“The train I ride, sixteen coaches long.”
– Elvis, “Mystery Train”
A recent email to a friend in England got me thinking I should write something about the express trains in Asia because I’ve ridden them in China, Korea, and Japan by now. I deliberately included two train journeys on the Japan leg of this trip so I could see how their trains stack up against their Korean and Chinese counterparts. I can’t comment on the various engines and technical specifications of trains, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for that. I do enjoy train travel though. Maybe that’s because America relies on cars and planes for transportation more than trains and I didn’t ride on a train until college. There’s something relaxing about it: Looking out the window, watching the scenery roll by, pulling into different stations, and not being beholden to highway traffic all figure into why the train’s the way to travel. Having easy access to food, drink, and restrooms helps, too.
Train journeys to date in Asia:
  • Korea
    • Seoul–Busan (and other points on that line)
    • Seoul–Gwangju
    • and many others.
  • China
    • Shanghai–Hangzhou and back
    • Shanghai–Beijing
  • Japan
    • Osaka–Hiroshima
    • Hiroshima–Tokyo
How do they stack up?
Japan’s trains are the most comfortable overall because they more leg and luggage room, electrical outlets for stuff, and individual windows. The Korean KTX trains have these windows for two rows of seats at a time, so you’re screwed if the guy ahead or behind you wants to pull the shade down and sleep! The Japanese trains were a bit noisier in terms of wind noise, but people keep as quiet as they would in a library inside. The Chinese trains, by contrast, were lively bordering on noisy. And the KTX? In my experience it all depends on the day. I’ve ridden on some louder ones and I’ve ridden on some quiet ones.
Something else that warrants comment: Getting the tickets themselves. I can’t comment on booking Chinese or Japanese train tickets online, but I have gotten tickets at counters in all three countries. Japan and Korea are similar: Just walk up, ask for ticket, and swipe your card. It’s an open desk between between the traveler and the clerk. China’s different. The clerk was behind a glass partition and there’s a microphone the traveler speaks into. As soon as I saw this, I knew there could be communication problems, especially because I know little Chinese and struggle with pronunciation. I wasn’t sure how much English the clerk would know as well. My solution? Writing everything down on a notepad. I wrote something like this in Shanghai:
Shanghai to Beijing
2 tickets
Economy class
11:30am train [I’d checked train times online]
The notepad method made everything easy. The clerks all understood the functional English and the romanized Chinese. What happened next was that she (it was a woman all three times) typed a few things, swung the computer monitor toward me, and asked which train time I wanted. I pointed to one, she typed some more things, and then asked for passports. Now, the first time I booked tickets, I for some reason didn’t have my passport on me and only had my Korean residence card. And I didn’t want to have to make two trips, so I took a chance and offered her the Korean card. And it worked! I don’t know if it was supposed to or not, so if you’re reading this, please come to the station prepared with your passport. And pen and paper. Writing stuff down makes everything easy.
I hope this helps. Happy travels.
Written over Scandanavia and Russia en route to London, revised and published while in Malaga, Spain.
I never had to show ID in Japan for train tickets. I usually would show my passport in Korea as a matter of course, but I don’t know if it’s required or not. Actually, I have just walked up to the counter and said, “KTX to Daejeon, please,” and gotten a ticket without showing a passport.
A couple of tunes to go along with riding trains:
Sanulrim — Express Train
A classic Korean rock group. I wrote a bit about them on Dispatches from Gangwon. This song kicks off their fourth album, Vol. 4. It came out in 1980 and features many songs they did for TV and film. As a results, it’s quite varied in sound. Volume 4 is available individually or as part of a box set with Volumes 5 and 6.
Elvis Presley — Mystery Train
Let’s jump back to the early days of rock and roll with this one. Classic groove. Included here for the thrill of riding on new trains in foreign countries.
One more: Here’s The New York Dolls and their song “Subway Train.”
About being down and out. I love the way this song keeps building and building until it gets to the break. And the way the guitars kick in on the chorus…woohoo! The way they echo each other…talk about movement. Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain’s guitars lock up perfectly. Johnny Thunders would later record the song on his solo album So Alone in 1978. I like how the song feeling of despair and loneliness connects to the title of his album. Try comparing David Johansen’s vocals with Johnny Thunders’s. Thunders’ thinner voice works in his favor his here, for he conveys the despair well. Johansen’s is fuller and more confident, yet I think the Dolls’s version boasts a stronger arrangement and better production. Look up Thunders’ version and hear for yourself.