Like many Indians, I’m used to spending a day travelling from one city to another: either stuck in traffic getting to the airport and then circling the destination airport because of air traffic, or stuck in an uncomfortable train as it chugs along slowly changing landscapes. As a result, when I visit another country I tend to think of it as relatively small. In Switzerland, you may not want to doze off in a train unless you want to wake up in another country. Japan and Korea are definitely small. Even France and Germany seem small because the trains are fast.
It is when you get to China that the vastness of a foreign country strikes you. Of course you know that China is thrice as large as India. But then (unless you are going to western China) you may look at the map and think that this is not such a long way from Beijing. You will be mistaken.
The Family and I thought we would take a weekend during our time in Beijing to see Xi’an. Our constraints are that we have to be in Beijing for work till late afternoon on Friday and from the morning on Monday. So our first thought was that we could fly. The price structure for flights in China is quite different from that in India. India is a buyer’s market: a two hour’s flight will not cost you much more that INR 6000 or so, often cheaper. In China it will not cost you less than that. It is clearly a seller’s market, with the price going up thrice or more in peak hours! Friday evening out from Beijing and Sunday evening back is clearly the Everest of peak hours.
So we started looking at trains. Beijing to Xi’an by a normal train takes around 12 hours. That is about the distance between Mumbai and Nagpur, which could cost you about INR 1000 or less, in India. In China it costs around thrice as much! And, needless to say, we may not be able to spend 12 hours each way just travelling, unless we do it overnight. Then we would have to take a sleeper, either the "hard sleeper", which is like the Indian III AC (see the picture on the left), or the "soft sleeper", which is similar to one of the European Wagonlit coaches (see the picture on the right). Of course, the prices for these can begin to touch the level of the cheaper flight tickets.
This is China, so there is yet another option, which is to take a high speed G class train. These travel at 300 Km an hour. This would cut the Beijing-Xi’an travel time down to 5 hours. Of course it costs as much as a cheap flight.
Between the prices and the distances, travelling in China is not so easy. Perhaps the average middle class Chinese earns significantly more than a middle class Indian. Or maybe they travel less frequently. I guess I will begin to find out more by this time next week.