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The east is cold

Started: 2016-02-25 20:35:53

Submitted: 2016-02-25 23:10:15

Visibility: World-readable

18 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator catches a high-speed train from Shanghai to a frigid Beijing

After four days in Shanghai, I left China's financial capital behind and headed to China's northern capital.

I checked out of my hotel in Shanghai and caught a taxi to Hongqiao Station, the new railway station on the western fringe of the city, servicing the new high-speed railway lines. I bought my tickets online through a travel agent specializing in buying tickets for westerners, so I had to visit the ticket counter to pick up my tickets. My instructions told me to look for a ticket counter dedicated to picking up online ticket purchases, and then to look for one window that was tagged as speaking English, but I didn't see any such window, so I picked a random line in the one open ticket counter and had no trouble picking up my tickets for the rest of my time in China.

The station hall was a large open space with a large waiting area in the middle, surrounded by two rows of boarding gates with escalators leading down to the platforms below. The boarding gates were interspersed with shops, and the upper level circling the waiting area held fast-food restaurants, most of which weren't yet open in the morning.

Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station
Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station

I joined the queue in front of the boarding gate and headed down to the platform, where I found a sleek white train with one blue stripe running down the length of the train. I found my seat, in a first-class carriage (I'd paid extra to get a larger seat and a guaranteed power outlet -- the price was roughly comparable with a plane ticket, but the consensus on the Internet was that the high-speed trains were more comfortable than flying and less likely to be delayed), and the train rolled out of the station right on time at 11:00.

High-speed train on Beijing-Shanghai line
High-speed train on Beijing-Shanghai line

Most of the route was on concrete viaducts, raised about ten meters off the ground, cutting through farmland or the outskirts of cities, on whatever course made the most sense for the rail line, without apparent regard to anything that had gone there before. In some places the tracks ran parallel to existing rail lines, and in some places the tracks cut across entirely-new right-of-way. Racing along the tracks at 300 kilometers per hour on the viaducts gave the distinct impression of flying, ten meters above the countryside.

Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway line
Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway line

I was impressed by the scope and scale of the infrastructure investment: in a decade China went from having an adequate rail system to having a world-class high-speed-rail system, showing what a motivated country can do, especially when it's willing to spend billions of dollars in infrastructure -- and it doesn't hurt when the country doing the investment is an authoritative central government with a strong command-and-control system, and without pesky environmental reviews or local land ownership.

Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway line
Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway line

My train made a couple of stops on the five-hour trip to Beijing: first in Nanjing, then several other cities I didn't always recognize. After a couple of hours on the train, reading my guidebooks and taking notes on what I wanted to see (and trying and failing to get my computer to recover from running out of battery overnight when it lost AC power when I turned off the master switch in my hotel room to go to bed) I headed to the buffet car (most of the way on the other end of the train, far from the first-class carriage I was riding in), where I found a couple of packaged-and-reheated meals for sale -- all labeled entirely in Chinese. I could only vaguely make out the contents, so I pulled up Google Translate on my phone, figured out what the character for "meat" was in Chinese (肉, "ròu"), and picked a meal that didn't have that character printed on the ingredients list. I am not quite sure that worked -- the dumplings I ate were suspicious -- but I figured eating something I wasn't quite sure about was much better than not eating at all.

Jaeger with a high-speed train at Beijing Nan Railway Station
Jaeger with a high-speed train at Beijing Nan Railway Station

My train pulled into Beijing Nan Railway Station right on time, a few minutes before 16:00. The air on the outdoor platform was already colder than Shanghai, even in the late-afternoon sunlight. I joined the crush of people taking the escalators down from the platform into the body of the station, then wandered around the chilly station concourse in search of an ATM that would take my card. I eventually gave up, even though I was running critically low on Renminbi in my wallet, and decided to skip a taxi to my hotel in favor of the metro.

Beijing's metro system is based on Beijing's road system of nested ring roads intersected by large boulevards, forming a regular grid system on top of the historic city -- mostly by demolishing parts of the old city that didn't fit with the new ideals of New China, including the massive Ming dynasty walls that gave their foundations to form the first ring road. This grid system meant that I rarely found a single metro line that would take me where I wanted to go -- unless my destination was in a straight cardinal compass direction from my starting point, I'd have to make at least one transfer. (I have no real idea how well this system works for the local residents, whom it's presumably actually built for.)

I emerged above ground level at Chongwenmen metro station, the metro station closest to the hotel I'd booked, Pentahotel Beijing. The sun had set in the time I was underground in the metro, and the air temperature was dropping rapidly. I pulled my winter cap out of my bag, but I had not packed my gloves to be accessible, so I had to swap hands pulling my suitcase to keep either hand from getting too cold, exposed to the cold. I failed to recognize the right turn down a side street to get to my hotel's lobby, and had to walk the long way around the block (in the cold) to get there.

I checked into my hotel, and headed up to my twelfth-floor room to warm up, unpack in the city where I'd be spending the next five nights, and prepare to head out into the city for supper. Before I did that, though, I turned my attention to my computer, Freya, which was still refusing to boot, or show any signs of life whatsoever. I pulled out the screwdriver I'd brought just in case I needed it (I'd actually packed it in case I needed to take apart my suitcase) and took off the bottom of the case of my Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon (2013 vintage). I marveled at the circuit board design that packed in the important parts of the computer in a tiny "Ultrabook" chassis, about half of which was devoted to the battery. I unplugged and replugged the main battery, and the CMOS battery, then put the pieces back together and hit the main power button. The computer booted, though the BIOS was upset that it had lost its memory, and I had to hold its hand for a moment before it would actually boot Linux. I was quite relieved that my computer worked again -- on the train I was wondering if I could find a suitable replacement computer on the ground in Beijing (which seemed likely -- I even saw Lenovo stores on the ground), and whether I'd want to trust a computer purchased on the ground in China.

With my technological issues resolved, I put on extra layers and headed out into the cold to see what I could see before supper. I took the metro one stop west to Qingmen, at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. It was well after dark, and the streets around the square were deserted except for a sizable contingent of police standing around keeping the peace, and a couple of vendors selling trinkets in the underground walkways below the broad streets. It looked like the square itself was closed, thwarting my attempt to see whether the east was still red.

I returned to the metro and headed to Beixingqiao station, where I walked down one of the main roads, past people who were better adapted to the frigid cold than I was, in search of an ATM. I eventually found an ATM, which took my card and replenished my supply of Renminbi. I ended up close to the restaurant I wanted to eat at, an all-vegetarian Chinese restaurant on a narrow hutong (alley) winding between the main roads. I enjoyed my meal, and returned to my hotel for the night.

Well aren't *we* the superior ones? Reveling in our great awareness as we
march into the ocean, fully cognizant of the destination to which *our*
herd of lemmings plunges? ;)
- Bitscape, 23 May 2000