China is no stranger to advanced technology and their bullet train, racing between Shanghai and Beijing is the icing on the cake. If avoiding Chinese domestic airlines is on your travel wish list, here are a few tips to get you moving (fast!) on the ground. I traveled from Shanghai to Beijing and here's the good, the bad, and most helpful things to know in between...
The Starting Line
Shanghai Hongqiao Station, adjacent to the airport of the same name, is about a 30 min taxi ride from the Bund. Security is easy, and check in is done at the boarding gate. Have your hotel book the tickets for you, or buy them at least one day in advance at the station in cash. You can book up to 10 days in advance when they release the seats for sale.
Pay RMB 1750 (US$280) for a seat in lie-flat Business Class. Seriously, it's worth it. Comfortable and spacious, this civilized way to travel will let you really appreciate the technology of this train. Whether you lie down and take a nap or watch the farmland zoom by with an enormous amount of legroom, you are guaranteed comfort in this car. Coach, or 2nd Class, for RMB 555 (US$90) will give you a noisy and crowded but very local experience. First class is also a happy medium for RMB 935 ($150), but very similar to coach minus the crowds.
Now, I know what you're thinking. There's been a typo, and I assure you there hasn't been. This is where you need to pay attention. For some wonderfully confusing reason, they call the lie-flat seats "business class" instead of "first class". So when you book your tickets, make sure you're paying for the expensive lie-flat Business Class seats or you're in for an unpleasant surprise. It's enough to make Confucius scratch his head.
Insider Tip #1: I will say it again. Spend the extra money and book yourself in business class. Trust me now and take a walk through coach when you get on. You can thank me later.
Pay attention to what car you're seated in, listed on the ticket, as each track has an A or B entrance corresponding to your car number.
Hongqiao Station is clean and modern, with Starbucks, KFC, and a Chinese candy emporium for the adventurous sweet tooth, upstairs. The VIP lounge for business class passengers is located by gate 1.
Insider Tip #2: Gates open 20 minutes before departure and close 5 minutes before departure. They're very punctual so queue early and don't be late.
It's recommended to bring your own food and I'll give you two good reasons why. For those in business class, you might not see your meal until the end of your trip and it is truly inedible. This VIP meal, a 4 course tray of questionable origin gives you a nice portion of white rice but nothing else worth taking a chance on. The snack bar car has an array of jerky and other unidentifiable dried delights.
Insider Tip #3: Most good hotels can pack you a great lunch to-go. The journey is just under 5 hours so why not plan ahead and enjoy it with good food.
Despite the world class nature of this train, and in addition to the lousy food, there are a few other cons to keep in mind. Train attendants speak almost no English and all 3 WiFi channels have little chance of connecting. In all classes of service get used to a parade of locals talking the hours away and playing loud Chinese music and movies on an array of devices. Headphones and indoor voices aren't as popular as you might think.
On arrival at Beijing South (Beijingnan) Station, keep your ticket to swipe thru the turnstile to exit, similar to many metro systems. If a taxi is in your future, try to be first off the train and run to the taxi stand. This queue is brutal when each new train arrives. Even better, have your next hotel send a driver to get you. You're going to want to keep that "business class" feeling when you step off this beautiful train.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jonathan Pozniak