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The Red-Eye to Shanghai

More than 14 hours on a train in the company of strangers really isn't that bad

Kennedy By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
Beijing train station
Beijing train station: Also known as the Old Station, it sits practically in the heart of the Chinese capital  

ON THE BEIJING-SHANGHAI EXPRESS (CNN) -- The old Beijing train station is just down the road from Tiananmen Square, a structure that has the old, solid feel of Union Station in Washington or Grand Central in New York -- but of course with some very Chinese flourishes.

The station was built in the late 1950s, and its architecture seems to capture that time. The imposing yet intricate glass windows at its front, the chandeliers designed in the style of Chinese lanterns, the marble railings all speak of a different time -- when the style and the trains were less streamlined.

There is a newer station in the city, the Western Station, but as one resident here told me, "The Beijing Station has soul."

Inside Beijing Station


Rail distance from Beijing to Shanghai: 1,462 kilometers

Cost of a one-way ticket from Beijing to Shanghai:
• Soft Berth: U.S. $105.00
• Hard Berth: U.S. $54.00
• Hard Seat : U.S. $33.00

It was into this atmosphere I walked, along with several hundred others, to await the Shanghai train. The waiting room itself was a great place to sit, to watch people and to savor the decor.

After making sure I was at the right gate and finding a seat, I realized nearly all the uniformed train personnel I had seen were women. Even the cleaning staff, who wore purple and white warmups, were women. The growing crowd of passengers all shared the look of people resigned to the fact they would spend the night in their street clothes. They read newspapers, brushed their hair, shaved with electric razors or stared into space.

For my part, I watched the sun set over the station. Just outside the window, a bat zig-zagged above the covered staircase leading down to the tracks. Bats are considered a sign of good luck and happiness here, and I took this one's presence as a positive omen.

About 45 minutes before our scheduled departure, the gates to the tracks screeched open, and the passengers rose as one from their seats and slowly moved forward.

Boarding the train
All aboard: Passengers locate their cars for the night on the Beijing-Shanghai train  

As we wait to pass through the ticket takers, I see that about one out of every four people around me is talking on a cell phone. Most are calling friends and family, letting them know they are finally on the way. I am traveling "soft berth," which means I will have a bunk in a room with three others.

After being shown my bed, the three others, all evidently businessmen, arrive to take the remaining berths. I am ready for sleep, but two of the men are apparently old friends who want to catch up and chat.

As I make my pillow ready, one looks over and asks, "Are you German or American?" He seems satisfied with my answer and continues his conversation.

A new shy friend

The train pulls out exactly on time. The only other time I took an overnight train was 20 years ago, from San Francisco to Seattle, to see a woman I hardly knew and wanted to know better. I feel something similar about Shanghai. It is a place I have heard so much about, have wanted to visit for so long, and now it is only 14 or so hours away.

Di and father
Piping voice: My new shy friend Di, whose name is Chinese for flute, with her father  

As I settle in, a little girl in an orange sweater keeps peeking around the door at me. She also runs away each time I attempt to talk to her.

The bunks are narrow but surprisingly comfortable. And it is true what the songs say about the rhythm of the rails rocking you to sleep. I am already drifting off when a train official -- yet another woman -- comes to ask for our identification.

After our interlude with the authorities, one of my roommates pulls out his cell phone and calls ahead. "I'm on the train," he yells down the line. "The train! Yes! I'll see you in the afternoon. As soon as I get there I'll call you. I said I'm on the train! OK. OK. Bye-bye." That farewell is in English and makes me wonder whether it's for my benefit.

A pre-bed trip to the bathroom confirms that, yes, the toilets on these trains are not the latest in hygiene. Press a pedal on the floor and whatever was in there goes down a tube and out to the tracks.

So afterward I fall into the soundest sleep I have had in days. My arm falls asleep under me and wakes me up about six hours later. A full moon out there somewhere gives the passing fields a gray glow. Overhead is a reassuring sight -- Orion.

A realization far from home

Morning routine
Morning routine: Passengers shave, stretch and work out the kinks after a night on the Beijing-Shanghai Express  

I awake again at dawn. The scenery is still rural, interspersed with some small towns. The sun is low on the horizon, but a lot of people are already up and about -- walking their fields, practicing Tai Chi with wooden swords, shaking laundry out on balconies, riding bicycles and tractors on country roads.

A boy sitting on a water buffalo watches our train pass by. That image, alone among them all, makes me realize I am far from home.

At around 6:30 a.m. piped-in music begins filling the compartment. Oh no, an instrumental version of The Carpenters. I groan and sit up. Out in the corridor, people are also starting to adjust to the new day. They stand and stare blearily out the large windows, shave with electric razors and stretch.

September 20, 1999

  • China's new spirituality
  • Returning to a Beijing transformed
  • September 21, 1999

  • A visit to the Ming Tombs
  • September 22, 1999

  • Tiananmen Square preps up for the big day
  • September 23, 1999

  • Is China's health care system heading for a crisis?
  • September 24, 1999

  • A virtual tour of China's Aviation Museum
  • A contemplation of the so-called Americanization of China
  • September 27, 1999

  • Surfing in Beijing
  • September 28, 1999

  • Railway journeys: On the Red-Eye to Shanghai
  • September 29, 1999

  • Sunday in the Park with Lu Xun
  • September 30, 1999

  • A visit to the Jade Buddha Temple
  • October 1, 1999

  • Watching China's celebrations...from the sidelines
  • October 4, 1999

  • Window-Shopping on Nanjing Donglu
  • October 5, 1999

  • Royal Real Estate
  • I too step out into the corridor, and then hear a klop-klop behind me. It is my orange-sweatered Kilroy, wearing her mom's highly glossed buckled pumps. "I'm wearing big shoes," she says proudly.

    After I return to my room, the fun begins. With the prompting of her parents, the girl appears at my door, says a word in English, then runs back to her bunk. "Hello!" (pause) "Face!" (pause) "Nose!" Her father tells me her name is Di, pronounced "dee," Chinese for flute. And I think she tells me her family is coming back to Shanghai after a wedding in Beijing.

    Several hours later we speed past suburban homes built closely together and into an even more cramped Shanghai. As I assemble my bags, I look over to say goodbye to Di. But she and her family have already departed. I prepare to go meet the city.

    Bruce Kennedy was a Chinese history major at Bowdoin College in Maine. He worked for Visnews, the international television news agency, for five years before joining CNN in 1988. After a stint at CNN International, he began work at CNN Interactive. Kennedy has extensive experience in East Asian affairs, having studied and worked in the region.

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