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Like most other forms of transport in China, trains are a mixed bag. They come in four distinct types:
The condition of subway trains in China depends greatly on the city in which you take them. I have only travelled by subway in two cities; Beijing and Shanghai.
At the time of my first visit, Beijing’s subway was not too complicated. It consisted of 3 lines, that took you withing walking distance of most of the major tourist destinations, and it looked like this:
Since the Beijing Olympics, the subway has become considerably more complicated and now looks like this:
However, no matter how complicated the Beijing and Shanghai subway systems become, they will never be as complicated as Tokyo’s, which looks something like this:
Of course, I generally get lost in any system more complicated than this:
Fortunately, to offset the simplicity of the systems, the Chinese have at least managed some other systems to make your journey memorable. For example, when the train pulls into the station, rather than pointlessly waiting for passengers to disembark, the energetic Shanghainese simply crash into each other and push until the group on the train gets off, the group off the train gets on, or the door closes severing an elderly lady in two.
There’s so much pushing in either direction between these two groups, that I keep expecting a rugby ball to appear and the station master to sprint to the other end of the platform for a try.
Inter city trains
For the most part, these are generally slower than the buses plying the same routes, but are less likely to crash by trying to overtake on a blind corner. Not that some train drivers don’t try…
Trains in China come in 2 classes of seat, soft seat and hard seat. At the risk of sounding elitist, I have never taken a hard seat train in China, always opting for the cushiness of first class.
For those of you who have formed images of me sitting in plush chairs sipping chardonnay, please be aware that the main difference between first class and second class appears to be that the rats in first class have been inoculated for rabies.
On my very first sleeper train in China, a drunk man sat next to me on my bed and then vomited all over the floor. However, after that my experiences with sleeper trains have never quite reached these giddy heights again.
There are two classes of cabin, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. In a hard sleeper, so called because it’s hard to sleep, you will be bunking in an open corridor with 20 Chinese travellers who invariably suffer from tuberculosis, gastroentiritis or a combination of other diseases we haven’t even discovered in the West yet. They will talk loudly, eat smelly food and snore.
You’ll enjoy a comfortable night sleeping on a bed that is four feet long and three inches from the roof of your cabin, under a blanket that is a comfortable as a quilt of poison ivy, but without the insulation properties.
If you do find it necessary to take a sleeper train in China, I would recommend taking first class. You’ll still end up having a terrible night, but there will be less people in your cabin who have to put up with your grumpiness the next day.
Shanghai does have the world’s first commercially operating magnetic levitation train. The Maglev was constructed for the purposes of showcasing Shanghai’s amazing technical prowess for the 2010 expo.
Indeed it is a major technical achievement travelling at close to 500km/h from Shanghai airport to the middle of the expo grounds. However, with the expo grounds being an industrial area about as close to the centre of Shanghai as Vienna, it takes another hour by normal subway to get anywhere else of interest.
So, while whether it shows their technical prowess is debatable, it certainly shows off their planning prowess.
I’ve never actually taken the Maglev, but a friend of mine assures me that it is indeed, quiet, smooth and fast. Bugger!
Apologies for the late post. I’ve just gotten back from a trip to Yellow Mountain
The great news about local buses in China is that they are cheap.
The local bus I take into the city is an enormous double decker numbered 518 and a 30 minute bus ride into the centre of my city costs 1 yuan, about 10c.
Obviously the cost of constructing a double decker bus is considerably larger than the single decked equivalent, and a 10c fare is not going to cover much in the way of this. However, the town authorities have managed to minimise costs by the frankly brilliant maneuver of not fitting any suspension or shock absorbers to the bus.
This, combined with the rather unique texture of Chinese roads, combines to provide the sort of ride that most kids have to go to Disneyland for, and most adults have to go to chiropractors for. I suspect that several 518 buses in Ningbo have indents in the roof the exact shape of the top of my head.
These come in three flavours (and a much wider variety of smells). There are:
1. Mini buses
Almost always driven by mental asylum escapees, these buses are basically filthy, grease stained, metal boxes with 4 wheels and a row of plastic seats loosely bolted on. They travel either the small roads between major cities and smaller towns, or the non-existent roads between small towns and even smaller towns.
Despite their size, they often end up carrying more passengers than the larger coaches, and it’s here that you get the pleasure of sharing your ride with various vegetables and livestock. Indeed, as most of these buses do not leave at a set time, but prefer to wait until every square inch is filled, it’s not an uncommon experience to find your head sandwiched between a Chinese grandma and an increasingly distressed pig.
Maintenance of these buses isn’t an exact science either. Indeed, one day we rode an a bus that couldn’t actually get out of first gear. Fortunately, the Chinese can fix pretty much anything using a piece of string, three paper clips and the spring from a retractable pen. Unfortunately, said repairs last for about 30 km at which point passengers will often give up on their destination and simply construct a new town.
2. Short Haul Coaches
These are somewhat flasher than mini buses and travel between major cities. They have exotic names, like Golden Dragon and Three Leopard Concubine Potence.
While the comfort level of these buses may be significantly higher than mini buses, there are still frequent reminders that you are taking a bus in China.
On my first trip from Ningbo to Shanghai the man sitting next to me took out his ipod and then plugged a pair of portable speakers into it. He then proceeded to sing along with his favourite Chinese pop songs for the 3 hour duration of the trip.
Also, despite having allocated seats, I have still somehow managed to take one of these buses and spend the entire trip seated on the roof of the toilet.
3. Sleeper buses
These long haul buses are for long distance travel between cities; and in a country the size of China, there are some long distances. We’re talking about the kind of bus trips where you set off and your grandchildren arrive.
I am unable to comment on the quality of sleeper buses, as I have never been forced to take one. However, the few times I have seen them pass on the highway, they basically look like mobile refugee camps, minus the amenities and sense of hope.
Of course, if you have a sufficiently large group, it is sometimes cost effective to charter a bus instead. If you opt for this route, please bear in mind that there are good charter buses and bad charter buses.
1. The entire bus smells strongly of diesel, with the exception of the engine which smells like smoke.
2. The driver is the only thing on the bus that smells more strongly of smoke than the engine.
3. While driving, you wipe the dirt from the window, only to hastily try and replace it seconds later.
4. The driver has to relocate a Chinese family living on the back seat before the trip can begin.
5. The bus has a TV or sound system.
6. You chartered the bus in China.
Anyway, whichever kind of bus you decide to take, it is inevitable that one day you will look out the window to see this scene:
With all this in mind, you may want to take the train.
Next week: Trains
Having recently alerted my readers to the dangers of road safety in China, many must be feeling that the safest option is rely on others to transport you around.
Indeed at first glance there are a wealth of public transport options, ranging from quaint sedan chairs and pedalos, up to sophisticated trains and airplanes. All of these share the same purpose; to transport you as dangerously as possible to a location of your choosing for the maximum possible price.
Being somewhat overweight, I am always hesitant to subject the poor pedalo rider to the arduous task of lugging me anywhere. This is despite the fact that in China I have seen entire villages being carried on a single bicycle.
The advantages of Pedalos is that they are environmentally friendly and they also allow you to fling a few coins the way of a person whose annual income is less than the cost of a packet of cereal. The disadvantage is that it would often be quicker to travel to your destination by pogo stick.
Believe it or nor in some places these still exist. Usually, they are used to haul people up mountains. But if you’re considering this as an option, you can piss off and read some other site Princess.
Before you decide to take a trip with a motorcycle taxi, please take the time to ask yourself the following questions.
“How far am I travelling?”
“Is there another method of getting there?”
“Is my medical insurance up to date?”
“Is the driver limping for any particular reason?”
If, after answering these questions, you still decide to take a motorcycle taxi, then good luck. My prayers are with you.
Taxis are a mixed bag. Most drivers are friendly and efficient. Others are surly and dishonest and a few are insane and deadly.
There are no compulsory seatbelt laws in China and most taxi drivers will take offense if you attempt to wear one as they consider it an insult to their driving abilities. This is the case regardless of whether the taxi driver actually has driving abilities or not.
There are a few other problems with taxis. For example, most drivers don’t speak English, or indeed any other language known to linguists.
There is also no guarantee that the taxi will know anymore about where you want to go than you do.
The quality of the taxis depend on the city in which you are trying to catch them. In Shanghai and Hangzhou, they are usually fairly modern Hyundais. In Ningbo it’s the ubiquitous VW Santana.
It seems to be a general rule that the smaller the town, the crappier the taxi. In one town, I saw a three wheel car pick up a passenger, drive twenty metres down the road and proceed to lose one of its wheels. Sadly, the wheel travelled about three times the distance of the actual taxi ride.
The one saving grace is that the taxis are cheap. A 1 hour taxi ride in China costs roughly the same amount as a single strawberry in Japan.
After 10 years of travel, it is easy to become jaded about the miracle that is powered flight. This technological marvel is not, however, lost on the Chinese. On a recent flight to Hunan province, there were gasps of astonishment as the plane took off and half the passengers broke into spontaneous applause.
As a general indication of the safety of Chinese Airlines, the logo of Air China is supposed to be a phoenix; a mythical bird famous for its tendency to explode in flames at the slightest provocation.
Chinese airline transport is not exactly what you would call luxurious either. On a recent 12 hour Air China flight to Canada, the in-flight entertainment options consisted of:
1. looking out the windows at clouds
2. reading the inflight magazine; and
3. idly calculating the chances that your pilot has been trained in aeronautics rather than, say, agricultural machinery.
Next week, we’ll look at buses and trains in China
Additionally, I shall now be placing up random images on the site. There probably won’t be any humorous comments but I’ve got so many of the damn things I’ve got to use them somewhere.
1. Pedestrians should:
a) Have right of way
b) Be avoided at all costs to prevent damage to human life
c) Be avoided at all costs to prevent damage to your vehicle
d) Provide a handy cushion between your car and other, more solid objects
2. You are riding an e-bike and you see the following sign.
a) Merge with traffic in the left lane as you are on a powered vehicle
b) Merge with the bicycles in the left lane as you are technically a bicycle
c) Check which lane has the least traffic and choose that one
d) Mount the pavement and beep your horn for pedestrians get out of your way, hit an old lady, steal her handbag and ride off into the sunset
3. What is the correct procedure for approaching a 4 way intersection?
a) Check mirror, slow down, look right and left and then proceed at half speed.
b) Check mirror, speed up and pass the intersection as quickly as possible
c) 100 metres from intersection, sound your horn and continue to sound it until passing through the intersection at full speed
d) Close eyes, pray, open eyes 30 seconds later (or never again depending on success of prayers)
3. When should you be most worried by the approach of this man?
a) When you have committed a parking offense
b) When you have committed a drving offence
c) When you are a blogger and are writing bad things about China
d) When this man is short of cash
4. What is the minimum safe distance you should leave between 2 cars when travelling at 60km/h?
d) It depends which way the other car is travelling
5. Who has the right of way in this picture?
a) the e-bike
b) the truck
c) a bus, 50m away but closing fast
d) the driver with the most money
6. You’ve had an accident.
a) Pull your vehicle as far as possible to the side of the road to cause minimum inconvenience to other road users, exchange details and call a repair truck.
b) Do a runner
c) Leave your vehicle in the middle of the road, exit and immediately blame the other person whether it was their fault or not
d) As c) and then wait for the police to whom both drivers will pay a hefty bribe.
7. What are the main transgressions in this picture?
a) The girl need to put away the umbrella
b) The girl needs to get a better boyfriend
b) The rider needs sturdy shoes and a helmet
c) The rider needs a life
8. This sign is used to:
a) Indicate there are roadworks ahead and you should slow to 40km/h
b) Indicate that there are roadworks ahead for the next 40km
c) Indicate that workers are clearing away 40 years worth of horse poo
d) Make Ningbo look pretty
9. You see the following traffic light.
Who should stop?
a) People going straight
b) People turning left
c) People who value their lives
d) People in vehicles smaller than yours.
10. In which of the following streets is it possible for a car to attempt a u-turn?
11. Who is in the wrong in the following picture?
a) The taxi – he is overtaking in a city zone
b) The parked car – he has not full pulled out of the way of traffic
c) The Polo – He is in the taxi’s way
d) The pedestrians – They are using up valuable driving space
What was this before it tried to cross the road in China?
How to score:
If you have managed to circle any of the answers then I am afraid that you are far too sane to drive in China. Please bang your head against the wall for three hours a day and apply again next year.
Having grown up in a country where we drive on the correct side of the road (i.e. the left), I invariably find it difficult arriving in a country where the right is right.
An afternoon walk in such places usually results in me returning to my point of origin with tyre marks on my shoes, a broken arm and a moped parked between my buttocks.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached two years of life in China.
Fortunately, although the law states the right side is correct in China, Chinese drivers are above such petty laws as “left” and “right” and regularly make use of both sides of the road. Indeed, they also seem to be above petty laws such as “physics”, and it is not uncommon to see two cars inhabiting the same space / time co-ordinates.
Lanes aren’t the only rules that are optional in China. Traffic lights are mainly used for decoration and pedestrian crossings are about as safe to cross as temple floors in an Indiana Jones movie. I would honestly feel more safe crossing the road in a game of “Grand Theft Auto”
Indeed, for the first five months of life in China, I would only cross the road if I could position a Chinese person between myself and oncoming traffic, hoping that if a car hit them it would at least stop before it reached me.
Speed limits are also optional. For example, below the apartments in which I live, the following sign has been placed to slow drivers down.
Now, my mathematics is utterly appalling, but even I am able to calculate that 5 km/s works out to be 18,000 km/h or, roughly, mach 15.
Now many of you may think that this is a printing mistake on behalf of the sign makers, but I assure you that there are drivers over here who fully believe they are capable of maintaining these speeds safely…
In a 14 year old Toyota…
In a built up area…
On the wrong side of the road…
Whilst talking on a mobile phone
I would like to say that despite this, accidents are rare, but unfortunately that simply isn’t true. Within my first 6 months in China, I had already seen four dead bodies as the result of crashes.
Drivers in Ningbo quite proudly proclaim, “if you can drive here, you can drive anywhere in the world”. While a noble sentiment, this is somewhat erroneous. If you tried to drive like you do in Ningbo anywhere else in the world, you would either be arrested 15 seconds after setting off, or crash into the first bus who didn’t realize you were going to jump onto the wrong side of the road.
Traffic conditions aren’t helped by the presence of the ubiquitous electric bicycle, or “e-bike. These little Chinese mopeds weave in and out of traffic, giving their riders the life expectancy of a Mayfly with terminal cancer. Riders of these e-bikes have obviously achieved some sort of advanced human/machine hybrid state, as they feel confident in using roads, bicycle lanes and footpaths, all with equal impunity.
Anyway, I hope you have been studying all this carefully, because next week there will be a Chinese driving test.
Do you have a long flight coming up? Travelling from Dublin to Moscow via Buenos Aires? This week, I’d like to share some tips with you for surviving long flights.
• It is often suggested that during extended flights your body’s extremities will swell up. Therefore, most airlines recommend loose clothing and removing shoes and socks during the flight. Bearing this in mind, just think how comfortable you’ll become by wearing a mu-mu and going commando. Let it all hang out!
• The airlines recommend not drinking alcohol on long flights, as it will serve to further dehydrate you and leave you feeling wretched at the other end of your flight. “Utter bollocks”, I say. You’re going to feel wretched anyway, so you might as well have an excuse.
• Young children flying with their parents can be a source of annoyance when trying to sleep. They often make a lot of noise and tend to become impatient and kick seats. A good remedy for this is to soak some candy in valium and scatter it around the different seats before the flight. If you’re lucky, the parents might eat some too.
• Emergency exit seating provides more leg room, and if there is an emergency, you can be the first to get the hell off the plane.
• It is sometimes possible to get upgrades to business class if there are free seats. The stewardesses often keep this a secret, so make sure to nag them every 5 minutes to see if a place has become available.
• Many planes now have individual TVs in the seatbacks, showing a varied selection of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies by directors like Michael Bay. It is therefore highly recommended you bring a good book.
• Remember that not all airlines are created equal. Singapore Airlines is an example of a good airline with good service. Kazahkstan Northeast is probably not so glamorous.
• The American carriers now charge $5 for alcoholic drinks, even on international flights. The cheap bastards!
• If your main luggage it full it is now apparently possible to carry on 23 items weighing a total of no more than 468kg. At least that’s what the woman sitting next to me thought.
• Always read the safety card before take off (someone has to).
• Knives, scissors, nail clippers and cigarette lighters are now banned on all international flights. To bring them on board, place them in a condom and swallow it.
The Cynical Traveller
1. Shinjuku, Japan
Bob was just an ordinary bus stop. However, one day while waiting for the number 69 bus, Bob was struck by intense cosmic rays.
Bob the ordinary bus stop became…
The extraordinary bus stop!
2. Lima, Peru
Ever wondered where Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi go to chill out? Ever think Luke Skywalker would like to take a few weeks off in the Bahamas? Where does Darth Maul go when he wants to book a fortnight in China to hone his kung fu skills?
Well, for all your Jedi needs, there’s only one travel agent that fits the bill…
3. Shibuya, Japan
It is a well known fact that shopping can cause happiness in certain individuals (my sister being a prime example).
Anthropologist John Lubbock once stated that, “Happiness is a thing to be practiced, like the violin”. In that case, what better way to practice than repeated drills of 3 minutes?
That’s right, 3 minutes of happiness is all you’re allowed at this shop.
Come in number 27, your time is up!
4. Sayama, Japan
This is a chain of ubiquitous discount stores in Japan. Obviously realizing the flaccid nature of the name they chose, the store’s designers have attempted to toughen up its image with the addition of umlauts over the R.
5. Merida, Mexico
There is a general consensus in hospitality, that if your premises smell like an arse, it is best not to advertise the fact. However, prevailing wisdom has never found much support in Mexico and hence the proprietors of this establishment are quite happy not only to display its shortcomings, but to use them as a selling point.
6. Delhi, India
I’m sure many of you have read Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, “Alice in Wonderland.
In the now famous story, Alice comes across a piece of cake labeled “eat me” which grows her to enormous size, and a bottle labeled “drink me” which shrinks her to tiny size.
Well, maybe you have been wondering what Alice did with the bottle after she had drunk the contents. Did she throw it away like a filthy little litterbug.
Of course not, she used one of these…
7. Taipei, Taiwan
This one’s on my main site, but I just can’t resist using it again. So much more than a clothing store!
8. Hoi An, Vietnam
It is well known that in some south east Asian restaurants, the menu is treated more as a guideline than an exact facsimile of the food you’ll receive. However, kudos to this one restaurant owner in Vietnam for describing exactly what you get.
9. Danang, Vietnam
Even HIV is no match for the power of condom man!
10. Nakano, Japan
In 1972 a crack aquatic unit was sent to seaworld by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.
These fish promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Pacific underground.
Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as sailors of fortune.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…
The Cynical Traveller
Just to let you know, there won’t be any updates ’til Tuesday next week, as I’m enjoying a holiday in Thailand right now.
But don’t worry, I’ll be thinking of you all as I lie by the pool getting a 30 cent massage. (Actually, in reality I spent yesterday hiking through mud and sleeping on a straw matress)
See you next week,
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