Long, slow-moving lines in China are never a good sign, especially when preceding a lengthy journey in a cramped space. Such was my luck last Saturday night, as I prepared to go back to my research site after a short work-ation during Spring Festival (a.k.a., Chinese New Year). It had been a restful and productive week in a small Bai minority village, surrounded by the Cang Mountain panorama and Erhai Lake, and only a three kilometer walk through emerald fields to the old town tourist area. If there was a better place to start my dissertation writing, I would be hard pressed to name it. I felt the tension return to my shoulders as I waited for the serpentine crowd to move. And then the whispers caught my ear: “Those people have standing tickets.”
The first time I became aware of “standing tickets” I was traveling with a friend along the Silk Road in central China. After much difficulty, we managed to buy train tickets that were labeled “wu zuo,” which the ticket vendor explained meant that we did not have an assigned seat. Made sense. At the time, we were proud of our ingenuity and Chinese skills, having defied the various ticket agents that had curtly asserted that no seats would be available for another five days.
Upon boarding the train, however, we came to realize that the literal translation of “wu zuo,” that is, “no seat,” was actually more accurate to what we had purchased. For 19 hours, my friend and I crammed ourselves and our backpacks into, under, and over whatever imaginable space we could find. People were literally everywhere: seven in seats of three, on side tables, under seats, in the aisle, and even perched in the bathrooms. The food trolley service continued throughout the ride, to maddening, insomnia-inducing results. Needless to say, by the end of the journey, we had all grown rather close.
Since that trip more than ten years ago, train travel in China has developed immensely. In 2004, commercial service began on the maglev between Pudong International Airport and Shanghai’s metro system, which remains the fastest train in the world, reaching speeds of up to 431 km/hr (i.e., 268 mph/hr). Two years later, the Qinghai-Tibet line opened, which features the highest train station in the world, at 5,068 m (i.e., 16,627 ft). Since 2007, China has put 17 high-speed passenger lines into operation, most connecting China’s metropolises along the eastern corridor.
The crown jewel of these achievements is China’s (or rather, the world’s) longest high-speed line , which opened at the end of last year, connecting Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou, more than 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away. While the journey used to take almost a full day, now it lasts just eight hours. Considering flights between these cities take over three hours, and are often delayed, especially during typhoon season, the train journey is an incredibly viable option, particularly as ticket prices are comparable (train fares range from 140 USD- 440 USD, depending on seat class).
And trains are not the only things that are changing. As opposed to the first time I was in a wu zuo-situation, this time, people appeared by and large rather well-to-do. Passengers fiddled with tablets, iPhones, and laptops throughout the ride (no one was looking at my candy-bar Nokia). The man smoking out the window at one of the stops was quickly reprimanded (smokes and hard booze used to be mainstays of train travel in the mainland). The young couple next to me had decided to ditch their families during Spring Festival, and took a last minute romantic vacation (rising disposable income is opening up new spheres of pleasure-seeking). Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened was a man attempting to clear space on the exposed, over-head luggage rack to fashion a small cot for himself. He did not succeed.
Such speedy developments have not been without mistakes and tragedies. In February 2011, the Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, was stripped of Party membership and ousted from his position amidst allegations of corruption. Five months later, at least 40 people died and 192 people were injured outside of Wenzhou when two high-speed trains collided due to technical malfunctions caused by severe weather. Liu is still awaiting trial for his responsibility in the accident.
The Wenzhou collision continues to play heavily on the minds of everyday Chinese. As a coworker succinctly put it when asked about the upcoming opening of the Kunming metro, slated to start operations later this year: “I think I’ll wait six months before giving it a try.” Enough said.
Back in Kunming at 5 AM, blurry-eyed and stiff-legged, we made our way off of our high-backed, green leather hard seats to the platform, and eventually in a massive herd towards the taxi and bus stations. While places in western China, like Yunnan Province, are not always privy to the latest-and-greatest of Chinese development, things here are also moving quickly, just slower in comparison to counterparts in coastal regions. And sometimes, like that particular morning, I’m thankful to be moving a bit slower, if only relatively so.