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Field Notes // Riding the rails in China’s industrial heartland.

The railway is to China as the freeway is to the United States or the autobahn to Germany. China’s vast national rail network is modern wonder of the world, operating thousands of trains daily across from the coastal plains to the highlands of the Himalayas and just about everywhere in between. On these rails run everything from a lone 1950’s steam engine to modern diesel workhorses and an ever-growing fleet of ultra modern bullet trains (gaotie). For the most part, these trains run on time. This is in itself probably a minor miracle.

Riding the rails in China can be potentially overwhelming for the first time traveller. The railroads do the heavy lifting in a country of 1.2 billion people, which sees the largest annual migration of humans in the world, numbering in the hundreds of millions around Chinese New Year. Some older train stations can be chaotic, hot (or cold), poorly ventilated, dirty after a full day of use, and packed full of people from every walk of life. Ticket lines can be long and tickets for certain routes can sell out very quickly. In the days before the convenience of online bookings (see here for my favorite site), there was nothing more discouraging than reaching the ticket window and rattling off your request only to be met with a curt ‘meiyou’- all sold out, unavailable, gone.

Today it is markedly easier to obtain tickets for a small commission (pay it; it saves time and effort) and there is a new generation of modern train stations with wide open halls, good climate control, and plenty of restaurants and shops. Still, be ready for a chaotic line up as the train begins to board and you may need to ask for directions and assistance in finding your seat (or bed) if you do not read Chinese.

The trains themselves are typically well maintained. On most routes, one has a choice of hard seat (yingzuo), hard sleeper (yingwo) with six bunks per berth, and soft sleeper class (ruanwo) with four bunks per berth. Both sleeper options are comfortable enough (bring your ear plugs to get a good night’s rest), while hard seat is only for those on a strict budget and willing to put up with smoking, losing one’s seat, and/or not sleeping all night. Go for hard or soft sleeper. Hard seat is only for the brave. Today’s modern bullet trains – usually not on overnight runs - offer second (er deng zuo), first (yi deng zuo), and business class seats (shangwu), roughly equivalent to economy, premium economy, and business class on an airline.

See here for an excellent introduction to the Chinese railway system, buying tickets, and finding your seat.

One of the best places to gather experience riding the China rails than the three provinces Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang that make up the northeast of the country, called dongbei in Chinese. The region is home to the major cities of Shenyang, Harbin, Jilin, Changchun, and Dalian, interlinked with each other by numerous and frequent trains. There are also trains to neighboring North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, and the rest of China.

The region’s vast network of rail lines has its origins in the competition between Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan in the region. Both powers sought to use railways to solidify their influence and move men and material. Following victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan gained the upper hand and sought to industrialize the region, first through warlord proxies, then through the puppet sate of Manchukuo (1932-1945). The railroads served to transport resources back to the Japanese home islands and soldiers to the colonies. Neighboring northern Korea also saw significant industrialization to exploit its mineral wealth, vast forests, and hydroelectric potential.

Post-1945, the People’s Republic of China continued to develop industry in the region and for decades it remained more economically developed than most of the country. The reorientation of the Chinese economy since the 1980’s has seen economic growth in the region slow relative to the country’s eastern seaboard. Today the northeast is sometimes referred to as China’s ‘rust belt’, yet for the traveller the rails are more convenient than ever. The numerous trains crisscrossing the region mean one can hop on and off, buying tickets at the last minute (the exception would be during Chinese Spring Festival).

I recently did a little rail loop through Liaoning and Jilin provinces, taking both the northern and southern rail lines between Shenyang and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. The southern line travels via Tonghua and Baishan past Mt. Paekdu along the North Korean border and ends in the small city of Longjing, just outside of Yanji. This is the slower and less travelled of the two routes, but it makes for a relaxing trip through the mountains and forests. The northern line runs from Yanji (originating in Tumen) through Jilin City and Changchun. Numerous trains run on this line, which passes mostly agriculture, towns, and major cities.

Winter is a beautiful time to travel in northeast China. The ground is usually covered in snow and one can enjoy the landscape passing by from the warmth of a train.

Things to bring along:

· A good book

· Music player (stay off your cell phone for the best experience!) and a battery pack

· Ear plugs

· Fruit or snacks to share

· Toiletries (water bottle, cup, tooth brush, toilet paper, hand sanitizer)

For most of our North Korea group tours it is possible to take the train either one-way or round-trip between Beijing and Pyongyang. We usually recommend flying one way to Pyongyang and taking the train back as the most well-rounded and comprehensive travel experience. See our 'After my North Korea trip, should I take Air Koryo or the train back to China?' blog post for more on this in detail. Please note that most nationalities will need to arrange at least a single-entry Chinese visa to ride the train on their journey to North Korea.

Also, check out Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (1989) for an intelligent and humorous account a year spent on China’s railways in the 1980’s.

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