Archive from August, 2013

China high-speed train between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South

China's high speed trains

In December last year China linked up the last piece of the high speed railway line between the two Chinese powerhouse cities, Beijing and Hong Kong. This high speed train reaches speeds in the excess of 300 kilometres per hour, covering the distance between Shenzhen and Beijing (2400 kilometres) in a little over 10 hours.

This is a train ride I want to try, as with all geeks, the idea of sitting comfortably surrounded by gadgets while the countryside whizzes past unconcerned at high speed is somehow relaxing, and invigorating. One of the nicest bits of the Eurostar from London to Paris is whistling through the French countryside, just an endless sequence of green, punctuated by little towns and villages just going about their lives.

Shenzhen to Guangzhou

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are linked by China’s high speed railway line, and so it takes just 36 minutes to cover the 120 kilometres, that’s including slowing down for intermediate stops. The train peaks at over 300 kilometres per hour twice in that time, topping out so far at 310 kilometres per hour.

[China high-speed train at 310kph]

And the ride is very smooth. It also feels counter-intuitive as I feel the train is slowing down, yet the speed indicator keeps notching ever upward. There’s no clackety-clack so typical of British railways, no loud engine noise that’s distinctively Eurostar, just a continuous high speed forwards motion accompanied by a gentle roar of the engines.

Watching the countryside fly by I get glimpses of China that’s not so obvious from the heavily modernised and urbanised Shenzhen. Rice fields, towns congregated around river banks, three-lane highways carrying lots of industrial traffic, some cultural landmarks slowly losing the battle against modernisation.

[passing by rice fields on the high speed train to Guangzhou]

Some sections of the rail network are spectacular, including miles and miles of elevated track, like a bridge over vast spaces of China, curving gently towards a mountain range in the far distance. Yet at such a speed that far distance quickly disappears behind us in our ever onward journey towards Guangzhou.

The high speed train process

The high speed trains feel very much like an airport, even to the point it is safer to book your train tickets in advance if you want a specific time. When arriving at the station without a ticket, the process for getting to your destination is as follows:

  1. You need to bring your passport, or an appropriate travel visa.
  2. Go to the ticket office (or ticket machine if you can read Chinese) and buy a ticket. You ask for the time you want to travel and the class, and the staff search for available bookings. Services fill up quickly, so you may not get the time or the class of service you want, but the staff are very helpful in finding the next available service you can take, so some discussion is needed, if only pointing out acceptable train times. Politeness and patience does help.

    Sometimes the service you want to catch is fully booked. Do expect that to be the case, and have alternative services lined up as backups. You can sometimes buy a ticket for a much later service, and catch an earlier service with it, but that’s entirely at the discretion of the gate keeper. So be polite and respectful, and expect to be turned away.

    You will need a passport or valid travelling visa to use the train. The ticket shows the time of the service, the train service number (e.g. G6421), the platform it is leaving from, the coach number, and the seat number you have been allocated. If your booked train is later, you can try to catch an earlier service, but do so politely, but also don’t expect to have a seat, let alone the seat you booked. You may get lucky, but don’t depend on it. If you catch the train you have a ticket for, your seat is guaranteed.

    [Single first class ticket between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South]

  3. With a ticket in hand, you can enter the departures area. This involves showing your ticket, and then passing your luggage through an X-ray machine, while you get a quick pat-down and body scan. This is a lot more relaxed than airports, and the staff are efficient and mostly adept and guiding bumbling clueless foreigners like me through. Just have some common sense, leave the automatic rifles and hand grenades at home.
  4. You are now in the departures hall. Your ticket indicates which platform you are on. For example B17. This means platform 17, entrance B. So far the entrance is either A or B, and the one you take depends on the coach number, so A tends to be the back half and B tends to be the front half of the train service you are catching. Watch the departure boards for your service, not all departure boards cycle through both English and Chinese, so don’t depend on it. Look for the train service id and the departure time, that should be easy to spot and follow. The status of a service is either on-time, boarding, or boarding closing. These are also colour coded as White, Green and Red respectively (I have yet to see a late service, since Shenzhen is a terminal station, so no passing through trains to get delayed). If your train service is Green or Red, go to your platform departure gate immediately.
  5. If your departure time is still a considerable time away, there are shops between each platform gate, mostly food and drink, with a sprinkling of trinkets and gifts. Also, there are restaurants and the usual collection of fast-food places in the departures area. Though keep an eye on the time, the train will not wait for you. If you miss your train, you need to change your ticket back at the ticket office.
  6. People start queueing up about half an hour before the departure time. There seems to be two sets of queues. But if you have a blue ticket, either queue will work, so I take the natural introvert option and go for the ticket machine gate. The gate allows people through 10 minutes before the departure time, and they close the gate 3 minutes before departure time, so don’t linger around too long. Get your bowel movements and lubrication options sorted before the gate opens.
  7. Once through the departure gates, find the right coach, they are numbered from the front to the back. Each coach has an LED display that shows the coach number. Once you’ve found the coach number that matches the one on your ticket, get on and find your allocated seat.
  8. The service itself is fairly relaxed, so take your seat and enjoy the ride. The scenery is spectacular. If you have a window seat, and it’s a daytime service, awesome.
  9. Listen and watch for the station announcements. One trick I found useful was to write the name of your destination station down in Chinese, that makes things a little less scary when getting off the train. They do announce stops well in advance, punctuated by a two-toned horn. So when the train is gliding slowly into the station it’s time to make your way to the door.
  10. When the train stops it takes a few seconds for the door release to trigger and the doors open automatically. Get off as quickly as possible, and get a reasonable distance away from the doors before stopping to have a gawk, or a fumble, or fine-tuning your baggage straps, or have a natter. Activity in stations is managed in bursts, so lots of people will be getting off and on through the door you are using.
  11. On the platform look for the exit signs that lead to the arrivals area of your destination station. At this gate you’ll go through another ticket barrier or manual check and arrive in the arrivals hall.
  12. In the arrivals hall, which is typically enormous, find your way to the exit appropriate to your next stage of travel. So the Metro, taxi-rank, long-distance buses, parking levels are the typical options.

The train stations

The train stations are spectacular. It’s like someone actually thought about the requirements of a modern railway system. Both Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South are massive structures. I though Paddington was huge, but that’s nothing. The stations take up an enormous amount of space, and much like the Shenzhen Civic Centre, there’s a distinctive feel that this was purposely designed to managed a staggering amount of people every day.

Shenzhen North (ShenZhenBei)

[Shenzhen North Train station main entrance]

The Shenzhen North Railway Station is a massive structure (I guess after two weeks travelling of China I still consider these places huge, it’s a bias of living in London for so long). It consists of 18 platforms. It is at the junction of the Longhua (Line 4) and Huanzhoug (Line 5) Metro lines, and easy to get to from the Futian CBD, and Futian Checkpoints, so great for Hong Kong weekenders travelling to Guangzhou.

Getting off the Longhua line and descending the escalators we arrive at the main entrance to the Shenzhen North station. Before entering the departures area you need to buy a ticket. On each side there are ticket machines, unfortunately they are all in Chinese, unlike the Metro with it’s dual language interface. Currently only one of the two ticket offices are open, so far, in my two solo attempts to negotiate through for a ticket resulted in success, but as a chronically shy introvert, I did struggle. The staff at the ticket office were very helpful and patient with me, and I got the ticket I needed.

Entering the departures hall you go through a baggage check and quick body scan and pat down. These are routine and nothing to worry about. The departures hall is predictably massive, with four rows of chairs stretching right across from gate A to gate B of each platform. Small food and drink shops are between each platform gate, and the restaurants and fast food establishments are on the level above.

The departure board on the far (West) side of the departure hall switches between Chinese and English, but the statuses of the trains are so unexceptional that it doesn’t take long to notice the change from a service being on time to something else, no matter what language it’s displayed in.

There are two arrivals corridors either side of the departures hall. The entrance to the underground Metro (Longhua or Huanzhoug lines are on one side, so look for the Metro logo on the various signs.

Guangzhou South (GuangZhouNan)

[Guangzhou South Arrivals Hall]

Guangzhou South is a thoughtfully designed structure. The arrivals area has the distinctive features of massive concrete arches running in parallel to the length of the structure. These are the actual tracks, all of Guangzhou South’s 24 platforms make up the structure and roof of the arrivals area.

The arrivals area is devoid of shops. The toilets are Chinese style (so be prepared and take your own tissue paper). The main signs of life are on the East side of the station, that’s where the ticket office is, along with a decent coffee-shop (called SPB) and a fast food establishment or two.

The departures hall is two floors up. Again, to enter this you have to go through a baggage scan and body scan. Although, they do regularly let people through to the upstairs restaurant level and shops, so the Guangzhou South station isn’t as strict with who can get into departures as Shenzhen North. But, don’t expect to gain access to the departures level without a ticket, it’s at the discretion of the people manning the security check.

The ticket office is on the ground floor. It’s a little bigger than Shenzhen North’s, and despite my trepidation for maybe not understanding English, I managed to buy a ticket there after a little preparation.

The design for high volume visits

The onboarding system runs meticulously, the information boards always seems to say either the train is on time, or boarding is now open, or boarding gates are about to close. The whole atmosphere is a well-designed, well-implemented and professional service. It is a pleasant experience, quite like flying was before 9/11. The staff are courteous and accommodating.

Train classes and prices

The ticket prices are cheap between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South.

A second class ticket is 75RMB, a first class ticket is 99.50RMB, and a business class ticket is 199.50RMB. The difference in class is, much like an aircraft, more legroom, wider and less seats per row (four versus five for first and second class respectively). First class has better condiments and choice, plus an iPad for every seat with the onboard entertainment, and a folding table instead of a back-of-the-seat variant.

Second class still is far better than an aircraft’s cattle class, the legroom is better than business class, the seats lean back, and on a global standard railway gauge, it’s only five seats per row.

[China high speed rail second class, decked in blue]

In all cases the journey is comfortable, pleasant, spacious, and air-conditioned, even when it’s 36 degrees outside in Guangzhou.

The quality of the service is top notch. There is no over-crowding of these services, but also, services are regularly booked out. It is a great and economical way of travelling in China. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to travel the entire 2400 kilometres from Shenzhen to Beijing, and just gawk at the extraordinary engineering effort that went into building this modern marvel.

Aug 30, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    4 Comments

OCT-East theme park, Shenzhen

[OCT-East as seen from the top of the cable-car ride]

OCT East is another of Shenzhen’s sprawling theme parks, among the mountains east of Shenzhen in the Yantian District. It is a diverse park, so there is something for everyone, from sedate and amusing 3D rides to insane looking rides that make bungee jumping look like a Sunday afternoon hair wash in the sink, and there’s an impressive roller-coaster, and a cable car to the summit of the mountain OCT-East is built around. And a sky tower ride just in case the mountain summit wasn’t high enough for you.

OCT East is about a 40 minute taxi ride from the central Futian business district, this costs about 82RMB each way. The other alternative is a bus, as the Shenzhen Metro system doesn’t reach as far east as Yantian.

The park is huge, so trying to walk through it in the summer is quite a feat. Luckily there’s a steady stream of golf-carts riding around you can hop on and off. For a 40RMB ticket, you can use the cart 4 times during that day. It’s useful when it’s just after noon and the overall temperatures are hovering around 40 degrees Celsius.

Water park and Swiss village

Near the entrance of OCT East is the water park, suitable to keep kids entertained throughout the day. Considering the current average temperature in Shenzhen is in the low thirties, and the post-typhoon humidity adds an extra 10 degrees on top of that, it makes sense to hide in there for a large chunk of the day.

After a few sets of stairs we arrive at the OCT Village, which is decked out in a quaint fairy tale style, so green creepers growing on the walls of rustic buildings. There’s a sense of calm on the outside, and yet on the inside we find a bustling Starbucks and Pizza Hut. There’s a lake still under construction next to it, as with much of Shenzhen, it’s a city that’s still growing and accumulating new buildings and features.

[OCT-East: Possibly the most rustic Starbucks branch anywhere.]

The rusticness of this village means it’s a regular place for couples to have their wedding photos done. These photos are stylised and carefully choreographed pictures, either taken before or after the actual wedding day. I was hot in the loosest and thinnest clothes in my armoury, I can’t imagine how it felt to be in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the same heat.

The electric bobsleigh

The first ride we tried was a two-person bobsleigh-like series of twists and curves taking us high enough to get some splendid views of the coast and the buildings around the famous Dameisha beaches of Shenzhen. Thankfully, the sleigh is electric powered, with the driver controlling the throttle, no gravity or assisted launch is needed.

Like a bobsleigh, the occupants are sitting in very close proximity, the driver’s legs are wrapped around the front passenger, so it’s a cosy ride.

The bird sanctuary

The next attraction over is an enclosed space which turns out to be a bird sanctuary. There are a few talking birds there, but they weren’t playing along today. Regularly there’s a bird show going on, this is an entertaining demonstration of trained birds. With the typical fare of repeating words, riding bicycles, lifting barbells, and walking on a rolling drum, there are some clever demonstrations going on like birds working out the answers to addition or subtraction by picking up the square with the right answer on it.

Even more clever is the money demonstration, where a bird can collect the requested bank note correctly, as well as the more amusing exchanging a small denomination bank note to a bigger one.

3D journey to the centre of the earth

A 3 minute ride on a mining cart though a series of 3D iMax style movies is cleverly done, through a combination of spinning the mining cart around the 3D scenes almost blend in seamlessly into the physical rocks. As we dig ever downwards with a nearby digger, we break through into a place where dinosaurs still roam freely and aggressively pursue us out. Then we discover a massive Mayan temple, but as ever-curious our team is, we trigger off a detonation and we don’t have much time to escape before everything around us collapses. Luckily we make it out of the tunnel just before it collapses shut. Hopefully the people on the next mining cart have better luck than us.

Cable car to the summit

There’s a steady stream of cable cars to the top of the nearby mountain. I’d like to say the views from the cable car run are impressive – and they are – but as you go ever higher, the views just get better. The cable car ride is smooth and fairly quick, with the typical lurch to a stop at either end.

[View of OCT-East and Yantian from the summit

The summit is breathtaking. There’s a bridge walkway to a funicular. This is a platform that’s almost hanging mid-air – like a floating shelf. So you feel like you are suspended in mid-air looking down at the tall buildings that make up Shenzhen’s eastern coastline. In the distance you can see the mountainous coastline that makes up Hong Kong, the massive Shenzhen shipyard, and a number of gigantic ships navigating their way through. From the top of a mountain all the way down to the coastline and beach, straight past the waters of the Perl River Delta, right through to the coastline mountains on the North side of Hong Kong, on a clear or even slightly misty day this view is incredible.

[OCT-East viewing platform suspended in mid-air]

If you need more excitement than that, there’s a terrifying-looking ride that consists of sitting at the end of a long pole and being rotated around at not-very-gentle speeds. About half the time you are upside down, so if you like mountain top views, while in a gyroscope, being tossed around like a salad, and just being stuck at the very top for a few minutes while they change occupants on the other side of the long pole, well, if that appeals to you, then this is most certainly the ride for you.

A little more sedate is the Sky tower, which is a circular platform that twists as it elevates. It’s like Seattle’s Space Needle, except the platform rises and falls as part of the ride.

[OCT-East: View from the top of the Sky-Tower to the Cable-car summit level]

The funicular platform itself is suspended in mid-air. There’s a little warning sign that no more than 50 people at a time should be on it. Thankfully, I don’t think we were anywhere near it. Slightly disconcerting is the semi-opaque glass floor, I managed to walk along that path, gingerly. I don’t like walking on glass, so a couple of deep breaths, and it was well worth it. The views from it are stunning.

And if you like insane rides with spectacular views while upside down, try this:

[OCT-East insane upside down view of the world, from the top of a mountain]

OCT East is a fascinating place, something for everyone. From rides and spectacular views, to bird sanctuaries and journeys to the centre of the earth. It is definitely a family theme park, and definitely worth spending a day or two experiencing.