After taking a final ride on the delightful 80 year old DL3000 Witt trams of Dalian, I headed into Dalian railway station. I was to travel on to Shenyang today, taking a CRH (China Rail Highspeed) bullet train; the high speed “G” train timetabled at just 1 hour and 55 minutes for the 400 km journey. I entered the station, and found the sleek 16 car CRH380B train standing ready at the platform. I boarded my second class coach and found my seat, which already had someone sitting in it. I showed him my ticket and he stood up and shuffled away without saying a word. Second class coaches (“hard” seats) have a 2+3 configuration, with flimsy arm rests separating the seats. The seats recline, all face the direction of travel, are reasonably comfortable and have ample leg room. For about 75% additional fare, you can get a “soft” seat (first class). The soft seats are wider (2+2 configuration) and have a ridiculous amount of leg room. I have tried first class on the CRH trains, and was underwhelmed – service is no better than second class and I was in the end of a carriage without a window next to my seat, it is certainly not worth the extra fare.`
Our train slid out of Dalian station right on time, and we were soon blistering through the countryside of Liaoning province, at speeds of up to 350 km/h. Whilst the Japanese Shinkansen may have been the original bullet trains, CRH trains are smoother, faster and quieter (although almost always packed). We made only 1 intermediate stop at Anshan North, before arriving at Shenyang North 2 minutes ahead of time; a very impressive average speed of 212 km/h! I left the platform, and found the “left luggage” office. As I was catching another train from this station that evening, I didn’t want to carry my suitcase around all day.
My main objective for the day was to see Shenyang’s new tram network. I decided to walk in the general direction of the trams, so I set off through the city centre. Like most Chinese roads, the footpath was poorly maintained; cracked and uneven with chunks of concrete missing in places. The constant stream of vehicles; cars trucks and buses filled the air with smog and dust, which blew around my face as the traffic sped by; walking in most Chinese cities is not a pleasant way to get around! I walked across a bridge over a very wide, dirty river. By the river were deserted walking paths, and an attempt had been made to plant some decorative trees, which were stunted and withering.
After walking for about an hour, I found a coffee shop which had free Wi-Fi and had a break, watching the traffic rumble along the dusty street outside. Having checked my email and updated Twitter (Twitter is blocked in China, but my VPN connection solved that problem), I continued my walk south. I crossed another river bridge, and according to the map, the tram terminus was close by. I found a large shopping centre on the main road, with lots of upper class international clothing outlets, and remembered that one of the tram stops was called “Xinglong Big Outlets”. There were no signs in English, but I presumed that this must be the place. I could see no sign of a tram, and the people rushing by did not stop long enough for me to ask them (and probably would not have understood me if I did).
I walked around to the other side of the shopping centre, and finally found some tram tracks! I followed them to a stop, and found a sleek blue 5 section articulated tram sitting at the Olympic Center stop. There are 2 types of tram used in Shenyang; 5 section trams, which are 100% low floor and 3 section trams which are 70% low floor, all built by CNR in China. Trams operate on 3 routes; 1 (Expo Centre – south west), 2 (Taoxing Airport – south) & 5 (Shenfu Xincheng – east). Line 3 is still in testing, and line 4 just doesn’t seem to exist).
The trams in Shenyang are unusual due to their power system. They normally are powered by traditional overhead wires with power collected by pantograph, however at certain locations (mostly tight curves, junctions, crossovers and major cross roads) there is no overhead. Trams run through these short sections (usually a couple of hundred meters) with the pantograph lowered, powered by an underfloor supercapacitor. At termini, an overhead charging station allows recharging of the supercapacitor via the pantograph.
The route 5 tram at Olympic Center remained at the stop for about 10 minutes, before the pantograph was lowered and it smoothly and quietly departed around the corner. It was apparent that no other services departed from this stop (despite the map showing that all routes shared a common terminus), so I followed the tracks in the opposite direction. I found that like Dalian, different routes used a different terminus in close vicinity, but not in line of sight. The 2 termini were connected by rails, but there were no through services.
At the Xinglong Big Outlets terminus, there was an island platform serving routes 1 & 2. Terminating trams used one platform, before running through a crossover, briefly charging at a charging station and then back into the outbound platform. Trams were operating on 20 minute headways, which was disappointing, as the trams in Dalian were on approximately 5 minute headways, as are most urban buses in China.
I boarded a route 1 tram and paid my ¥2 fare on entering. Inside, the tram was spotless and soulless. The hard plastic seats were unwelcoming and the beige walls were bare; even some advertising would have been welcome to brighten the interior! We made our way smoothly and swiftly out to the city’s south west, with the tram’s automated announcements proclaiming the stop names in Mandarin and English. Many of the stops had interesting names, such as: Xinsong Robot, Firefighter Headquarter and Operation Center.
We reached the junction stop of Xinsong Intelligence Park, where route 2 continued south towards Taoxian Airport and we turned west on route 1. We entered a new part of the city that felt quite surreal. Most Chinese streets are clogged with cars, trucks and buses. We were speeding down the centre of a completely deserted 4 lane road, which had virtually no traffic whatsoever. The occasional taxi and police car whizzed by, but other than the tram, there was almost no one. We crossed equally deserted main roads, which stretched off into the smog with not a car to be seen. All around were massive apartment blocks in various stages of construction, with signs bearing slogans in Chinese that I could only presume were advertising the new developments. We passed Shenyang South Railway station, which was still under construction; the tram stop appeared to be an inconvenient distance from the platforms.
I left the tram at North Eastern University stop, which is the junction between routes 1 & 3 (route 3 was still under test). The stop was at a crossroads of 2 very wide and very deserted roads. On two corners were nearly completed 15 storey apartment blocks, and on the other 2 corners were vacant blocks of land, overgrown with 2 metre high weeds and sick looking trees. I stood in the middle of the road and filmed the tram as it shot off towards the Expo Centre terminus, and then I experienced something very rare in China; silence. I saw a flock of finches, and realised that they were the first wild birds I had seen in China.
After my tram left, the next vehicle I saw was a tram testing on route 3. It approached at great speed, stopped short of the tram stop and changed direction at a crossover, before shooting back in the other direction at equally high speed. In this deserted part of town, there was nothing to get it its way. As novel as the solitude was, there was little to keep my interest, so I caught the next tram back towards central Shenyang.
I left the tram at Baitahelu, which my map suggested was near a subway station on the north-south number 2 subway line. The tram ran down the centre strip of a busy road, with well manicured grass growing between the tracks. There was no pedestrian crossing to get from the tram stop in the centre of the road to the footpath, so I waited for a gap in the traffic and ran across. There was no obvious sign of a subway station, but I saw a lot of people walking down a dirt track. In any other country, I would not expect that this would lead to a subway station, but from experience, I’d learned that the Chinese build infrastructure, then worry about access later. After a 3 minute walk along a dirt track leading between vacant land filled with tall weeds and some buildings that were either under construction or in a state of disrepair (I couldn’t tell), I found the subway station; an incongruously well built foyer in the middle of derelict buildings and vacant lots.
The subway foyer had escalators leading down into the station concourse, which was clean, bright and airy with polished stone flooring and high ceilings. I bought a token and made my way to the northbound platform. I didn’t have long to wait until the train arrived. Being the penultimate station on the line, the train was almost empty and I was able to get a seat on the hard plastic longitudinal bench. Shenyang’s subway lines are colour coordinated, with the predominant colour for platforms and trains on line 1 being red, and line 2 being an orangy-yellow.
I took the line 2 train to the interchange station at Qingniandajie, where I boarded the east-west number 1 line. As they are both fully underground lines, line 1 is almost identical to line 2, but the train and station interiors are red instead of orangy-yellow. It was dinner time, and I chose a station at random to see if I could find a restaurant. It was dark outside, and the subway exit was in a commercial district, full of high rise office buildings. Being a Sunday night, there was not much pedestrian traffic and I couldn’t see any restaurants close by, so I caught the subway back to Shenyang North railway station where I had just seen a “Mr Lee” restaurant (think McDonalds but with traditional and healthy Chinese food). After dinner, I collected my bag and headed in to the station to catch my overnight sleeper train to Jinan.