After the agro and hiccups I experienced in Beijing (read: stress induced crying and almost homeless-ness), I was pretty bloody excited to be going to Shanghai, especially as I had been promised that more people spoke English there. Hallelujah.
I didn’t really have any expectations or preconceived ideas of Beijing but I definitely did of Shanghai so I was rather nervous that my dreams would be brutally crushed. I pictured it as the New York of China; huge, colourful, metropolitan, energetic. Thankfully I wasn’t wrong.
I decided to take the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai, which would take about 4 hours. Easy journey. You might be wondering why such a basic event requires such an essay of a post. Get comfy my friends because I’m about to tell you a painfully long tale. If you’re going to be taking the same journey as I did, you’ll thank me later.
The lead-up to the journey proved tricky… I had booked my ticket through an online travel agent (easy and reliable – I used China Highlights) and was told that I needed to pick my ticket up in person. Also easy, I thought. I know how to pick up pre-booked train tickets at machines in the UK! How difficult can it be. However, I was also told that people don’t really speak English, even the big train stations, and that there are almost no English signs. (Or rumour, has it, some speak a little English but are very unwilling to sooo… they don’t). I also had to pick up my ticket from a designated counter. Helppppp. Needless to say, I had a nightmare that night that I’d never be able to leave Beijing because I wasn’t able to collect my ticket and was doomed to live an eternally communist life.
After two traumatic days in Beijing, I was already a slightly tougher cookie and decided to tackle my ticket nightmares straight on by going 5 days early to collect my ticket, rather than the recommended 2 hours… (Did I mention I’m a control freak?). I went to the train station with my passport, booking reference and a whole plethora of train ticket-related-phrases in Chinese I’d screenshot-ed from this handy website.
I think it’s hard to understand the stress of the situation unless you’re actually there but Beijing South Railway station is enormous. It’s like an airport. It has several floors, many halls and an endless maze of different gates to all kinds of things. Plus 90% of the signs are written in Chinese and there are a lot of people; all rushing around, shouting or pushing their way through queues in halls where there aren’t any windows. (Did I mention I’m also really claustrophobic??). Given all those things going on, could you think straight about how to collect your ticket? I couldn’t. I walked round and round trying to find what seemed to be the right booth/counter but couldn’t understand a bloody thing. Eventually, a joined a random long queue and just prayed silently. The queue in front of me occasionally became longer as, of course, people pushed in front. At this point in the China experience I was too much of a wimp to elbow-fight with strangers so I just let it go and did the British thing and grumbled about them brutally in my head. I may have even tutted out loud.
I eventually got to the front of the queue and optimistically asked the lady in Mandarin if she spoke English. She said she spoke a little but then proceeded to reply to my English with Mandarin. Looks like it was a no after all. Out came my pre-prepared written phrases. An angel must have been looking down on me because lo and behold, a minute later I was gifted with my train ticket. Job done. I was going to Shanghai! I locked my ticket away in my purse because god help me if I lost it.
By the time departure day arrived, I still had my ticket (well done) and had already practiced the Mandarin for “I need to go to Beijing South Railway station” and my taxi driver was the first one to not seem bemused by my Mandarin. Progress!
Once I arrived at the station, the next tricky part came. On the ticket, there is no English. The floor I arrived on looked completely different to the one I had collected my ticket from 5 days earlier. The China Highlights website had told me that once going through the bag-scan, I needed to go to a specific waiting room and from there I proceeded to a specific gate and from there I would board a specific part of the train on a specific platform. Arghhh.
For the life of me I could not work out how to find out what waiting room I was meant to go to or even where the heck they were. No one could really tell me either. (Sometimes in China people will just tell you what they think you want to hear. They mean well but it’s really unhelpful). Eventually, I saw on a display board what gate I needed to queue at for my train. I managed to find this gate easily but was confused because I thought I had to go to the waiting room first. I asked the lady and she communicated that I was at the right gate but I was too early. Relieved to know where I needed to go, I decided to forget all about the waiting room and set up camp in Starbucks for a while.
Full of hot chocolate, I went to the gate a little earlier than I needed, which was just as well because a queue had already started to form. A lady again confirmed I was in the right place so I cemented myself to the spot. Come hell or high water, nothing was stopping me from getting on that train. Soon, they checked my passport, punched my ticket, I took a lift down and found myself on the platform. So much easier than what the internet told me! Granted, almost nothing was in English but thankfully I knew enough Mandarin to get by. For those folk who don’t and are also as navigationally as me, follow these easy peasy steps. I really wish someone had given me these steps. The internet just confused and worried me!
- Arrive at the station early, main entrance, street-level. (If you arrive by subway instead of taxi, I assume you just some escalator/lift up…? Don’t quote me on that).
- Go through airport-style bag scanner.
- (Finding your designated waiting room is only optional – skip this step. Make life easy and find Starbucks instead. If you want to find your waiting room, I wish you luck).
- Find out your gate number in advance. The gates will be on the same floor/level as the one you arrived on. Your gate number will be written on your ticket after these Chinese characters: 剑票口. It should also be written on the giant display boards in the station (just find your destination and time on the board – if I remember correctly, these are in English t0o). Each gate is split into two sections. Make sure you queue at the right one. If you’re not sure, show a staff member your ticket and they’ll point you in the right direction. Each of the two sections are opposite each other so you’re only a few metres away. If you want to make extra sure, each gate has an electric board that tells you what trains are going to be departing from it. The train number (which is on your ticket) and destination are listed.
- Queue at your gate, go through one last ticket check, take the lift/escalator down to the platform. There is only one train at the platform (I was expecting another difficulty) but you have to make sure you board the right numbered section. The numbers will be written on the side of the train. If in doubt, there are staff members on board to help. I asked a fellow passenger who spoke reassuringly excellent English and he helped me.
- Take your seat and pat yourself on the back. You have permission to breathe now.
Despite all the above, the train journey itself was great! The train seats (or at least for the class of carriage I was on) are more spacious than a plane and even the toilets on board are bigger than ones on planes. You also get a free box of edible goodies (I was only brave enough to try some) and there’s an electrical plug under your seat so a perfect time to plug in your laptop and do some work or charge up your phone and take a nap. Just make sure you don’t miss your stop!! They do warn you 5 minutes before they reach each station though so you’ll have time to collect your things together.
Have you had any train mishaps in China? Please tell me and make me feel better!