I had arrived in the Chinese port city of Qingdao by ferry from Shimonoseki in Japan and after spending the night there, I was to fly to Changchun. From Changchun, I was booked on an overnight sleeper train to Dalian. Unfortunately, my flight had been rescheduled from a morning departure to an early afternoon departure, meaning that I was wasting most of the day in Qingdao only had a few hours in Changchun.
I bought a ticket for the airport shuttle bus from the temporary looking ticket office outside Qingdao station. In true Chinese style, there was no organised bus bay, the bus just pulled up on the station forecourt. Passengers had to load their own luggage under the bus, and it was first in, best dressed for seats. I was getting good at this and managed to snare a window seat near the front of the bus. The trip to the airport was unremarkable along an elevated freeway, and Qingdao airport is just another generic medium sized international airport. The only interesting thing I saw was a man riding a bicycle through the international departures hall towing a large soft brush to polish the floor.
I boarded the travel worn China Southern Airlines A320, which had scuffed seats and marked walls. I settled into a very plain economy class seat with grey tattered cloth upholstery and watched the perfunctory safety briefing, which was given in Mandarin, Cantonese and English (with a very heavy accent). After take off, I could smell a faint burning smell, which I thought was probably the meals heating up in the galley nearby. I grew concerned when the meals were delivered; cold snack boxes! Despite the calm and clear weather in Changchun, landing was bumpy, and felt like we were going down the runway sideways. We made it safely to the terminal, but there was no aerobridge for our flight, and we all filed down the single rickety metal staircase to the tarmac and into the terminal.
Changchun West railway station on the Changchun – Jilin high speed railway is underneath Changchun airport. This sounds ideal, until you look at the timetable and realise that there are only 9 services per day that run from Changchun West to Changchun! Fortunately, my flight was scheduled to arrive 40 minutes before the last train of the day; I knew it would be tight, but I was confident I could make it.
My flight had arrived 10 minutes late, but I was travelling light and had no check in luggage. I followed the signs for the railway station, and was surprised to be directed out of the airport. The sign to the railway station directed me through another door, which led into a long, wide, downward sloping corridor. I made a gradual descent for about 500m in the bare concrete ramp that was so wide it could have housed a 2 lane highway, with a roof high enough for a double decker bus to pass through.
I finally made it down to the station lobby (thankful that I didn’t have a lot of luggage) and passed through security into the ticket office. I had about 15 minutes until my train, and there was a long queue at the single ticket window. The line inched forward, and 7 minutes before my train was due, I made it to the window. A group of students tried to push in front of me, but I thrust my passport through the ticket window along with a ¥50 note and said “Changchun”. Thankfully, the ticket agent ignored the pushy rabble and issued my ticket. It only ¥8.5 (about A$1.80) and I grabbed it with my change and passport and rushed off to find my platform. I was stopped by a railway policeman, who demanded to see my ticket. He noted the short time I had to catch my train and ushered me toward the Changchun bound platform. I stepped on to the platform just as the sleek 16 car CRH380 high speed train arrived. It was painted in the white and blue livery of CRH (China Rail Highspeed) with a streamlined nose. I stepped aboard and found my seat in a cramped second class car. Nine minutes later we arrived at Changchun station.
Originally, I was to have 10 hours in Changchun, however as China Southern Airlines had changed my flight times I now only had 4 hours between my flight arriving and my train departing for Dalian. This was not problematic, as I had plenty of time up my sleeve, but it was annoying, as I had wanted to explore the city’s modest tram and light rail network. Changchun has 2 light rail lines, which are fully grade separated and run as a metro system. There is also a traditional tram service which runs 2 on street routes in the city’s west.
As my time here was short, I was only able to travel on one line, so I chose the number 4 light rail. I entered the Changchun Railway Station North light rail stop, where a tram was waiting. The tram was quite long (6 articulated sections) with a rounded front, low floor and two pantographs. I boarded the tram, and we were soon smoothly sliding out of the station and into a subway style tunnel. The tram ran out through tunnels under the city for the first few stops, until we emerged into the Changchun evening and onto elevated track. As the tram departed each stop, instead of the traditional tram bell, the tram beeped 3 times with what sounded like a fairly standard car horn. As we passed other trams, I noted that there was not one standard livery for the fleet; they were all painted in a different colour, the only constant being the black stripe along the window line (I saw purple, blue, turquoise and green in my short journey).
The light rail stations were all bland, uninspiring concrete low level platforms with no feature to distinguish one from the other, and after travelling for a few stops, I left the tram hoping to find some dinner. I didn’t want to wander far from the station, as I would soon have to travel back to catch my overnight train south to Dalian. There was no food within easy walking distance of the random station in this unfamiliar city, so I caught the next tram back to the railway station.
At the railway station, there was still over an hour until my train was due to depart, but the waiting room was already packed with the usual assortment of Chinese long distance train passengers; harassed looking parents with small children, unwashed labourers (destined for the hard seats), teenage students talking loudly and playing cards, older couples and intrepid looking domestic tourists (usually with a camera and minimal luggage – the Chinese version of myself). As far as I could see, I was the only non-Chinese person in the waiting room. I was becoming used to this, and wasn’t bothered by the shy, curious looks.
About 15 minutes before my train was due, people started lining up at the ticket gate. This seems to be fairly typical Chinese behaviour; despite reserved seats/berths, people wanted to be the first on to the train. I remained sitting, until about 10 minutes later, the gates were opened and people surged through. I waited until the crowd thinned out and made my way leisurely through the gate and down the long escalator onto the platform. My train was made up of 18 red and white 25G cars, and I searched for my carriage on the long, crowded platform.
I was travelling in a hard sleeper (not as bad as it sounds); sets of 3 tiered bunks running across the carriage, open to the corridor that runs the length of one side of the carriage. Each bunk has clean sheets, a small quilt and a plump pillow. The beds have no mattress; each being a sturdy, well padded shelf. The bunks are not the roomiest, measuring just 60cm wide and 180cm long. The lower bunks have the most head room with around 90cm to the bunk above. The centre and upper bunks have only 65cm. There are toilets at each end of each car; the older trains have squat toilets (some which open directly to the tracks below), but the newer trains are being fitted with western style toilets. There is a washroom with a long sink and a mirror at one end of the car. An unusual feature of all Chinese long distance cars (including CRH trains) is the massive boiling water urn built into one end of each car. This is used for making tea and preparing instant noodles (the staple diet of budget travellers across China), it’s also handy for washing toothbrushes and cups.
I was travelling in the top bunk (marked as 上 on my ticket), and once I found my berth, I climbed the ladder up to the roof. The upper sleeping berth is the cheapest (about ¥20 cheaper than the lower) as it is a bit of a climb to get up there, and it can be a bit claustrophobic. I prefer the upper bunk for short overnight journeys as it offers the most privacy (above head height and out of eyesight), however the lack of a window makes it a poor choice for longer journeys. The upper and lower bunks are best for luggage storage, as the lower bunk gets first go at the space under the bunks, and the upper bunk can use the space between the corridor ceiling and the carriage roof. I hoisted my case into the ceiling and sat on my bunk.
We were soon under way, and the conductor came around to collect tickets. Instead of clipping the ticket, the conductor actually takes the ticket and issues an exchange token (a credit card sized plastic card). The exchange token is retrieved and the ticket returned shortly before arriving at the destination station. As I had had no dinner, I waited for the food cart to come around, but it didn’t (I later discovered that there was no dining car on the train). Despite my empty stomach, my bunk was comfortable and the quilt was warm; I was asleep before the lights were turned out.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of a tinny PA announcement. The lights were on and it was daylight outside; we would shortly arrive at the final stop of Dalian. My ticket was returned (I would need it to leave the station) and I prepared to leave the train. We arrived in Dalian station just before 7am on a chilly Saturday morning, and 18 cars worth of bleary eyed travellers spilled out onto the platform. After watching the early morning trains being shunted around the station, I exited the and went in search of food.