On a recent trip to Guilin, the gateway to the famed rice paddies in southwest China, I took the high-speed train from Guangzhou. The 240-mile trip took two hours and cost $24 in a seat similar to an Acela. A much shorter trip from Philadelphia to New York on the Acela would cost 10 times more and take roughly the same amount of time.
The announcements for the trains are made in English–as well as text–that make it easy to navigate to the correct route. You can buy tickets online for a small service fee and even have them delivered to your hotel. I had to change my return ticket to Guangzhou. It took two minutes, with an agent who spoke passable English. Coupled with my elementary Mandarin, it was a breeze.
The main railway stations are huge but clean and comfortable. Again, the gate information and announcements are in Mandarin and English.
According to China’s Great Train by Abraham Lustgarten, China has nearly 50,000 miles of tracks. France, for example, has about 20,000. China is the world’s most prolific railway builder. It adds more than 3,000 miles of track a year.
Trains are the most popular means of long distance travel in China. They carry twice as much freight and passengers as Russian trains and three times as much as U.S. trains. China’s railways carry as many passengers per year as the population of 1.3 billion people.
There are two main trunk lines. One runs south to north along the East Coast between Guangzhou, Beijing and Harbin. The other runs from east to west between Beijing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou and Urumqi. The three-day journey from Beijing to Urumqi is on the “Iron Rooster,” a train immortalized by writer Paul Theroux in book by the same name. Two of the main Trans-Siberian routes travel through China to Beijing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be China if there wasn’t some corruption involved. Two recent railway ministers took more than $100 million in kickbacks.