, and found that 101 also went to Beijingxizhan. I looked up, just as a 101 pulled into the stop, so I climbed aboard.
We twisted and turned through the Beijing streets, passing the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square as well as many imposing Government buildings. The bus had been crowded when I boarded, but slowly emptied out and by the time we were close to Beijing West, there were only about a dozen people left on the bus. The conductor hadn’t seen me board. She suddenly noticed the foreigner on the bus and yelled out to me, pointing at the Beijing Transit Card validator. I presumed that she was telling me to swipe my card (which I already had). I waved her away, pointed to my card and said Wangfujing (which is where I boarded). She continued to insist and I shook my head. Finally, she decided she was wasting her breath and walked off.
At Beijing West, I entered the station and saw that my train (T97) was boarding from waiting room 3. I approached the waiting room and presented my ticket. The attendant shook his head and told me to go outside and towards the North Square. I wondered why they displayed the train as boarding from waiting room 3, and headed for the North Square where I found the doors to enter Customs and Immigration.
I later found out that the train is divided into 2 portions – one for those who are leaving China (locked until arrival at Hung Hom) and the other for those leaving at intermediate stops (Zhengzhou, Wuchang, Changsha & Guangzhou East). The people boarding the portion for Hung Hom enter through Customs and Immigration near the north squre and all other passeners enter via the regular waiting room.
The doors for Customs and Immigration were scheduled to open 2 hours before the train departed (13:08). At exactly 11:08, the doors were opened, and we were admitted to a small waiting area. The customs inspection wasn’t scheduled to start until 90 minutes before the train departed and the small waiting area was soon jam packed and overflowing into the square outside. In the waiting area, I met an Australian couple from Canberra who had been trekking in Mongolia. We chatted as we waited and compared stories. At precisely 11:38, the doors to customs were opened and people started flooding in. After a cursory inspection of my passport (China doesn’t care if foreigners want to leave, they’re just suspicious of the ones coming in), I was let through into the station.
I made my way to the platform, where train T97 was waiting. It was made up of modern 25L stock; white with a blue band at the window line and a thin red stripe below it. I found my hard sleeper bunk, and settled in for the 24 hour trip. I was lucky to have managed to buy a lower bunk and I made myself comfortable. My travelling companions were: an old man with a long grey beard (who mysteriously disappeared during the night), a young couple with a 3 year old son and a 34 year old Hong Kong native named Bill (who spoke quite good English). Of course Bill wasn’t christened “Bill”, but as is popular in Hong Kong, he had adopted a Western alias.
At 13:06 (2 minutes early), we pulled slowly out of Beijing West station. We soon cleared the suburbs, and sped through the Chinese countryside, passing farmland and small towns. I visited the dining car (a long walk, as I was in car 3 and it was car 11) and bought a lunch pack to take back to my bunk. The walk to the dining car was interesting; our portion of the train had 5 hard sleeping cars, 3 soft sleeping cars, a deluxe sleeping car and a dining car. The deluxe sleepers are 2 bunk compartments with their own sit down toilet – a real luxury on a Chinese train!
Bill was quite talkative, to the point of being slightly annoying. Still, it was nice to have someone to speak English with. He was returning to Hong Kong after a 10 day tour of Mainland China, including Yunan (a southern province), Xi’an, Inner Mongolia (the Chinese province, not the country – which Chinese refer to as Outer Mongolia) and Beijing.
The couple with the three year old boy were from the southern province of Fujian. The boy is their second, which is not technically allowed under China’s Once Child policy. To counteract the problems (financial penalty and issues obtaining the child’s all important ID card), the second child was born in Hong Kong, and automatically became an Hong Kong citizen. Another benefit of this, is that the child is entitled to a Hong Kong education (considered superior to that of Mainland China).
We raced on through towns and farmland (mostly cornfields), and finally made our first stop at Zhengzhou, more than 5½ hours into our journey. I had passed through Zhengzhou twice already on this holiday; once on train 1085 from Jinan to Urumqi and the second time travelling back from Lanzhou to Jinan. We stopped at Zhengzhou for about 15 minutes, but as we had already passed through customs, we were unable to leave the train.
We left Zhengzhou and passed through the now familiar farmland of northern China. Bill became talkative again, and the topic of real estate came up. Despite having a good job, Bill is unable to afford to buy his own apartment in Hong Kong. He lives in a tiny apartment with his mother and brother in an urban area of Kowloon. He invited me to dinner, to sample his mother’s cooking, asking in such a way that it would have been rude to say no. When I said yes, he was so excited that he called his mother straight away to let her know that a foreigner will be coming to dinner.
Afternoon faded into evening, and then into night. Although the train was running to a strict schedule, there was no sense of time for those on board. We chatted, I read, I visited the dining car for dinner (and coincidentally sat next to the 2 Aussies I met at the customs hall in Beijing). Soon, the rocking of the train made me sleepy. The overhead lights hadn’t yet been turned off, so I pulled my quilt up over my head and was asleep within minutes.
I woke the next morning (having stopped at Wuchang and Changsha as I slept) with the sun streaming in through the window. My bunk (padded shelf) was very comfortable, and I reluctantly pulled myself up to a sitting position to look out the window. The view outside was very different to when I went to sleep; there were bright green rolling hills, with terraced farmland and rice fields everywhere. Many small lakes and ponds dot the landscape, and farm workers wear traditional “coolie” hats (straw hats that look like a round pyramid).
Mid morning, we slow to a crawl and eventually come to a stop in a small village. This immediately raised alarm bells with me, as this is one of the premier trains in China. Except for the largest cities en-route, the Beijing – Hung Hom express stops for nothing!! Well, almost nothing, as we were now stationary between a general goods train and a dirty coal train, at a remote siding in northern Guangdong province. An announcement came over the PA system (in Mandarin), but luckily, I had my new best friend Bill to translate it for me. We were delayed for an undefined period of time due to a signal failure. Two things spring to mind:
- I’m pleased that our Driver obeyed the signal
- Signal failures also happen on proper rail networks too!
We sat in the little siding for about 75 minutes, before finally we jolting to a start. There were no cheers or jeers from the Chinese passengers, they’re much too reserved for that!
After our little delay, we started to follow the course of the Bei river. The river is wide and many barges ply their trade; some carrying ore, some carrying vehicles and some carrying containers. The scenery around the river is beautiful; sheer cliffs, dense bright green scrub to the water’s edge, massive rock formations, jutting out of the rolling hills.
We arrived in Guangzhou East a little over 90 minutes late. We pulled up next to a CRH series 1 train, running a Guangzhou East – Shenzhen service (Shenzhen is just on the Chinese side of the China/Hong Kong border). The CRH1 train is a little less streamlined than the CRH5 and CRH380 trains I had travelled on previously, more resembling a German ICE train. It is 8 cars long and has the pantographs on cars 2, 4 and 7. There is only 1 door per side per car, located in the middle of each car. It is in the standard CRH livery of white with a blue stripe below the window line.
The CRH1 train departs, and is quickly replaced by another. 3 trains for Shenzhen depart before we do, but finally we are under way again. The journey from Guangzhou to Shenzhen is mostly through industrial estates, broken up by small patches of farmland. We passed through Shenzhen and stopped briefly at the border.
The border of China and Hong Kong is a menacing place. Guard towers with spotlights stand on steel and barbed wire fence lines. High gates stand closed and no people – soldiers or travellers were visible as our train crept through the no-man’s-land between the two countries (technically Hong Kong is Chinese, but only technically). There are overgrown banks on the murky creek that runs between the border posts.
After crossing the border, our train picked up speed again and we were soon passing through the green hills of Hong Kong’s New Territories. I was surprised at how forested the hills are, and how few buildings are on Hong Kong’s fringes. I was expecting to enter a concrete jungle as soon as I crossed the border.
We followed MTR’s East metro line from the border into Hung Hom and arrived exactly 2 hours late. I bade farewell to my new friend, Bill and promised to call him about a home cooked meal. I queued up in the long immigrations line for foreigners and saw the couple from Canberra one last time. The line moved quickly, and soon the efficient but abrupt Hong Kong customs official has stamped my passport. I left customs and head out into Hung Hom station.
In the busy station, I found a China Railways ticket agent. I purchased a ticket from Guangzhou East to Jinan for the following week. I paid a premium of HK$200 (about A$30) on top of my fare, but it was comforting to know that I had a sleeping berth reserved. I also bought a ticket for Guangzhou East on MTR’s KTT (Kowloon Through Train) before leaving the station, and heading out into the oppressive humidity of a Hong Kong summer’s day.