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Ticket in hand, I arrived at Beijing West, a giant hulk of a railway station. In the morning chill, a crowd had gathered in front of the airport-style security gates for the luggage X-ray and passport inspection.
My guide, not being a ticket holder, could accompany me no further. “There will be 19 stops to Guilin,” he said, breath billowing white vapour around his head. “The longest will be nine minutes; the average just one or two. So please, do not get off.” Then, with a soft handshake, he was off.
The 1,956km journey from the capital to Guilin, the southwestern city whose karst mountains have made it one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, used to take 26 hours. But thanks to a new high-speed rail link, one of seven inaugurated at the end of December, it is now possible in just over 10.
Together, the new routes bring the country’s high-speed rail network to more than 10,000km – half of the world’s total – the result of a determined drive by the government during the past decade, in part to stimulate a slowing economy. But the new routes are also changing the tourist map of China, making new itineraries possible, removing the need for internal flights (which have become notorious for delays) and bringing within easy reach destinations that were once the preserve of backpackers with months to spare.
The train from Beijing to Xian (home of the Terracotta Army statues) now takes just four-and-a-half hours (down from 11 hours), while Beijing to Shanghai takes under five hours, half the previous travel time.
Inside the station, fast-food restaurants did a brisk trade in breakfast noodles, while women in high heels clicked their way across the gleaming floor, wheeling suitcases behind them.
Ten minutes before our departure, a squad of railway staff in mauve suits appeared, and the passengers filed down the platform in an orderly queue, passing the streamlined white snout of the G529 to Guilin. The train, a 16-car CRH380BL model, is based on the Siemens Velaro trains used in Germany but was manufactured in Hebei province, the product of a “technology transfer” agreement with the German company. A new bullet train that uses only China’s own technology is expected before the end of 2015, the same year the China Railway Corporation is due to complete its target of 19,000km of high-speed track.
Right on time, at 7.46am, we eased out of the station and a hush of anticipation descended on the carriage. On either side of the tracks, clusters of dusky pink apartment blocks reached skywards. Beijing, soft-focused by sooty skies, looked vast and beige. After 30 minutes, the electronic speedometer at the front of our carriage read 250km/h – faster than the average speed of Formula One racing cars in a Grand Prix.
Despite the speed, there was almost no sense of movement, unlike aboard the older “green” and “red” trains used by China’s legion of migrant workers. Those trains typically have hard seats and lights that stay on all night, but also meals that cost just Rmb10 (just under £1); on the high-speed trains, the price is four times that. My one way, second-class ticket to Guilin cost Rmb806 (£78).
Suddenly, there was a commotion inside the carriage. Mobile phones, previously attached to either hand or ear, were lifted up above heads to snap pictures of the speedometer as the train hit 300km/h. A few men, dewy-eyed with pride, huddled underneath the neon numbers and grinned for photographs.
At Shijiazhuang, our first stop, we glided up to the deserted platform. Although this is the largest city in Hebei province, with a population of more than 10m, a lone train guard looked on as just two people boarded. Then, a mere three minutes later, we were zooming southwards once more through a flat agricultural landscape into the Chinese hinterland.
Lunchtime was signalled by the smell of noodles filling the carriage, and a trolley wheeled in by an attendant in a dapper purple hat and glossy knee-length leather boots.
As well as the migrant workers, the other group noticeably absent were the hawkers, stalwarts of traditional long-distance Asian train travel. In the seat next to me, Ding Li, an engineer just back from working in Germany, told me why he thought they had disappeared.
“On these fast trains the stops are too short for them to trade,” he said. “We used to picnic on the old trains. The floor would be covered in sunflower seeds and chicken’s feet, and people would jump off to buy beer and smoke. Now, with high-speed, the stops are so short that none of this is possible any more.” Li held up an electronic cigarette to illustrate his point.
Further south, green hills began to rise on the horizon. There was a sense of distance, scale and geography aboard the train that would be impossible to gauge from the seat of an aeroplane. Then, unannounced, the celebrated pea-green limestone peaks of Guilin emerged.
Countless and hairpin-shaped, they gave the impression that we were travelling headlong into a giant Chinese brush painting. The air began to look cleaner, as if a camera lens had been wiped free of grime. This is a landscape eulogised in China, referred to by tourist officials, guidebooks and many others as the “most scenic place under heaven”.
Predictably, passengers unzipped camera bags, screwed on lenses and raced to the windows to capture the misty karst mountains that dipped in and out of view.
Finally we eased to a stop. The train’s doors noiselessly opened and we filed on to the platform, heavy with fatigue. Suddenly, China felt a much smaller place.
Caroline Eden was a guest of Ampersand Travel (ampersandtravel.com) and Finnair (finnair.com). Ampersand’s five-night tour from Beijing to Guilin, including high-speed train, guide, two nights at Raffles Beijing (raffles.com) and three nights at the Shangri-La Guilin (shangri-la.com) costs from £2,105. Return Finnair flights from London to Beijing cost from £462