The Central Southern Chinese province of Jiangxi is in a rather awkward part of the country. Bordering three of the nation’s better well-off provinces, Jiangxi itself has been rather slow in getting its transport network done right. The current 4×4 HSR network only has one solitary west-east 350 km/h (217 mph) line, the Shanghai-Kunming HSR.
Some years back, a new 8×8 HSR network plan was officially approved. This added a few more 350 km/h HSR hub cities in Jiangxi, including Nanchang, the provincial capital, and Ganzhou, a bit of Jiangxi which is just maybe a few hours shy of Guangdong, that one of the most populated and well-off provinces in Southern China, if not across the entire land. With Ganzhou to be a new HSR interchange pretty much rising from the middle of nowhere, local entities in the city wanted to make this a huge deal, so they invited me — and […] I keynoted a rather unique HSR forum: they actually held it in the open (under the auspices of local businesses)…
So after a very brief welcome by the organisers, I went onstage keynoting the entire forum. The 10-minute talk focused on quite a few things I wanted to get across: Ganzhou’s position in the national rail network, attracting international brands thanks to improve rail links, and cases of successful HSR transfer connections and benefits to the cities — with Weihai, Shandong in China being the local example, and London (two stations: London Bridge and the Stratfords) and of course Zürich, Switzerland, being the two international case studies certainly worth a look. ▶
I did the Everyday Rail English books in late 2017 so to clean up on China Railway’s epic mistranslations (they run great trains, but some translations are just totally random). It was bilingual for the sole fact that they had to have something to read in English, but all the descriptive text and others remaining in Mandarin Chinese. Like my Chinglish book, it found itself an unexpected international audience. There is hearsay this book made it big in the Belgian community in Beijing, both civilian and diplomatic (!??). As a result, this book began an unexpected second life as a book semi-primed for expats as well (supposedly so they could probably use pre-canned phrases to navigate their way around the rail network).
The Bookworm’s probably the most well-read, literally, of all expat hangout places in the Jing, so I decided to talk about the book, but also my documentary, and other untold stories of the Chinese railways, at the Bookworm for the 14 May 2018 event. The topic was so Sheldonesque I thought I’d get maybe just a few coming along for the ferrovial brainwashing. Except that I had underestimated interest in this…
Not only did I take a look at the raison d’être for the book — but I also went ahead with a few unknown facts (and hopefully less factoids) of the railways in China… such as the rather complex way they managed the stations on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR (11 different entities or bodies manage the 24 stations!), or how Muping has this Tottenham Court Road-like echo hall at the departures hall. ▶
This time a year ago, I left on Train G1 to Nanjing South and Hefei South. A year later, I’m in front of a microphone — not on a train — though at times both have happened at the same time…
The people at Radio Beijing timed the live show to happen exactly a year after the documentary started. We’re far from done… But it has shown me China beyond any dimension imaginable.
Pretty much wherever I’ve set up my camera and microphone — wired or wireless — I’ve been an item of curiosity. I’ve been identified by a member of the public once — at Wuxi Railway Station — but otherwise they’re rather low-key. There’s a reason I keep it like that — to uncover the station as-is, without anything extra (without any extras, in fact). ▶
On 01 August 2008, China did what no other country on Planet Earth did — operate trains at 350 km/h (217 mph). On 23 July 2011, the horrendous Wenzhou crash happened, killing 40. The then-head of the mainland Chinese railway authorities, Sheng Guangzu, had little recourse but to ask the prime minister to lower speeds to 300 km/h (186 mph).
Sheng retired in late 2016. However, it was under his administration that work started in earnest on an “all-Chinese” trainset, the CR Revival Express (a train which was also made inherently safer and better at higher speeds).
That very same screamer sped out of Beijing South in the morning hours of 21 September 2017, with yours truly onboard Train G1. Top speed reached 350 km/h (217 mph). Once again, China had the world’s fastest train. ▶
Looks like TEDx won’t be mobile any time soon… Still, if there was anything close to this, on the rails, China.org seems to have pulled it off with its Zhen Xiang series of talks — one topic, many voices and ideas. In the course of just 90 minutes, we had three talks, with me being the second one, all about railways in China, and especially the epic High Speed network. It started with a rail vehicle expert from CRRC, Mr Deng, and ended with award-winning HSR Chief Conductor Ms Li Yuan.
My talk was more about my experience on the Chinese rails — and also how it began with Swiss roots. Also, my documentary was mentioned as well — how can you not mention something that’s hit around 150 stations so far?
I’ve seen the railways during good times and bad. The expansion and brave forward-looking new projects of the late 2000s and early 2010s. How the railways were hanging in by just a thread in the wake of the terrible Wenzhou disaster in 2011. The recent recovery, starting in late 2013, and continuing through to this present day. China’s undergoing a rail revival, and it’s big as with travellers inside the country as it is with those outside. ▶
Looks like I can’t quite stop talking about trains…
The China Communication Forum, held at Xiamen University, had me as a speaker about trains, of course. But instead of the tech-Sheldon-ish aspects, it was far more about the Arteries of Communications — a term “born” of this conference, which in particular fitted into my talk well on the trains and what they mean.
The arteries had roots in China with its first high speed lines in the 2000s. As the network expanded, more of China became connected. Of course routes started running to the frontiers, but also further more in the heartland and across the seafront. Eventually, the network became so big, previously planned networks were being realised years ahead — such as the 2020 goal, which was realised 5 years ahead of time. ▶
This new line goes through an incredibly mountainous part of Central and Western China, zipping through Tianshui, Dingxi, and other stations. Along with wife Tracy, I got to ride on the new line out from Xi’an North to Xining, incorporating the Baoji-Lanzhou bit, and got a look at Lanzhou West Railway Station. (Some have deemed that to be one of the lesser well-done HSR hubs, but I see it quite differently.)
Much of the line appeared to be familiar to me — remember I had been to all stations on the Xi’an-Baoji HSR, so it was only after we left Baoji South that the new bit of the line meant I was looking out the window. Quite a bit. Or at that, just a bit. The new high speed line went through probably a million tunnels, this being a very mountainous part of China.
When we did have a look at the countryside, I had to look very closely at a station we were only going to zip through — Dongcha Railway Station. Media interviews included me looking away to see if I’d finally snapped Dongcha station (I did do that on tape, or rather video), as the station was very unique. Initially it was intended only to be a place where trains would overtake one other — ie let slower trains take a breather whilst faster ones zipped by. However, they eventually converted this to a proper station. And not any station: Dongcha would feature, as I saw on pics released just before the line opened to the general public, a rather long, all-enclosed elevated walkway from the station building to the platforms, as they weren’t exactly under the HSR rail line viaduct. ▶
So after filming three more stations on 27 June 2017, we got back to Beijing late that evening and hopped right onto Train G123 the next day. Yes, 48 hours late, somewhat inexcusable for the Shanzhai Sheldon Cooper of Beijing, but oh well.
The new Revival Express train is in red. This to me is an excellent choice for colour… even before 1949, red was seen as a very Chinese colour. When people got married, it’s known as a “red party”. Enterprises are established at lavish parties where guests of honour wear “red tags” with a red flower and baskets of flowers (fake or real) are draped with ribbons of red. Over Chinese New Year, money is stuffed in red packets. Coincidentally, the present-day largest-denomination banknote, CNY 100.—, is pinkish-red. Red was also the colour of the walls around Tian’anmen, Zhongnanhai, and the Forbidden City. So it made sense to have a red train literally in the China of the same colour! ▶
It’s a funny kind of day, and it’s all about trains. Brilliant skies today in this part of Central Western China as I’m on my way out west to Baoji (never tried that on the new HSR line), and the launch of the new Revival trains on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR. All trains, promised. But the big thing: TEDx.
To have mic access as a keynote speaker as in being the first onstage — that was something I hadn’t been expecting for quite a while. But to do this on the TEDx stage as the lead speaker was just absolutely wild.
My 18 minute talk (which I nailed with only about half a minute more to spare) was about my documentary, Next Station: China, that’s in the making, but far more also about how I’ve come to discover and appreciate the views, the items evoking curiosity, and the plain unexpected in doing this documentary. ▶
It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve stepped back into that live studio at Radio Beijing (as in the English-language services)… The show was Touch Beijing, a live show mostly in English, but with a fair bit of spoken Mandarin Chinese as well. I came in around 25 minutes past the hour (17:25 or so), for my 20-ish minutes of fame (or so). The rail documentary I was doing, Next Station: China, took, of course, centre stage.
Up to this point, I had “sped up” going to stations — I literally just returned yesterday from Shidu Railway Station, Station 51 right by the mountains in southwestern Beijing. The past 50 journeys have seen me around much of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, He’nan, and Shandong, but also as far south as Hu’nan! Were there a few of my favourites already? Absolutely. Old Regular Rail stations made up for the bulk of unexpected discoveries. ▶