You may also like these photo galleries
Steve McKenna takes the rough with the super smooth on a rail epic through the Middle Kingdom.
WHEN I told her I was planning to zigzag across her country to savour Avatar-esque countryside, ancient imperial capitals and metropolises that never sleep, my Chinese friend Nan had a morsel of advice.
"Use eLong.net," she beamed. "It's amazing. Super-cheap flights. Cheaper than trains or buses, some of the time."
I didn't want to be rude but I had to tell her that she was wasting her breath. I'd already decided that I was going the whole hog by rail: from Guangzhou in the south, to Qingdao in the north, with stops at Guilin, Shanghai, Xian and Beijing along the way.
Despite the vagaries of long-haul train travel - I'd turned the air blue on occasions during previous trips across Europe, India and Vietnam - I've never been a big fan of flying internally, especially when you have time not to and particularly in a country such as China.
As well as its astonishingly rich history and culture, the Middle Kingdom has made no secret of the fact it wants to develop one of the world's greatest high-speed rail networks. The government is investing accordingly, with billions of yuan being splashed on new infrastructure, the target being a drastic cut in journey times and a further boost to the country's already rocketing economy. I felt it would be a shame to visit China and not see how it's all coming along.
Yet, as I stood in what was, frankly, a ridiculous queue in Guangzhou's steamy, clapped-out old railway station, I was reconsidering my grand idea. The prospect of having to endure these crowds every time I wanted to buy a ticket made me sweat even more.
"Don't all these people have to work? Where are they going on a Monday afternoon?" asked Mai, a chirpy, Mandarin-speaking Spanish tourist I'd met, who had offered to come to the station with me. An hour later, we were both standing at the counter, wiping our sodden brows. As I leafed hopelessly through my Mandarin phrase book, Mai spoke to the ticket women and the information flickered on the computer screen in front of us.
My ticket to Guilin - some 1030 kilometres west of Guangzhou - was 215 yuan ($38) for a hard sleeper, which is ostensibly a spot in a moving six-bed dorm room with no doors. The cheapest flight I could find on eLong, incidentally, was 450 yuan.
The following evening, after passing through airport-like security (bags are scanned, X-ray-style, at every station in China), I found myself in a terminal that was busy but nowhere near as chaotic as India - and much cleaner. Despite a few token English signs, nearly everything was written in Chinese characters. Fortunately, the times and train codes on the giant neon display of arrivals and departures were easy to fathom. Mine read: "T38: 19:47". Train services starting with the letters Z, C and D tend to be the best; with T and K more of a lottery, I found.
Compared with stations in Europe, Guangzhou's had sparse dining and shopping options - just a tiny KFC kiosk and a few mini-marts. The waiting rooms were packed with families, hunched together, scoffing pot noodles, while the smoking areas were full of men puffing away on cigarettes while playing cards.
As an indecipherable voice crackled over the PA system, railway staff marched along, barking into loudspeakers. Everyone gathered their things. I followed them and we were soon on a train that looked distinctly 1980s.
My cramped berth was filled by an elderly Chinese woman and four men - including a young chap in military uniform who pirouetted around the small compartment with the elasticity of a gymnast. I'd paid a little extra to have the bottom bunk and there was just enough room for my backpack and me.
As the train left the station, I began to explore. There was a mix of (fairly grotty) squat and Western-style toilets, rooms with washbasins and mirrors and several areas with warm-water taps - for drenching those pot noodles. I passed through the soft-sleeper carriages, which were carpeted and had four-bed, airconditioned rooms with lace curtains (these were almost twice the price of hard sleepers).
I sought out the dining carriage, where the menu comprised a dozen traditional Chinese options (25-40 yuan). I chose sour spicy beef with rice and vegetables. And green tea. "You no want beer?" asked the cheerful young waitress, who seemed shocked when I said no. She then struck up a little conversation, asking where I was from and whether I liked China.
"Sorry for my bad English. I'm trying to learn more," she said, immediately, and unintentionally, shaming me for my near non-existent Mandarin.
By now, the train was doing 150km/h, which is snail-slow compared with the Chinese trains of the future and even the present.
China already boasts the world's fastest train: the Maglev that bullets from Shanghai's Pudong airport to the city centre - covering 30 kilometres in just eight minutes at a top speed of 430km/h. Within a decade, it's hoped that this will be more or less the norm.
The lights in my carriage went out at 10pm (standard procedure) and eventually I dozed off. Next morning I was nudged by the guard as we approached Guilin and the joy of rail travel once again revealed itself.
Glancing out of window, half-asleep, I was greeted by a landscape of beguilingly beautiful limestone karst peaks that reminded me a little of Pandora in the movie Avatar. Much better than the ceiling of a hotel room.
Traditionally, the Chinese are sticklers for punctuality; this is reflected in its rail service. Not one of my trains was late during my month-long, 6000-kilometre-plus adventure. Though sometimes gruelling, venturing around China by rail was an ultimately rewarding experience - and a fascinating insight into a country that's destined to stamp its mark on the 21st century.
You really get a feel for the sheer enormity of the place, as well as the fact that, despite new millionaires being created every day, most Chinese are not wealthy. More than 300 million farmers eke out an existence in the countryside, while millions more migrate to and try to find work in the sprawling cities.
While foreign tourism is increasing, you'll still be very much in the minority if you take the train. Because of this, curious stares will likely follow you everywhere but most Chinese I encountered were unfailingly polite. Although most Chinese travellers won't speak English, some will give it a go. Of course, it always helps to carry a Mandarin phrase book.
For the last leg of my adventure - Beijing to Qingdao - I headed to the capital's sparkling new southern railway station.
Compared with where I'd started my trip, it felt like I'd been propelled 20 years into the future.
Beijing South is a spotless, shiny, airy arena, sprayed by beams of sunlight and dotted with spindly palm trees. Self-service ticket machines and desks with bilingual staff sit alongside rows of coffee shops and restaurants.
Unlike in Guangzhou, the giant electronic departures and arrivals screen displays information in Chinese and English. The messages that drift from the PA system are in both languages, too.
Every 10 minutes or so, rapid-fire inter-city trains depart here for Tianjin, the 120-kilometre trip taking just 30 minutes.
I boarded the D55 to Qingdao, home of the famous Tsingtao beer and a launch pad to South Korea by ferry. Like the best trains in Europe, it was sleek, comfy and fast, (covering 888 kilometres in just over five hours and costing 275 yuan). Classical Chinese music was played over the carriage speakers and the toilets were super clean.
Anyone who visits China and merely plies the routes from Shanghai Airport or Beijing South may think the Chinese have already cracked the art of 21st-century rail travel. They haven't. The network is a work in progress, however, things are heading in the right direction.
- To ensure you get your first-choice ticket, book at least 48 hours in advance; make it about a week if you're travelling in a family or large group or if any Chinese holidays are coming up.
- If you opt for a hard sleeper, consider the middle berth. The top berth can be annoying for clambering up and down, while passengers on the lower berths often have to share their space with passengers from the upper berths during the day.
- Take earplugs and an eye mask. The carriages can get noisy very early and some don't have curtains.
- Older trains may not have bedside lamps, so if you'd like to read after 10pm — when lights go out — bring your own torch or headlamp.
- Take an English-Mandarin phrase book.
- If you don't want to queue for tickets, almost every hostel, hotel or tour agency will have them, usually for about $5.50 commission.
Getting there Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies to Guangzhou via Hong Kong and direct to Shanghai.
THREE THINGS ON THE WAY
1 Spend a few days restaurant-hopping in Guangzhou, the home of delicious Cantonese cuisine. Try dim sum in the morning, then, when hunger returns, lap up delectable dishes such as sweet honey-coated pork and roast suckling pig. visitgz.com/en.
2 Take a bamboo raft ride down the Li River, which courses through Guilin's beautiful Avatar/Pandora-esque countryside. Also hire a bicycle and ride past timeless scenery, where farmers and oxen work the rice paddies. visitguilin.org.
3 Wander the atmospheric streets of Xian's Muslim Quarter, where you can haggle with market traders and snaffle cheap eats, including skewered mutton and spinach dumplings. Don't forget to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. en1.xian-tourism.com.