Discovering China on the Shanghai Train

There’s no better way to travel from Beijing to Shanghai than on the tracks.

China is home to the world’s longest high-speed rail network, with a length of over 42,000 kilometers (26,098 miles). The Chinese rail network gives travelers a rare opportunity to see parts of China and aspects of daily life that you don’t see within the major cities. (Shanghai even boasts the world’s first commercial high-speed maglev, the SMT, which levitates on a magnetic field above its special rails.) These trains are efficient indeed: The direct train from Beijing South Station to Shanghai Hongqiao Station is a speedy trip of less than four hours. 

En route, you have a chance to see parts of China that are completely off the tourist trail: young soldiers with their lunchboxes, local sellers of fruit and small electronic goods, people coming home from the market with a duck for dinner, and even local travelers with the entire family in matching outfits. The landscape changes markedly throughout the journey — from frosty Northern China to the humid, subtropical climate around Shanghai. There’s a lot of agriculture and greenery as well as large cities that are often completely unknown to foreigners outside of China.

Chinese intercity trains are comfortable, sleek, and affordable with room for a full-sized suitcase on the overhead shelf. They do retain one more traditional aspect of Chinese rail travel: old-fashioned buffet cars with lace seat covers and a delicate orchid stem in a vase on each table. The buffet car is always quite busy: This is where travelers socialize and indulge in cans of local beer on the journey. They serve reheated Chinese-style meals in plastic trays that are expensive by Chinese standards but taste good enough. You can take them back to your seat if the buffet car is too crowded or noisy. Bring your own snacks for the journey and cash (in RMB or yuan, the local currency) for a main course or drinks. 

The most delightful aspect of the train from Beijing to Shanghai is the chance to stop in the remarkable canal city of Suzhou on the way. To the west of Shanghai, Suzhou in Jiangsu province is a large and developed city that has preserved its ancient gardens and canal-side buildings, giving us a glimpse into life in China hundreds of years ago. The old part of the city, a network of interconnected waterways, is small and can be explored within a few hours. The area can be covered in 3 kilometers (1.9 miles), and pedicabs and taxis abound if you don’t fancy a long walk. 

The old stone buildings along the canals and the remains of the ancient city wall (built in the 6th century BCE) are popular photo spots with locals and tourists alike. You can see them at their best from the water, so take a boat ride from Guyunhe Travel Terminal down the Grand Canal, a trip which costs about 120 RMB (under $17 USD)

The boat trip is scenic both by day or night. You’ll pass several ancient city gates, the Ming Dynasty–era Shantang Street, stone bridges, magnificent gardens, and local restaurants along the waterfront. After your boat ride, stop at one of the restaurants; there are local specialties at Pin Von Teahouse.…

By Terry Elward


This is an excerpt from the latest issue of Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine. To continue reading, click above for a digital or print subscription.

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