Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Train Trip from China (Guangzhou) to Vietnam (Hanoi)

I have travelled from Guangzhou City to Hanoi (Vietnam) by train, stopping in Nanning overnight. This trip was memorable for several reasons:

1. Boarding the train in Guangzhou City, I almost lost my limbs trying to hold onto to my baggage as Chinese mainlanders pushed and shoved their way in.
2. The railway embankments along the side of the railway were filled with garbage for a considerable part of the trip
3. Chinese commuters spitting on the train - the highlight was a granny hurling a 'red one' in front of me. I hope her health improves.
4. Nanning was pleasant for the great food ate there. Had a good Indian curry at some classy hotel for just a dollar too.
5. Waiting overnight for a train to Hanoi on the border. The highlight was meeting some westerners in the streets on Day 2, then the three of us waiting 9 hours for a train departing at 2 midnight for Hanoi.
6. Being awoken at the border to complete paperwork for immigration. The highlight was the officials attempting to bribe everyone. They said we didn't have a required stamp. I said fine, I will pay more if they give me an official receipt and their ID. No problem :)
7. The Chinese side of the border had some very beautiful countryside - limestone tors like Halong Bay in Vietnam, but on this occasion the tors are on land with rivers flowing around them. The scenery was however diminished by the pollution or hazy blanketing the landscape.

This photo shows the train timetable to Hanoi at the Chinese border. We had 9 hours to read it, then it took the 7-odd passengers there 2 hours to be processed through immigration for the Chinese authorities. We witnessed 2 Chinese girls trying to bribe the officials to get on the train to Vietnam.

Train Travel in the Philippines

I have used the MRT and LRT lines in the Philippines. These services are pretty new, but are performing well. Like anywhere they can be very crowded, particularly during peak hour. Be careful you dont loose your wallet in peak periods. The inefficency with these services is the time you can spend in queue buying a ticket - often 30-40 people long. But it beats dealing with the road traffic, which is bad pretty well everywhere in Manila, except on weekends.

The Philippines national railway (PNR) network is in a state of disrepair, after operations ceased, homeless people in Manila even live on the travels. Though recently a Chinese company agreed to rehabilitate the network.

By far the best way to travel in the Philippines is by bus. The attendants are very good at remembering where you want to go, and helping you get there. Very cheap. You can go 100km for just P100 ($2.50).

I try to ensure I get a window seat so I can watch over any luggage in the trunk.

Train Travel in Europe

I have not been to Europe, so I am keen to try a train service there. All I can say at this stage is to read up. I know you can travel around the whole of Europe on travel passes, that the services are as efficient as Japan, and that they compete with planes.

Rail travel in Australia

I am not a big fan of rail travel in Australia. The network is expensive, old, and inefficient. Perhaps the positive aspect of an old, windy network is the scenery that can be viewed, though thats only the case if you are travelling during the day. The scenery is quite nice along the east coast of the country. So you might try the trip from Sydney to Brisbane. You are wasting time going from Brisbane to Sydney because its a night train.
Another good trip is the Sydney to Nowra (Bombaderry) trip, as it takes in some breathtaking views of the coast. This is a tortuously slow trip as well, which means its a bit of a rush as a day trip, but fine for a weekend. Places you might stop are:
1. Berry - it has a market, and its nice to walk around the town, and eat in the old pubs
2. Gerringong - Its nice to walk along the beach, though its a long walk from the train station.
3. Kiama - This nice town is worth a visit, and it has a blow-hole on the headland.

The trip from Sydney to Melbourne is a waste of time, you can see so much more travelling by car or campervan. See my campervanning blog at http://campa-living.blogspot.com/.

Rail travel in Japan

Japan has one of the most efficient railway systems in the world is you look at it in terms of passenger experience. Though I dare say if you looked at the system from the point of view of a banker, it might not look so great. Who cares! We are there for the experience. And Japan provides a range of experiences. I have covered about 70% of the country as a tourist. I have been on shinkansens, rapid, express, semi-express and local trains in all provinces, except those in Hokkaido and the far north east corner of Honshu, and the small network on the island of Shikoku.

Why go to Japan?

For westerners, Japan is a 'must see' travel destination because people's perceptions of the country are often severely misguided. The fact that its culture and people are so different is perhaps the most compelling reason for going.

Why travel around Japan by rail?

Japan is a high cost destination for foreigners. For this reason the Japanese government and Japan Rail have developed the Japan Rail Pass as an incentive for foreigners on tourist visas to travel around for a pre-set period for a subsidised cost. Of course the pass only makes sense if you use it. There is also a JR Pass available for Japan East which can be used for any 5 days in the month, in which case you active the 'day' on your first trip.

The pass overcomes some of the cost obstacles of travelling to Japan. But dont assume that Japan is expensive. You can actually travel cheaply in Japan if you plan well. See my tips on my travel blog at http://the-rail-way.blogspot.com. It can be surprisingly cheap.

Ticket types & prices

You can get passes for 7, 14, 21 consecutive days, with the longer periods being cheaper. The prices of the passes are
www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en003.html. There are alot of conditions, none particularly onerous.

www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/index.html for a better description of the tickets in each region.

Ticket Conditions

You need to buy the ticket outside of Japan, and you need to be a non-resident. If you are coming for Japan for work, you will not be able to use it without invalidating your visa upon exit from the country. Japanese people can also acquire the special ticket if they are a spouse of a foreigner and a long term foreign resident. For answers to all your questions about the pass - see

How to use the JR Pass

If you want to get maximum value from the pass I suggest using it every day for as long as possible. Leave at 6:30AM in the morning and find 'camp' at 9PM at night. The speed of the skinkansens means that you get quickly get to anywhere on the trunk line within 2-3 hours, but that is little help if you are stuck in the mountains. Train services in some remote mountain areas sometimes are as infrequent as 3 trains a day, and that might not even help if you have bad connections. There is a very good English-based timetable for planning your trip. See
http://www.hyperdia.com/. You can live by this train schedule, as Japanese trains are late for only one reason - suicides, and delays tend to only occur in the cities.

If you travel with a computer, you can buy pre-paid PCMCIA data cards at places like Bic Camera in Tokyo (Ikebukuro, Akihabara). I think the best way to travel is to use the very fast skinkansens for long distance or place jumping, and the slower local trains to see the scenic parts of Japan. There are some very nice valleys to explore using Japan Rail. If you are a single guy, try staying in the capsule hotels in the major cities like Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya), Hiroshima, Nagoya and Fukuoka. In the small country towns there are guest houses that are getting cheaper, as well as traditional ryokans. If you are staying more than a month in a major city, search for a 'gaijin house' online. eg. Sakura House. These places dont require bonds, and you can leave with a week notice.