the train to mombasa

posted in: travel 1

G and I are in Kenya for a 3-week holiday, and our only concrete plan was to take the overnight train to the coast. So shortly after arriving to Nairobi, we went to the railway station to check out our options.

nairobi train station

There is only one train route going through Nairobi: Read More

mega transit sign in Oslo!

posted in: oslo 0

Today I happened to pass by just as Trafikanten was installing a brand new transit sign at Oslo’s busiest interchange, Jernbanetorget.

This totally made my day! Since every single bus/tram/subway/train in Oslo passes through this station, all their different platforms are spread over a few blocks, both above and underground. Which can be annoying when, like last week, I was waiting for a bus on Platform D when I could have taken the tram from Platform E (which I only saw passing by after it had pulled out). No longer!

During the installation, they also handed out cups of warm gløgg as people stopped to admire the signs (at least I think it was gløgg, since I’ve never had it before: dark, almost coffee-coloured, and overly sweet…) Good times had by all! Or at least by me.

trains in china

posted in: china, travel 0

Trains are a great way to travel within China. There are several different categories of train, as identified through the route number. Routes consisting only of digits (no letters) are the regular, cheapest (and slowest) trains. Train numbers starting with ‘K’ are fast trains (kuai literally means fast), T trains are te-kuai (especially fast), and Z trains are zui kuai (“fastest”). Except nowadays there are even faster, more modern trains in the C & D category (no idea what these stand for), available on popular routes such as Beijing-Shanghai.

Seats fill up fast though, so unless you got your tickets early you may not have a choice of train. Train tickets are sold only 11 days in advance, and only from the city of departure: you cannot buy a ticket in Beijing for a train departing from Xian, for example. (Well, you can pay a travel agency to do this for you for a fee, but they are still limited by the 11-day selling period.) Since I rarely travel on a fixed itinerary, I typically buy tickets the old-fashioned way: jostling with everyone else at the train station.

schedule board in Beijing

As time-consuming and painful as it seems, I actually like going to the train station to buy tickets. Before you even get in line, there is typically a board showing ticket availability for the next 11 days–though it takes forever to flip through when at a major hub like Beijing. In addition to the different train routes, there are 4 classes of tickets: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper & soft sleeper. Hardness/softness isn’t literal (except possibly in the case of hard seats), but they do indicate the level of comfort you will be traveling in. Hard sleepers mean sharing a train compartment of 6 bunk beds, while soft sleepers have only 4 (along with a door that closes, if I remember correctly). And for some reason, the higher up your bed is, the cheaper the ticket–for reasons I haven’t figured out yet.

Actually, there is a fifth category: “no seat,” which I suppose is cheapest of all, but would only do if the distance were short (or your desperation great).

waiting in line in Xian

This summer I visited a few different train stations and couldn’t help but notice a general change in people’s behaviour. On my first trip to China five years ago, I remember being appalled and intimidated by people pushing and butting in front and crowding the ticket window–all this despite the metal guardrails put in place to enforce a line. But now in 2010, it was quite orderly: though you still feel rushed by the sheer number of people behind you, no one is shoving you and you get your turn at the window like everyone else.

I have no idea what you’d do if you didn’t speak Chinese though.

When we were in Xian, it was impossible to get sleeper tickets to Beijing, so we opted for soft seats on the overnight Z train:

And because of ticket availability, our plan to go from Beijing to Ha’erbin was replaced as we got hard sleeper tickets on a regular train to Dandong:

hard sleeper car with obsessive train worker who swept every 5 minutes

This 20-hour trip was uneventful except for the police boarding the train at one point and checking everyone’s ID card (not sure what that was about). Our car was also quite peaceful compared to other overnight trains I’ve taken before: no raucous drunken card playing in the middle of the night, but rather families playing with their young kids or napping away the time.

he was fascinated by my passport
woman & her mother quietly playing cards
our compartment, from above

Then there was the couple on the bottom bunks, who for the 20-hour duration would magically bring out from the recesses of their luggage more and more bags of food (instant noodles, crackers, cucumbers, peaches, you name it)–which put our meager snack bag to shame (at that point of the trip we didn’t even have a tea canister! unthinkable in China…). A sample of our booty: “bimbo” bread (mediocre white bun with red bean), sunflower seeds, dried kiwi and dried tofu snacks.

st-siméon ferry

posted in: travel 0

Mixed it up this time on this trip to NB and drove north of the Saint-Laurent instead of the highway south, crossing over to Rivière-du-Loup using the ferry at St-Siméon.

and what a fancy ferry it was! first there were the binoculars and the elevator…

then there was the diner and bar:

and hmm, what else? how about an enclosed kids room and arcade?

no wonder it cost $72 for a car + 2 passengers. 🙁

costliest cities for public transport

posted in: hong kong, new york 0

New graphic from the Economist. The cost for Hong Kong is interesting, given that its MTR was completely privatised in 2000. Compare with New York’s MTA, which is a (government owned) public-benefit corporation.

public transportation prices - economist

To be fair, the way trips are priced is different for the two cities: in Hong Kong your fare varies by distance (paid for using your trusty Octopus card, which by the way is also accepted at places like Starbucks or KFC), whereas in New York it’s a flat rate of $2.25. Economically speaking the Hong Kong method is of course more efficient, while New Yorkers get a better deal when taking longer rides.

In my personal experience, taking public transportation in Hong Kong is a dream–it’s seriously one of my favourite things to do in the city (including trips on the Star Ferry). But in NYC, frustration rules–subway stations are falling apart, there are always delays, and don’t get me started on the number of re-routings done on the weekend… however, the NY subway does run 24/7, and the unique express trains give the satisfying psychological illusion of going fast.

According to wikipedia the New York subway has 1.6 billion passenger rides per year (4th largest in the world) versus 1.3 billion in HK (7th). The top three most used subway systems are Tokyo, Moscow, and Seoul.

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