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TIANJIN, CHINA — I have set a land speed record, for me, anyway. Last Sunday I went nearly 209 mph (334 km/hr), in complete comfort.

No, not in a car. In one of China’s bullet trains.

Last weekend, I had to visit the US Embassy in Beijing (for reasons I will explain below), and I had set aside one day of my three-day junket to sight-see. While my hotel was fairly close to the Bird’s Nest and the Olympic Park, I decided to add another city to my list of visited places — Tianjin, a historic city that hosted foreign concessions as far back as the 1860s.

I would have skipped Tianjin for a more propitious time, but the idea of zipping along at an average speed of 150 mph was really appealing. I love trains.

CHR bullet train

Washing bullet trains for the next run

China is completely gonzo about high-speed rail services. Already blessed with an extensive conventional rail network, China is building new HSR lines to connect the provincial capitals and major cities. One such HSR line is the 73 mile (117 km) run between Beijing and Tianjin.

China’s bullet trains are built by China High-speed Rail (CHR) using technology and designs shared by French, Japanese and German companies. They run on dedicated electrified lines on welded rails (no clickety-clack noises), and the cars have airline-style seating. Ticket prices are a bit steeper than for conventional trains; the Beijing-Tianjin run costs 58 yuan ($8.50 — yeah, Americans, it sounds cheap, but a sleeper berth on the overnight train from Changsha to Jishou is 118 yuan. Everything’s relative.)

The Tianjin bullet train leaves about every hour from Beijing South Train Station. From my hotel just north of the fourth ring road, it took me about 40 minutes to get to the south station by subway. The south railway station is as spacious and modern as any airport terminal, and nowhere near as busy and crowded as the west station, where I would go to take a train to Changsha, Hunan.

Beijing South Rail Station

Beijing South Train Station


Having never been on any train faster than the Metroliner (and that was a long time ago), I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of a ride. Our train pulled out of the station right on time and we quickly accelerated to 150 km/hr in less than 2 minutes. Six minutes later, we were trucking along at 330 km/hr. There wasn’t really a sensation of traveling that fast, other than the scenery whipping past and the overhead display reporting the speed. (We peaked at 334 km/hr.) The right-of-way is not as flat and straight as a pane of glass — the cars do sway a little bit from side to side — but overall the ride was as smooth as flying in a jetliner in calm air. And the noise level was much less than a jet’s. I recorded the sound with my cellphone for your listening pleasure.

09052010-bullettrain

Once in Tianjin station, I discovered that it, like Beijing South, is huge and modern. There is a wide plaza surrounding the station complex (there are shops nearby) and fronting the Hai He 海河 River, which runs through downtown. The place is big enough that it took me quite a bit of walking to find the ticket office to buy my return ticket. Contrary to my experience so far, the ticket office is right next to the station entrance.

With not much time available, I took a quick walk around Tianjin along the river, using a map I bought in the station to keep myself from getting lost. Like many other Chinese cities, Tianjin is in the middle of a building boom. There are so many self-erecting cranes around the Middle Kingdom that they should make it the national bird! Here, it seems architects want to preserve, or at least recapture, the European flair that Tianjin has had for the past 150 years. Instead of the slab-sided, white-tiled, utilitarian edifices seen in most Chinese towns, the buildings in Tianjin celebrate a diversity of architectural styles. There’s also an Italian style village on the other side the station, but I had to meet friends for dinner in Beijing at 6, so I skipped the village.

Self-erecting cranes

Cranes - China's national 'bird'


My return train left at 4:15, and I was back at my hotel by 5:30. This is what rapid transit is supposed to be — rapid.

So why was I in Beijing in the first place? To get a legal document notarized. Notaries public do not exactly grow on trees in China, so I had to visit the embassy in Beijing or one of the consulates. Thanks to a perplexing division of provinces among them, I naturally could not visit any of the consulates in three provinces contiguous to Hunan (Hubei, Guangzhou and Sichuan). Oh, no, I had to travel clear across the country to Beijing! Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Since I have no classes on Mondays, I reckoned if I flew roundtrip to Beijing, I could just barely fit the trip into a three-day weekend. Here was my itinerary:

Saturday: Take the 11:30 am bus from Jishou north bus station to Changsha, arrive at 4 pm. Walk about four blocks to the airport shuttle bus terminus at the Civil Aviation Hotel. Arrive at the airport at 5 pm. Board my plane at 6:30 pm. Arrive in Beijing at 9:30 (weather delays in Changsha … again). Take the airport shuttle train and subway to my hotel. In bed by 11.

Sunday: I woke up late, so I didn’t really leave for Tianjin until about 10 am. Came back by 6 pm.

Monday: Check out of hotel, take subway to embassy for a 10:30 am appointment. Leave embassy with my documents notarized by 11:30. Eat lunch — American-style burgers at Fatburgers. Take the subway and airport train back to the airport early. (I figured I had no time for sightseeing.) Board plane at 5:00, arrive Changsha train station around 8 pm. Buy sleeper berth ticket for the 11:44 pm overnight train. (Incidentally, this was the same train that I took to reach Jishou the first time in August 2008.) Read a book for two hours, chat with two young Chinese for another hour.

Tuesday: Arrive in Jishou at 7:30 am. Eat breakfast, shower, teach two classes beginning at 10:10 am. Lunch, then spend four hours judging the university English-speaking contest.

To my delight, it all went smoothly. Since I was not traveling on a holiday, there were no egregious airport delays, and there were plenty of train tickets available even two hours before departure from Changsha (25 hard-bed sleepers, and more than 200 seats).

And more importantly, I managed the entire trip almost entirely on my own. A friend helped me book the airline tickets with her company’s usual travel agency. Everything else I did myself, even with my fractured Chinese. Although the whirlwind trip was pretty tiring, and annoying in its premise, it also gave me a big shot of self-confidence as an independent traveler.

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