Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Riding the Z train in China

Last month, my passport ran out of pages - I had to apply for a new one at the Indian consulate here in Shanghai. Surprisingly, I was told that it would take at least 45 days - isn't that absolutely crazy?? Almost anywhere these days, a week is more than enough to get a new passport! Anyway, since I was passport-less, our plans for Spring Break were suddenly on shaky ground! But, Ajey had 4 days off too, and it seemed a shame to just stay here in Suzhou...

I had had a really good experience with the CRH high-speed trains when I went to Beijing. So I started looking at trains to go to Xi'an. Unfortunately, there is no direct CRH train from Suzhou to Xi'an. The only option is the overnight sleeper train - the Z category - which even though not high-speed, still runs at a good clip of almost 160kmph! I have traveled by train tons of time when in India - both the 2 tier and 3 tier A/C compartments, and it always has been so much fun! How much worse can the trains in China be? So we decided to go ahead and make the bookings!

There were plenty of options for the tickets - hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper or soft sleeper! Well, I definitely do not want to be sitting up all night, and the hard sleeper sounds so uncomfortable - so the soft sleeper it was! That turned out to be a pretty good choice - I don't think we could have managed in any of the other compartments! The tickets are pretty pricey too - 400RMB one way per person! Goes without saying that the hard seats are dirt cheap! Actually buying tickets is slightly more complicated than just going online and booking - the admin in Ajey's office helped us find the right trains - she then texted this information to our driver, who headed to the railway station with our passports to buy the tickets. Wait, did I say passport? Yes, you do need passports to buy train tickets in China - fortunately they are willing to accept a photo copy, so we didn't run into a problem!

So, we finally had a plan! Leave Suzhou Thursday night by the 7:45pm train, reach Xi'an Friday morning by 9:30am - stay in Xi'an 2 nights - and then on Sunday, take the 5pm train back, which would bring us to Suzhou Monday morning at 6am, in plenty of time for Ajey to still make it to a full day of work! Since we didn't have to leave for the station until almost 6:30pm, Thursday was very relaxed! There is a pantry car on the train, but I wasn't sure if we would would something suitable for us to eat - so ended up carrying a picnic hamper - everything from beer and chiwda to sandwiches and yogurt rice!

On the platform

Most stations in China have 1 big waiting area, and you can go onto the platforms only about 10 minutes before the train arrives. Platforms are for ticket-holders only, so there is none of the chaos and rabble associated with Indian platforms! There are no vendors on the platform either, so if you need to buy water or snacks, get it before you leave the waiting area! On the train, we were in for a pleasant surprise! The sleeper car had little cabins each with 4 berths. Floor was carpeted, and the sheets and pillowcases were laundry white! The berths had lacy hangings, and the little table at one end had a table cloth, with a vase and a kettle for hot water!

In the train
Our little cabin

Once the train got going, we set out our snacks, and got our party going! It was such a relief to sit down with legs stretched out, rather than being cramped into a tiny airline seat! Trains are awesome! It was already dark by the time the train left, so we couldn't see much out of the huge window except passing lights. There were plenty of food and drink carts passing by - all kinds of soft drinks, beer, fruit, instant noodles or even a hot dinner was available. For those who do eat meat, there should be no problem. For vegetarians - carry your own food, and plenty of it!

The toilets are always a little dicey on trains! In the Z-train, both western and Indian style toilets are available. They were clean enough when the train left Suzhou, but totally unusable in the morning. There is a little area with just sinks, so you can brush your teeth, but hold off on using the bathroom till you reach your hotel! It wasn't too bad though - we went to the bathroom right before we turned in, and we reached our hotel by 10am - we just stayed in bed as long as we could! The berths are comfortable, and the rocking motion of the train is restful - totally satisfactory for 1 night!

Xi'an station was somewhat of a shock - living in modern Suzhou has insulated us from real China! There was a huge crowd of people outside - touts for hotels, taxis, tourist guides and the like! Strangest were the people who wanted our used train tickets in exchange for a city map! I can't imagine what they would do with them, but certainly, not a good idea to hand over your tickets to a stranger - especially since each ticket has the passenger's passport number on it! Ignore all offers for taxi - head straight to the official taxi stand. It takes a little longer because you have to wait in line, but the police in charge were very helpful - making sure that the taxi driver knew where we had to go, even calling our hotel to confirm the address!! Xi'an is a relatively small town, and the ride from Xi'an station to most hotels should not cost more than 15-20RMB.

One important thing to keep in mind when traveling by train in China - most cities have at least 2 railway stations, if not more. One is a dedicated station for the G-category CRH high-speed trains - this is usually a little farther away from the city. The others would be stations within the city - these are for all other trains, the Z, T and K categories ( for more information on different types of trains in China - go to, where else - wikipedia.org! ). A CRH train may arrive at a regular station, but the other trains will never go to a CRH station. The tickets state very clearly which station your train departs from - so make sure you know which station you need to get to!

No prizes for guessing why I'm writing these words of caution! On the way back, our concierge at the hotel directed our taxi to the Xi'an Bei station - yes, that is the CRH station. We showed our tickets to the taxi driver, and he should have known that Xi'an Bei is not where we had to go - he just decided to ignore that in favor of getting a larger fare! About 25 minutes later, we finally yelled loud enough for him to stop, and turn back to the Xi'an main station. It didn't help matters that he drove like a maniac, swerving and cutting through traffic at a very high speed! Long story short - we missed our train! The entrance hall in the Xi'an station is completely confusing - wouldn't be out of place in any station in India! We had no clue where to go, or what to do next!

Fortunately, Ajey was able to track down a railway official who not only spoke English, but was also able to help us get tickets for a later train. Surprisingly, even though our train had left, the full amount for the ticket was refunded - the downside was that the new tickets we had to buy were twice as expensive as our originals - so we still ended up shelling out a significant amount of money! Another good piece of information was that all railway stations have a special waiting room for soft-sleeper passengers. It wouldn't matter much in places like Suzhou, but anywhere else, it makes a huge difference! This waiting room even has a special entrance to go out to the platforms, so you don't have to shove your way though the crowds outside!

The person who helped us told Ajey that he tickets we had were VVIP - but we didn't know what he meant until we got on the train! This time, our compartment had cabins with just 2 berths - there was also a very comfortable armchair, a small coat closet, and wait for it - a personal toilet! VVIP alright! This little cabin was a huge boost to our by-now flagging spirits! Of course, all 3 of us could not be together for the night, but we could still sit and eat together and chat! All's well that ends well, I guess!!

Overall, the Z-train was a wonderful experience! It seemed a little daunting initially, but compared to the hassles of taking a flight - taking the train seems to be the better option! The trains run on time in China, and the rail network is very good! I'm already trying to think of the next place we can take the train to! I'll be back with an update on our time in Xi'an soon, so watch this space! Until next time!

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