After an early breakfast followed by an 8:00am checkout, we boarded our luxury bus for the last time leaving at least 2 hours for traffic for our trip to the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station
that was about 45km away in the western suburbs of Shanghai and beside an international airport of the same name. We were scheduled to catch the 10:00am train that would take us about 5hrs to make the 1300km trip at an average speed of 275km/h with 3 stops along the way. High-speed rail service in China was introduced on April 18, 2007 and has become immensely popular with an annual ridership of over 1.1 billion in 2015, making the Chinese HSR network the most heavily used in the world. Notable lines include the world's longest line, the 2,298 km (1,428 mi) Beijing–Guangzhou High-Speed Railway and the Shanghai Maglev, the world's first high-speed commercial magnetic levitation (maglev) line and the only non-conventional track line of the network.
The ride to the airport went better than anticipated and so, after saying our fond farewells to our driver of the past week, we headed into the station, bags in tow. Entering the great hall was almost like entering an airport with stringent security procedures, baggage x-ray and digital ticket kiosks as well. The huge terminal was well laid out with gates all around the periphery of the central waiting area leading to escalators which took you to the appropriate platforms. There was an ample array of shops, restaurants and cafes. One particularly interesting kiosk was doing brisk business selling live crabs, some of which had escaped their ties and had to be rewound into compact discs of living material. After checking out the washrooms (strange green rubber mats caused the place to reek) we took a walk around some of the store and then took an escalator to the upper level where there were more western offerings (McDonalds, Starbucks and Subway to name a few). Emmy decided that she could do with an egg McMuffin and we got a coffee from McDonalds and headed back down to our friends who were looking after our luggage on the concourse. In the meantime, Sky had found an ATM where we could withdraw Yuan against a creditcard as we were all running low on cash!
By 9:45am our gate was called and we headed down an escalator to our platform and made our way to the 1st class compartment at the end of the train. We were impressed with the amenities, large picture windows and the comfortable recliner seats and ample leg room with foot rests. We took our assigned seats, as usual Lisette snagging the window seat, and proceeded to investigate the rest of the coach. The overhead baggage racks were designed to take full size suitcases and the concern that the rocking of the train may dislodge one was quickly put to rest by AC who had read online that the train is so steady that you can rest a cup of hot tea on the window ledge and it will get cold before it spills! True to form, we hardly felt the train pull away from the station as it gathered speed out of Shanghai. I guess all our pent up energy came tumbling out as every second person brought out their stash of snacks to share. Beers started materializing out of thin air and the 5 hour ride flew by, literally! Keeping an eye on the speed ticker at the front of the coach, we kept to around 250km/h in the built up area but then did around 300km/h for most of the trip. The landscape kept changing throughout the trip with cloned apartment buildings giving way to carved out mountains. At one point we even went by a remnant of a great wall
which wound it's way over the peaks of the nearby hill range.
As we approached Beijing we decided to take a quick walk to the front of the train to check out the other classes and accomodations as well look for the 3 musketeers who had left over an hour earlier and not returned. Close to the front of the train we found them in the dining car, nursing a couple of beers of which they had saved one for me. We knew that we didn't have much time to guzzle them down before returning to our seats but were unprepared for the sudden announcement over the PA system that we would be reaching BeijingNan station shortly. True to form, we had to fight our way through impatient passengers beginning to prepare for arrival and blocking the narrow aisle. Since our compartment was at the very back of the train, we had quite a bit of a struggle to get back to our seats, just in time to pull into the station.
We managed to gather up all our belongings, strapped our bags together and got off the Bullet train which brought us safely to Beijing and closer to then end of our time with Sky. It was like we were leaving our first born! Over the last week we had grown to like him and I think he had grown to love our insolence. He handed us off to Velma who was all business from the get go. Hardly had we finished saying our goodbyes to Sky when we had to catch up with the 'We China' flag receding into the distance. Balancing our bulky luggage up two flights of escalators, we came to a barred exit with a full length turnstile! Mario took two attempts to get through with his bags when we decided that it was going to be a futile effort and fortunately Velma managed to coerce the guards to unlock the chained exit doors. We streamed out into the brisk Beijing air and made a beeline for the closest bus, only to find that it wasn't ours! Without another bus in sight and Velma scooting down the sidewalk, we threw our first tantrum refusing to move and instead asking to have the bus brought to us. After some unprintable words, Velma convinced us to walk the 500m or so across the median to where the bus was parked. Not sure why they have restricted vehicles around the railway station but guessed it was for security purposes.
Not wanting to waste any time, Velma informed us that we would be making our first stop in Beijing to visit the Summer Palace before heading for dinner. The sun was already low on the horizon and the temperature was dropping by the time we reached the scenic site where the Empress spent half the year. Velma tried to keep us interested in the history behind the Dragon Queen but the cold was getting to our bladders and without an urgent 'susu-play' (Sky's interpretation of AC's 'susu break') we would have been in trouble (owing to the consumption of beers on the train!). We got a few sunset pictures in from the island and mainland before winding our way around a tortuous lakeside parapet to the main area of the Summer Palace. We took a cold (and short) walk along the 'Long Corridor' but the wind had picked up chilling us with the damp breeze off the lake. Beating a hasty retreat to a more protected area we learned more about the several times the Summer Palace had to be rebuilt and eventually got back aboard our bus to head to dinner.
This was one of the more elegant, if not ancient, venues but the interior appeared to be spartan. We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food and were in a much better mood after a beer and some nourishment.
We headed to our new digs for the next 3 days at the Loong Palace Hotel and Resort
in the northwest suburb of Beijing.
Again, the opulence of the entrance and foyer was unimaginable and although tired and cold, spent some time admiring the artwork and sculptures that graced the lobby and hallways.
We were assigned our rooms and headed off to and early night as we were warned to be punctual for an 8:00am start the next day!