Monday, March 26, 2007 China China / Hong Kong Hong Kong

Night train to Shanghai

Night train to Shanghai [Enlarge]

Our marathon 26 hour train ride turned out to be our most relaxing long distance journey so far. Here's the story.

Hung Hom station, Hong Kong's mainline railway station, was easy to find. We took the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui, walked through a subterranean tunnel to the KCR (Kowloon Canton Railway) station, caught a subway train (almost indistinguishable from the MTR but run by the train company) and got off at Hung Hom. The station concourse is home to a variety of shops and eateries. We still had some credit on our Octopus cards so we had a quick lunch at McDonalds (who accept Octopus), and then found an Octopus-friendly convenience store to buy something to eat on the train.

Hong Kong departure formalities were handled in an airport-style way and we spent the last fifteen minutes in a 'boarding gate' area. We weren't quite sure how the Chinese immigration would be organised—would we stop at the border and get off, or would the officials board the train and go carriage-to-carriage as they had in Europe? The 15:00 train departed at exactly 15:00 and we found ourselves on our own in a four-person compartment. Since the train went all the way to Shanghai with no stops we had no worries that anyone else would be joining us en route and so we could stretch out and relax. We got talking to some Americans in the next carriage who had come to China for a car rally, but it had been cancelled, so they had decided to jump on a train and see where it took them. We came away with an open invitation to stay with one of them at his homes in Washington and Utah states. This is our second invitation to stay with Americans (the other is a family in upstate New York who we met when we went quad biking and white water rafting in northern Thailand). Of all the people we have spent time speaking with on this trip, many of the most friendly, kind-hearted and broad-minded ones have been American. They often get a tough time abroad, but they shrug it off with great dignity and it never dents their friendliness.

Hung Hom station is in the north-eastern suburbs of Kowloon so it didn't take long for us to leave the city behind. As the urban high-rise turned to rural low-rise and the concrete became fields, the skies cleared and the sun came out. The cloud that had shrouded the city for our whole stay was highly localised, we guess it's a combination of moisture from the sea and traffic pollution. With absolutely no fanfare we crossed the Chinese border. If we hadn't been looking out of the window at the time we would have missed the simple barbed-wire fence and river crossing. There was no stop, and no officials came through the train. We had read that the train might stop at Shenzen or Dongguan for border formalities, but it didn't. The conductor came through the train and filed our tickets in a plastic folder, giving us little credit-card sized tickets in return. This procedure is done (we think) so that they can work out where everybody is getting off, and come through the train to wake people up if they are getting off the train during the night. He spoke no English but using sign language we managed to ask him when our passports would be stamped. He seemed to say that it would be done at Shanghai, at the end of the journey.

We spent a pleasant few hours watching Guangzhou (Canton) province slide past the windows. It looked different from Hong Kong, but no less developed, with more building work going on everywhere. After it got dark at about 18:30, we read the complimentary Sunday paper we had got in the hotel, did the quick crossword, then had an early night.

When we awoke the next morning it was raining—proper rain like we get in Britain, the incessant type with small, miserable, drenching droplets. Everything looked wet: the fields, the cows, the people. We felt nice and cosy in our bunks so we stayed in bed until midday watching the scenery and this time tackling the cryptic crossword which the Hong Kong paper had syndicated from the British Daily Telegraph. The conductor came back to take back our plastic ticket substitutes and swap them back for the real ones. We got up in time for lunch, which consisted of the remainder of the cheese buns and cashew nuts that we had brought with us. Having spent some more time chatting to the Americans, we arrived on time (to the minute), at Shanghai. We hadn't been bored at all, and we had had a comfortable sleep. The journey hadn't felt anything like 26 hours, in fact it had gone much more quickly than some of our previous butt-numbing epics (Belgrade to Sofia and Mumbai to Margao spring immediately to mind) and yet it had been twice as long. Overnight is definitely more relaxing than all day.

We packed up our bags and left the train, into a fenced off area which funnelled us into the station building and through Chinese passport control. The official was friendly and the necessary stamp was forthcoming. We walked through the customs area with no problems. Waiting just outside the station was a smiley lady from the local tourism board, holding a board saying "Glenn Livett". Having welcomed us to Shanghai, she led us round the side of the station to a waiting MPV and we drove off to our hotel to check in.

Just as getting the China visa had been simple and painless, so was the process of getting in. The horror stories on the web about stroppy border guards, lengthy luggage searches and problems like guide books being confiscated because their maps showed Taiwan in a different colour from China, proved to be hyperbole, just as the visa tales had. We're refreshed and happy, not at all stressed and, most important of all we're finally in China!

p.s. Blogspot is not currently being blocked in China, so we can post about how much we are enjoying being here!

Map of Day 121

Day 121
Hong Kong to Shanghai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.