Next Station: China is my rail documentary, with the camera rolling as of 2017, to all stations in China. It being the third-largest country by some counts, finishing this project will take a heck of a long time. Some places are far and remote (and not easy to get into — the likes of Xinjiang and Tibet are examples), others involve ferries (Hainan island), and still others require travel at a certain time of year only (northeastern China gets hellishly cold in the winter!).
You’re seeing me at the extremely picturesque station of Qiandaohu, literally Lake of a Thousand Islands, on a new Hangzhou-Mt Huangshan HSR opened right on Christmas Day 2018. (What a fantastic gift to those lucky locals.) ▶
Station 365 — Yingbin Road — and a nice WELCOME sign, welcoming me to Station 365. It’s not a sin to repeat a milestone achieved: this officially means I’ve been to the equivalent of a different railway station, every single day, for an entire year, although probably due to matters closer to home and work (and I don’t work for the railways!), it took me a little longer than 18 April 2018 — which was what should have been the day Station 365 was unearthed had I actually gone to a different station, day in, day out!
Late on 25 January 2019, at around 18:20, I hit that Station 365 marker (Station 366 would be it for leap years).
Given how special the journey has been, I’d like to share a few clips of the stations that were just so unique… ▶
The Beijing Subway is an epic element of “daily life” (as they say here in Beijing) my end. Whilst I don’t ride it day in day out, I do ride on it religiously enough that I’ve been to most stations (though not all, unlike London at the moment), and I’ve seen a few Chinglish fails.
So City Hall got me the chance to speak to 90 of the Beijing Subway’s “Ops-3” (Third Operations) company. These guys manage Lines 2, 8, 10, and 13, which included the city’s two loop lines, and the arc line as well. We also went over the basic, included ten phrases used in ten situations — gateline English, at the platforms, to deal with interchange routes, and many others.
But we saved the best for last. I treated Subway crew to nearly a hundred phrases or so used at major interchanges and stations across town, in mock situations, and to deal with horrendously complex transfer situations. ▶
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). ▶
Next Station: China is loved by many a station — and feared by many a microphone. I say this after going through two Shure USB mics. Thankfully, I had my “blue bag” with me, with two wired microphones. I was about to plug the USB mic in as I arrived at Hohhot Main Station — then the bloody USB connector broke. The useless lemon!
The one stop before this, when I did want to pop on the handheld mic (due to heavy winds), was Mt Zhuozi, or Zhuozishan, station. It was absolutely brilliant, with an old station building on Platform 1 harking back to the Republican era. Not only has the old station building been well-preserved, it’s also found a second life as a station museum. Some of the rail treasures they’ve there are from rail departments that have now disappeared.
Inner Mongolia is not a complete stranger to me — Tracy and I visited the place as early as summer 2014 (we started out in Duolun, a rather spartan-and-less-well-off part), and went out to Xulun Hor and Taibus Banner further west (slightly better developed). Our first proper introduction to Cosmopolitan-ish Inner Mongolia was from November 2017, when we gave Ulanqab/Jining a visit. ▶
I used to take High Speed trains in China for granted, especially in the earlier years. The horrific Wenzhou crash changed all that. Yes the PR guy at the railways did say truly ridiculous things back then. But then you get over this whole thing, and rethink HSR and the benefits it has created for the country. Which was why I returned to the High Speed rails in October 2011.
Starting from 2012, I’ve decided to, as much as possible, travel on High Speed trains on the very first day of the year. I’ve been able to do this for 2012, 2013, and 2017. Last year I was seen off at the station by some of the best people in the rail industry here around Beijing. This year, it’s my wife, Tracy, coming with me onboard the Revival Express, the fastest train in not just China, but also the world.
The train behind me is Train G5, operated by CR Shanghai. This is the very first 350 km/h (217 mph) train for the day, and is therefore the very first of its kind for this year. We are starting off the year 2018 on the world’s fastest train, and the very first fastest-train-on-the-planet for the new year. We’re sending an extremely strong signal of approval and support for our trains, as it’s made China that much smaller, closer together, and greener. ▶
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. ▶