From Shanghai to Hong Kong by Train

October 2, 2016

I’ve finally escaped the Great Firewall of China (actually on the train as I begin this, but close enough). If you’ve been monitoring my Facebook and Twitter feeds, you probably know I had a bit of a scare the last few days. My plan to use the 144-hour transit visa to visit Shanghai was solid: arrive at Shanghai Pudong Airport on the 25th, show them my international train ticket to Kowloon Station in Hong Kong for the 30th, and get the visa stamp allowing me six days in China, sans $140 tourist visa fee. Simple, right?

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So it should have been, if I hadn’t nearly made one of the dumbest and very common travel mistakes out there: I didn’t bother to check my passport. I knew that it was valid for another 15 months, easily exceeding the six-month window some countries require for entry, but I had forgotten to consider just how many countries to which I would be traveling: China, HK, possibly Macau and Indonesia, Cambodia, UAE, and Thailand. The United Arab Emirates alone requires a full page for their entry and exit stamps, and Indonesia won’t even allow visitors to enter without at least two blank passport pages.

In short, though I still had 3-4 pages in my passport, I was risking being denied entry to some countries because immigration might not be able to find an empty page to put their fancy stamp. So, with this realization coming to me Wednesday night and my departure on Saturday, something had to be done.

I had two choices, as near as I could tell:

1. Apply for a new passport when I was abroad, most likely at the American Consulate in Chiang Mai LINK, as I planned to spend a few weeks there. Applications overseas take about 14 days.
2. Apply at an official passport agency in Dallas LINK. I would have to pay an expedited fee, which usually ensured a new passport could be available in eight business days. However, I knew the agency was capable of issuing ones for emergencies in as little as 24 hours.

When I discovered the consulate in Chiang Mai would be closed for reconstruction, I chose the latter and was amazingly able to get a shiny, new 52-page passport one day after my application was received. And here’s where the problems with China begin…

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None of this was China’s fault. My free-spirited attitude towards travel – even concerning official procedures like visas, international transportation, and passports – led to this. In fact, considering my unique approach to the transit visa, I’m amazed there wasn’t more of a hassle in the first place.

The problem lay with the passport number. My train ticket from Shanghai to Kowloon, while valid and tied to my name, was also registered under my old passport number. This is not an insignificant problem for a number of reasons. While an airline website retains your passport details for international travel, it only forwards this information when you check in, allowing you to update the number, expiration date, name change, etc. on the website prior to departure.

Not so with train tickets in China. When you buy a ticket and link it to a certain ID number, you’d better have that same, valid ID when you check in, or you’ll have to cancel the ticket and book a new one under the new number.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big deal. However, I had two cold hard facts working against me: I was relying on my train ticket for entry into China, and the day of my departure was on the eve of the biggest holiday in the country, National Day. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of some of the chaos on Chinese trains during that week. Well, if my ticket had to be reissued, I risked not getting one and being trapped by the masses also seeking escape.

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The first hurdle wasn’t weighing on my mind too much… I had the ticket in hand, and unless immigration at Shanghai Pudong Airport had access to China Railways’ passenger information, they would likely accept my ticket as proof of ongoing travel. My main concern was arriving at Shanghai Railway Station, going through security and immigration, then being denied boarding at the last minute because the numbers don’t match. In which case, I would have to wait in a line guaranteed to be a kilometer long to get a new ticket, or buy a last minute plane ticket the evening half the population of China would be flying out.

I got lucky this time, but I hope to never make a mistake that stupid and risky again. Immigration accepted my train ticket as proof of ongoing travel and issued me the 144-hour transit visa, though they also took a long time to jot down my travel information:

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I arrived at Shanghai Railway Terminal three hours early on the 30th just in case there were any hiccups. Railway agents were there to check only ticketed passengers were allowed inside.

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A perfectly modern structure with lots of shops and takeaway restaurants.

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I found the waiting area for the Kowloon train at the south end of the station, gate one. There’s really no point in arriving earlier than 90 minutes before departure. The gates don’t even open until then, and unlike other trains in China with standing room, there’s a finite number of passengers allowed on the international trains, meaning the boarding and immigration lines aren’t too bad even if you’re at the back.

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I passed the first checkpoint without any issue. Immigration had me sweating again as they asked me to step aside while they checked something on my passport. After what felt like eternity but was probably just three minutes, I had my exit stamp:

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From there, it was smooth sailing. Just a short wait until the final gates opened and we were allowed to find our compartments.

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I chose one of the hard sleepers, six to a compartment, but the train also has shared soft sleepers and private rooms. Stretching out and sleeping isn’t really an issue, as the bunks are perfectly suitable and clean. Once we departed, most of the Chinese on board broke out tupperware containers for dinner and sat in the corridors, loudly laughing and chatting amongst themselves. Space is a luxury in China, and it’s not exactly easy to find on this train; there is a dining car and space between the sleeping cars to stretch out, but for the most part, there are no chairs – just bunks – and barely enough room for two people to squeeze past each other.

Depending on this crowd, you might find it difficult to sleep. Some are louder and more inconsiderate than others, just as in any hostel dorm. Men try to smoke just outside the door, causing it to waft through every time someone steps out. I would have preferred the top bunk for the privacy and extra luggage space, but only middle berths were available by the time I booked a ticket.

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After a fairly uneventful 20 hours (extra hour stopping in Guangzhou, for some reason), during which I was able to finish my book and write this piece, we arrived at Hung Hom Station.

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