380A.  Or, also called He Xie.  I’m not referring to computer intelligence in the spirit of Hal 9000 of Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What I’m talking about is the fastest train in the world, known as 380A or He Xie. China unveiled their plans to build this ambitious high-speed train in April 2008.

China was a meager player until the Olympics swept through, opening its doors to the world stage. Certainly manufacturing had been cultivated there for years, yet I always saw China as a quietly, closed country. Then, in 2008, something magical happened. A spotlight was shed on China and the country stepped into the limelight with vigor – brimming with new ideas.

This train is a harbinger of enthusiastic invention, a bright light. So, maybe my reference to Hal 9000 is not far off the mark. As technology and investment continue to permeate China’s economic borders, I’m personally excited to see how much this country changes.

Saying Goodbye

After we spent a fruitful day at the Great Wall in Beijing, we woke the next day with the knowledge that we were about to ride the fastest train track from Beijing to Shanghai, which incidentally, clocks an average speed of 380 km/hr.

Once again, Andy, our tour guide from the Wall and our driver, Mr. Wei, met us that morning to show us the way.

I was sad to part with Andy and Beijing.

After the Wall, I crashed from hunger and exhaustion. Yet, I was still exhilarated from experiencing the Wall. Instead of going straight to Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel, Andy suggested a local restaurant called Alley, far from the tourist traps in  Badaling. At first, I was ravenous, bordering on grumpy, but Andy’s suggestion lifted my mood significantly.

The old sections of Beijing are constructed of narrow alleyways that teem with local businesses, swaying laundry lines, children playing, parked scooters and laughter. Alley is one of these local places, with roots to the community. Another architectural feature of these heritage residences are the courtyards that split a household. These courtyards were used for small gardens, or as a gathering place for meditation or tea time.

Alley is a prime example of this. This former household, now restaurant, is Beijing’s hidden treasure. It’s family owned, once run by the mother and father, now run by their children – a brother and sister.

We all agreed on the last day of the Trans-Manchurian that what we wanted most was spicy food, a stationary bed and a shower.

Andy delivered on the first item.

We washed down the salty, tangy and spicy flavors with some much needed beer. It was a perfect end to the Great Wall.

If you want to find Alley, you really can’t. I couldn’t, even if someone gave me a map. That’s how local it is. They don’t even have an active website.

Here’s their address and email though:

Xiguan HuTong
#44, Dong Cheng District
Beijing, China
Email: P17428770@99.com (try this and let me know if the email address doesn’t work, I’ll give you an alternate offline).

I will miss the charms of Beijing, which I saw too little of.

The high-speed train was calling.

Our Ride on the Jinghu High-Speed Railway

Time was of the essence, as we had to catch our train around 8 am. Sleeping late and waking early is the norm, so chatter during the morning car ride was minimal. I was grateful for the ride, it definitely made it easier to catch our train on time.

Andy made sure we knew which gate we were departing from, and said goodbye, shaking hands in friendship. It’s getting harder to say goodbye these days.

I hadn’t envisioned what Beijing South Station might look like, having arrived at Beijing Railway Station the day before, one of the oldest train stations, built in the 1950’s.

This definitely wasn’t the 1950’s.

Maybe I was a bewildered Frank Poole, for my mind could not catch up with my body.

We had stepped into the future. The China of yesteryear disappeared.

Replaced with rectangle screens that glow with tungsten.

A device that gobbled tickets without a hand to feed it.

Words and pictures lit without the aid of fire.

Sustenance came freeze-dried and pre-packaged.

The most fascinating was this time capsule we were about to board.

In the “old” China, Beijing to Shanghai took 18 hours. With this time travel portal, the trip would clock in at four hours.

Inside the Fastest Train in the World

Let me preface this, I know writing this will sound bizarre.

The fastest train in the world is very, very clean. Spotless.

The aisles were spacious, wider than any mode of transport I’ve experienced to date. This includes airplanes, ferries, trains and buses. A mother could easily push a baby carriage through, plus her luggage at the same time.

The interior sang of European lines and design.

A main feature that sold me? Gleaming, pretty washrooms.

Don’t mock me. I spend a third of my life in them for frick sakes.

You can measure how a typical train trip might feel in the gut. That sensation of motion. The bumps and lurches that toggle your brain to remind you – I am on a train.

None of these characteristics appeared on the Jinghu high-speed railway. We were gliding on butter, existing in an insulated world for those four hours.

You may wonder how fast were we going? I have pictorial evidence of 306 km/hour, but Michael saw 340 km/hour at one point. Unbelievable.

When we arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station all I wanted was to get back on again.

It felt weird and wonderful. Like I was taking part in building the future, breaking ground somehow.

Probably as close to space as I’ll ever get.

I’ll take it.

Big thanks to to China Odyssey Tours for arranging our Chinese tours, transport and train tickets. We immensely enjoyed our ride on the world’s fastest train from Beijing to Shanghai. A secondary thanks goes to HostelBookers for arranging our stay at  Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel. Our visit through China was a pleasure because of your hospitality!

Alley restaurant photos courtesy of Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo