Romance of the Beijing-Moscow line
|November 5, 2012||Posted by Ocean Shipping Communication China under Railway News||
The outside of one of the green carriages on the K3 train, which runs from Beijing to Moscow via Ulan Bator. The route began on May 24, 1960. Provided to China Daily
New trains may rekindle interest in riding the rails
As Wang Hairuo, a 25-year-old Beijing resident, waited for the train on the morning of Sept 26, he felt like Harry Potter standing on platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, expecting the train to Hogwarts.
Different from his previous trips, his impending travel from Beijing Railway Station made him feel that his own magic journey was about to start. It would take him all the way to Moscow, passing through five time zones and 80 degrees of longitude. The duration of the one-way trip – six days and five nights – set a new record for his longest trip ever by train.
“It was just amazing!” he said, after arriving back from Moscow. He posted photos on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, where he shared his reaction to the 7,628-km train ride with friends.
China operates a number of international train routes across its border, connecting it with neighboring countries and beyond. Among them, the K3/4 train running between Beijing and Moscow (K3 from Beijing to Moscow, and K4 from Moscow to Beijing) has been operating for more than 50 years. It was the country’s first international train route, and it remains perhaps China’s most famous international rail journey.
Beginning on May 24, 1960, the K3 train departed for the first time from Beijing to Moscow via Ulan Bator and wild Siberia. Over the past 52 years, the train has run once a week all year round. It did not stop, even for a day, when ties between China and the former Soviet Union worsened and frayed in the 1960s, according to Gao Jun, head of the international transportation team at Beijing Railway Station, which operates the train.
In 1956, railway ministers from 12 major countries in Eastern Europe and Asia established the Organization for Cooperation of Railways, to improve the coordination of rail transportation. As the equivalent of the International Union of Railways established by Western European countries, the organization has helped develop railway transportation among its member countries.
As one member country, China started to run its train routes with neighboring countries. Over the past five decades, the Beijing-Moscow route has transported more than 1.4 million people from about 100 countries.
“It used to be one of the most well-known ways for Western travelers to reach China and the Far East,” Gao said, adding that diplomats, foreign students and officials on business trips abroad made up the majority of passengers at the very beginning.
More convenient trip
Wang is probably among the last group of travelers to take the train that was put into use in 1996. Soon it will be upgraded by a new generation of trains offering a more convenient ride, according to Gao. He said the second round of test rides on the new train has just been completed, and the official launch has been provisionally arranged for November.
The new train was made in China and will replace the current German-made train on the route, according to Liu Yonggang, chief designer of the new train from Qingdao-based CSR Sifang Corporation, a native train producer.
Compartments in the current train are still heated by burning coals, but the new train will use electricity to heat compartments, and the temperature inside can be kept constant, Liu said.
Though still bearing its signature green color like most other Chinese passenger trains in the 1990s, facilities inside the new train will be much more comfortable. They will include an air-conditioning system for the first time, he said.
“The temperature inside can reach more than 40 C in summer, and in winter go as low as -50 C. You can imagine why we are so demanding about the technological improvements of the train,” Gao said.
There will also be toilets and sleepers specially designed for disabled passengers, he said.
Old business route
During the period of the 1980s and early 1990s, the train experienced its “golden age” as a result of China’s opening- up. Chinese merchants went to seek opportunities in an exotic land. Passenger boom reached its peak after the fall of the former Soviet Union, when there was a big demand for consumer goods.
“It was always fully packed, every time!” Gao recalled. He was a conductor on the train from 1985 to early 1992. All 280 seats were occupied by Chinese “gold-rushers”, he said – businessmen looking for quick ways to make money who transported gloves, leather jackets and shoes to Russia. It was so popular that every time the train stopped at a station along the way, local residents rushed to the windows and vied for the goods.
“And they were usually all sold off before they arrived in Moscow,” he said.
A series of crimes, including robbery and rape, took place on the train in the early 1990s, reflecting the darker side of the chaotic cross-border trade operating on the route at that time.
The train witnessed a gradual decline in passengers after that peak period, especially when new regulations on cross-border trade were enforced. It lost its appeal to business travelers because it was so much more time-consuming than flying, according to Cao Lili, who is in charge of the ticket center at Beijing-based CITS Tourist Agency.
“Most passengers now book tickets for a short-distance ride, such as from Beijing to Ulan Bator,” she said, adding that fewer and fewer passengers have enough patience to take the train from beginning to end.
The occupancy of each ride is no more than 50 percent during the winter or even less, according to Gao. Train journeys of that length have lost their charm for many passengers.
Compared with the extensive flight network linking China to the world, there remain only a few train routes. Apart from Beijing, other cities that run international train services, such as Nanning and Harbin, are mostly in border provinces.
But traveling by international train has great appeal to young backpackers like Wang. There are numerous posts and heated discussions about the train between Beijing and Moscow on online forums. That’s also where he studied the feasibility of his trip and then finally made his decision.
From the Gobi Dessert in Mongolia to the ocean of birch trees in Russia, the dramatic changes in scenery out the window kept the young man captivated. Most of the time, he did not need to say a word. He said that gazing contentedly at the views without being disturbed by text messages was a special experience that could not be found easily elsewhere.
“This is not what air travel can convey,” he said.
Wang also came across several like-minded train friends on board. An old Malaysian woman took the train all by herself. Having traveled to many countries, she said she never makes plans but just heads for the next destination, following her interest. The only luggage she had was a small backpack. The gypsy lifestyle impressed Wang a great deal.
According to Gao, in addition to the short-distance riders, energetic backpackers and silver-haired travelers now make up the two largest groups of long-distance passengers. Though the majority of passengers in the past were from the West, the number of Chinese is now growing.
Operators of the new train hope they can raise its top speed to 160 kilometers per hour in the next two years, according to Liu.
Gao said the length of a one-way trip could be shortened to three days in future. He is looking forward to that moment because as the train becomes more convenient and efficient, it will possibly bring back the “golden times” again. Three days for a one-way trip will sound much more appealing to people, who are now so time-conscious.
“That’s going to be a huge difference,” he said.
Source: China Daily