China's luxury fast train
China's 300km/h train makes its public debut in late June amid questions about whether the US$34 billion locomotive will ever make a profit.
As debate about a high-speed rail link in Australia renews, Glenda Kwek travels to China to test out the country's brand new bullet train between Shanghai and Beijing.
The train hostess was about 1.65 metres tall, fair and slender, with long silky black hair pulled back into a bun.
"Do you speak English?" she asked, leaning over the row of chairs towards me to take my ticket as other passengers milled around their seats on-board the new Beijing-Shanghai express.
It was July 1 - the day after the 221 billion yuan ($A33.7 billion) high-speed train's official opening - and a buzz of excitement was in the air.
The train smelt like a new car. People held their 3G mobile phones high above their heads as they snapped photos of the light-grey interiors. Others played with the fold-out tables attached to the seats in front of them.
Another hostess walked over to help her colleague inspecting people's tickets. I realised she was a carbon copy of the first hostess - also 1.65 metres tall, fair and slender, with long silky black hair pulled back into a bun, and bilingual. They both smiled widely and revealed their pearly white teeth.
The similarities in their looks, figure and height - and smiles - were not coincidental.
Like the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese spared no expense in ensuring their brand-new rail link looked and felt immaculate.
So all 309 crew on the China Railway High-speed (CRH) train had to be female, below the age of 28, fair-skinned, slim, weigh less than 60 kilograms and be between 1.65 and 1.7 metres tall.
On top of that, they had to be able to answer passengers' questions in both English and Mandarin, be versed in the train's specifications and have knowledge about all the towns at the 24 stations along the 1318-kilometre-long railway network between Beijing and Shanghai.
The crew requirements might appear too high, almost unreasonable. But this is China, where the quest for perfection - whether in terms of physical beauty or engineering prowess - is one way of showcasing the achievements of the Middle Kingdom and the Communist Party of China to the world.
I settled into my seat in the second-class carriage with 71 other passengers and stopped musing about China's place in the world. It was then that I realised the train had become quiet and the empty fields outside my window were zipping by quickly.
Were we at the designated top speed of about 300km/h already? Surely not - only 10 minutes had passed since we left Beijing South Railway Station on our five hours and 24 minutes journey. But when I looked up as the black electronic screen near the front of the cabin, it was flashing in bright red - 314km/h.
I picked up my camera to snap a photo of the speed clock. Turning around, I realised almost every other snap-happy passenger - all locals except for me - was doing the same.
For a fast-train virgin like me, the lack of noise at such high speeds was startling. I had travelled on inter-city trains before - on one end of the spectrum, a noisy, jerky trip on Burma's old railways, and on the other end, a smooth and uneventful ride on Virgin Trains from Edinburgh to London.
But neither journey prepared me for this one.
The low noise volume - estimated by Chinese officials to be below 68 decibels, or at the level of a normal conversation - and the smoothness of the trip made me forget I was on one of the fastest trains in the world. It felt more like a ride in a Mercedes-Benz or BMW.
The comfort levels, even for the second-class carriages, also added to the train's appeal. (One of the passengers certainly seemed to agree with my assessment, with the sound of his rhythmic snores filling the cabin for a brief period of time.)
These second-class carriages had rows of double seats (555 yuan each) on one side and rows of three seats on the other. There was significant amounts of legroom between the reclining dark-blue corduroy seats, so the lanky strangers sitting beside me had enough room to shift their legs. The expansive windows gave even the passenger sitting at the end of a three-seat row an excellent view of the scenery outside.
Although there wasn't much of a view when we left Beijing - the city giving us its smoggy best - as the hours ticked away, the air cleared up and we could see the brown and green of small villages and large tracts of farmland.
Between the windows and on the sides of the seats' headrests, hooks were provided for people to hang up their jackets. A deep and wide frosted glass panel above the seats gave passengers ample room to stow away their luggage. For entertainment, six televisions attached to the roof above the aisle and spread across the cabin screened Jackie Chan's The Spy Next Door in Mandarin.
In the first-class carriages, which hold up to 56 passengers, the seats - with two-seat rows on each side of the cabin - were roomier, with reading lamps and power points provided.
The business-class carriages, carrying up to 24 passengers, were similar but with wider red-leather seats. They were also furnished with toilets that were supposed to match the standards of five-star hotels - presumably because businessmen were fussy about their loos.
But it was the two VIP seats right at the front of the train that took the cake. The seats, also wrapped in red leather, were not unlike those in the first-class cabins of an airline. Passengers could stretch out on the extendable leg rest. Each seat could be rotated 180 degrees and gave people a perfect view of the tracks and its surroundings. And when passengers' became tired of the view, they could play with the touchscreen panel attached to the armrest of each seat and choose from a selection of television programs.
The lunch offerings in the dining car were less impressive. There is no doubt one should not expect too much of train food, plane food or any other pre-packaged travel food - but I was hopeful until I saw passengers tucking into the meal on offer. The meal - chicken pieces in gravy, half a corn cob, an egg and way too much rice (53 yuan, about $8) - wasn't satisfactory, although a can of Tsingtao beer afterwards (eight yuan) kept me fairly happy. And there's also a kitchen on the train, with microwaves, electric ovens and mini-fridges for those who prefer to pack their own meals.
An empty can of Tsingtao later, I was ready to unwind and put the headphones for my MP3 player into my ears, falling into a light slumber within a few minutes.
We pulled into Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station right on time, in contrast to my two-hour flight on Air China from Shanghai to Beijing, which was delayed by a further two hours. The carriage emptied quickly and soon, I was standing on a wide grey platform partially shrouded in darkness, with shafts of sunlight streaming in at the edges of the station. The shadows cast an otherworldly light on the long, gleaming silver train resting silently on the tracks.
I took one last look at the train and its pointed-cone nose, as attendants rushed in and out of the carriages, giving them a quick spring-clean just minutes before the next group of passengers got on, and headed to the glass door exits, ready to take on the hustle and bustle of China's most populous city.
What about Australia?
Will a Sydney-Melbourne high-speed train connection work? There's no doubt I found myself drawn to the efficiency of the fast rail link. The trains were less crammed than airlines, passengers could easily work from their seats (with Wi-Fi set to be introduced in the carriages) and it was pleasant to do away with the waiting-around in airports for a domestic flight.
At the same time, the number of passengers expected to ride on the Beijing-Shanghai trains far surpasses that of any Sydney-Melbourne link. About 80 million people are expected to use the Chinese trains each year, a staggering four times the population of the whole of Australia.
Australia's much lower population levels make it harder to justify shelling out between between $61 billion and $108 billion (these amounts were reached by a new study commissioned by the federal government) for a network linking Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
But a rail link could change the way Australians travel around the country, reducing the dependence on domestic flights and open up smaller towns to high-speed connections to the big cities in the same way that China is hoping to open up its inner villages and towns.
Glenda Kwek travelled to Beijing as a guest of Langham Place hotel at Beijing Capital Airport.
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Hong Kong, codesharing with Air China or Dragonair for connections to Beijing Capital International Airport. The high-speed train departs from Beijing South Railway Station, which is (depending on the weather and the state of the traffic) at least an hour's taxi ride away.
The Langham Place hotel at Beijing Capital Airport is a three-minute drive from Terminal 3. Rooms from about 959 yuan ($A157) a night. See www.beijingairport.langhamplacehotels.com
The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway departs from Shanghai and Beijing between 7am and 10.30pm everyday, with about 90 services a day. If you travel the entire route, prices range from 555 ($A85) yuan for the second-class cabin, 935 yuan ($A144) for first-class and 1750 yuan ($A269) for the VIP seats. There are non-stop services as well as those that stop at the 24 stations along the journey. Train journeys average about five hours.
There are currently no English-language websites to book the tickets so ask your hotel staff to book them on your behalf. You will have to provide them with your passport as each ticket is printed with your passport number.