A second-class ticket costs 490 yuan. A first-class ticket is 300 yuan more, and for the extra money you are privilege to a wider seat plus free juice and snacks. Whichever you chose, the experience of riding the new high speed rail in southern China is remarkable. As the train speeds through the countryside at 350 kpm, you can watch geography and architecture changing in a matter of minutes. The line crosses 3 provinces, over 6 degrees of latitude, going from temperate central Wuhan to subtropical southern Guangzhou, all in 3 hours. (Not all trains make the journey in 3 hours. Most take 4 hours and stop at the intermediate stations along the way. I took train #G1003 from Wuhan at 3pm sharp, which is an express train)
Leaving Wuhan, the terrain is defined by the small rolling hills covered in short brush. This is Hubei province. The flat bed of the railway is carved out out of the landscape, leaving your eyes to follow the embankments up and down like waves. When you're above the waves, you can see far into the distance. There are few tall trees between the fields, where many different crops are being grown, creating a patchwork of varied shades of green. Buildings are spread across each farm, and most of them are simple two story buildings with sloped tile roofs:
Very suddenly, it seems, the scenery turns a bright, verdant green as you enter the fertile land of Hunan province. It's notable for wide, flat valleys with large mountains off in the distance. Buildings are similar to before, but seem more clustered together in villages. Between the fields, which seem to grow just rice, there are many tall trees. (at the end of this video, the train passes through one of the outdoor intermediate stations, at full speed):
A couple hours in, the buildings are taller, made of concrete, with flat roofs. The ride starts to seem a lot like a subway as the train tunnels through the mountains in the north of Guangdong province. At times, the train emerges from one tunnel, speeds through a valley for a few seconds, and back into another tunnel. In the valley, you may get a blurry glance of an old house not far from the tracks. For perhaps dozens of generations, that house was quietly isolated in it's own little valley in rural China. Now it's neighbor is the fastest rail line in the world. Then you emerge into another valley within view of a small village. It's entirely possible that people from those two places spoke different dialects in the recent past, so isolated by a great mountain. Now you travel between them in 10 seconds:
When I showed these videos to some students, they could immediately tell which province each was taken in. I was pretty impressed.
Anyone taken the Wu-Guang high speed train yet? What were your impressions of the experience?
China still travels by rail. That may not be news to you, but let's make a comparison.
In my hometown, there is a beautiful old train station. The grand passenger building guards over the city's main axis, it's heavy carved stone stacked in arches. Behind is a soaring iron and glass train shed. In the 1940's, when most Americans traveled by rail, it was one of the busiest train stations in the country. It closed in the seventies, after the number of passengers declined so much that the station could no longer support itself. These days it's used as a hotel and a mall. It's a common story. As passenger travel shifted to highway and plane, US passenger rail shrank to a bare minimum served by Amtrak, and much of the original infrastructure was lost. In china, the old way of traveling by rail is changing very quickly, but it isn't giving up on rail travel.
The old generation. A train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province
China's old railway stations are relatively chaotic places, teeming with people trying to get somewhere else. China had a station building boom in the 60s and 70s. Most stations are low and flat, the only defining characteristic is a few giant red characters standing on the roof to represent the city name. Inside dark passenger waiting rooms, people wait on rows of dirty molded fiberglass chairs. There are often beautiful murals with socialist or traditional Chinese themes. The environment always seems tense with fear of thieves, others, police. If you ever happen to see indications of social instability in China, its most likely to be in old train stations.
A mural inside the passenger waiting room at Taiyuan Station
The Guangzhou-Wuhan high speed train, which opened last December, takes just 3 hours to make the journey, at a top speed of 350km. It connects the biggest city in southern China with one of the bigger cities in central China. A big part of this project was the 2 new terminal stations built at both ends. Eventually, this line will be extended north all the way to Beijing.
The China Ministry of Railways is building new stations for it's high speed rail lines. Each station is a major infrastructure project costing around US$1 billion each. The existing stations in both cities were deemed already overcrowded and unable to handle the additional passenger load of the high speed train. The area around stations today are dense with development related to the proximity of the station, so it's hard to build something new there. The new stations are far outside the city center, a 45 minute subway or bus ride away. It's probable that the areas around the new stations will eventually be densely developed. These stations will create major cities around themselves, pulling the center of the old cities toward them.
But for now, the stations are still surrounded by farm land. These stations are huge, you can see them rise like small hills as you approach. The feature that seems to connect the new stations is they are all open and light-filled. The ceilings incorporate skylights, and the light is usually moderated by lovers or shades.
The next generation. The new Wuhan station, which features an open train platform in the center
Wuhan station detail
The new Guangzhou South station and its dramatic arching roof
Beijing South Station. With some fake palm trees, just for fun
They all seem to be descendants of the old glass and steel train sheds of Europe, like the old train station in my hometown. The new stations are relatively calm. One reason is that poor travelers can't afford the high speed tickets, so there are much fewer people in a much larger space. But the stations are not that relaxing, not to me. The stations are grandiose statements, and the images are all postcard worthy. But there isn't much that is scaled to people. All the interesting detail of the building is raised far above your head, with little that is interesting down at eye level.
These expensive train stations represent a commitment to rail travel in China. But the fact that they are so far from cities reduces their advantage over air travel. The stations are almost as far from the city as airports, so when you add the travel time on both sides, the train will take a lot longer than a plane. Will the grand new generation stations themselves lead to the decline of train travel in the long term future?
The new Guangzhou South station and the Beijing South station built in 2008 were both designed by TFP Farrells, based in UK and Hong Kong. Wuhan station was design by Arep, based in Paris. The local design institutes serve as local architect-of-record. For now, the way to get to the Guangzhou South station is a shuttle bus from the Hanxi Changlong metro station on line 3. Walk to the small bus terminal above the station, and its easy to find the bus going to the South Station. The ride takes about 15 minutes each way, and costs 2 yuan. A new subway line will go there someday.
[UPDATE, October 2010: The new subway line to Guangzhou South station is now open. line 2]
This is what happens when you get some nice sunny weather after a week of rainy humid weather.
If you try to dry your clothes on a rainy day they take too long to dry, and could end up smelling a bit funky. So on a nice day, out they come. It's worth bringing up that almost nobody in China has a clothes dryer. Dryers are high energy users, and they are an expensive purchase besides. In America, almost everyone has one, or uses one at a laundromat. I've found that life without a dryer is ...completely normal and unremarkable. The American view of the dryer is that it is a need and not a want; the majority of people in modern society don't question this assumption. But actually I've come to think it's an unnecessary want.
The label of the Greatest Generation has been applied to Americans who lived through the Second World War. The idea was popularized in a book of that name by a former American television news presenter. I admit I've never read the book, but the argument has become well known through popular culture. The idea heroicizes the generation that was born during the great depression and learned to live through tough times. They made great sacrifices fighting the so-called good war, then returned home to work hard and build stable lives, in the process building America into a global hyperpower. That generation is old now and they're disappearing fast. As the story goes, their children the baby-boomer generation have mostly squandered the fortune their parents patiently built.
The mass of Chinese migrant workers could be today's greatest generation of China. These are the people leaving the villages, where the skills they've needed to live have been passed on for hundreds of years, and going to places to do work that is totally foreign to them. They are jumping into the future, doing things that none of their ancestors have ever done. They live in lonely factory dormitories, or in the case of construction workers in tinker-toy temporary buildings made of painted blue steel and white polystyrene panels, with no frills or amenities. In Guangzhou, at lunchtime you can see them eating from foam containers and napping anywhere. At night you don't see them, they go to sleep early. You can see them on the bus or subway traveling to a new job, carrying their possessions in a bag attached to a stick that they balance on their shoulder: some clothes, a fan, a bucket, tools. They always look old for their age.
They do hard and dangerous jobs without a lot of concern for their own safety, often wearing just thin clothes and flimsy plastic shoes for protection. Some even wear cheap business suits and black leather shoes to dig holes and build walls, as if trying to maintain dignity. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are surely sacrificing their health. The toxic dust and fumes that waft uncontrolled around Chinese construction sites, coupled with the insanely loud noise and lack of ear protection, will combine to produce too many deaf cancer patients in the future.
Their motivation is clear. They may be proud of what they are working on, but they are not striking out with lofty ideas to build China into the next superpower. The reason they sacrifice so much is just to improve the future of their family and themselves, the same reason I think that the WWII generation did. The US is the world hyperpower today because of the historical accident of WWII, not because our grandparents wanted it. A student told me that China will become the world superpower after the Third World War is fought. It wasn't that he was wishing for a world war to come. Actually, now I'm not sure what the student was trying to say. Maybe was he simply saying that he thinks it's inevitable China will gain superpower status. Or maybe he was expressing his pessimism.
The American greatest generation is a problematic label. The war was not good, no war is. That generation just did what it was told to do, and they built us a flawed world. Some of the most difficult problems of today, like nuclear proliferation and climate change, are direct consequences of what they started. But I think we admire their self-sacrificing spirit because we think it's rarer these days. How China's migrant workers are considered in future will depend on how the amazing growth of China on the world scene continues to develop. Will their story be a comedy or tragedy?
Are Chinese workers the future greatest generation of China? Will they be celebrated as heroic in the future, even as they are looked down on now?