Matthew Woodward explains why fast isn’t always best when it comes to enjoying a great meal on a Chinese express train
Since 2014 it has been possible to travel by train from Beijing to Shenzhen (for Hong Kong) in as little as 10 hours and 8 minutes, a journey that previously took over 24 hours. But the arrival of the high-speed train comes at the cost of freshly cooked food: these new “G” and “D” class trains now usually just offer passengers simple airline style microwaved meals served in plastic cartons, taking some of the fun and romance out of the otherwise amazing journey.
But don't despair – if you have time or are on a tight budget, try the older - but still very efficient – express and sleeper trains (known as Z/T/K trains), Here there is still a great culinary adventure to be experienced. These are still fast trains, and it is the way most Chinese choose to travel long distance.
As you settle in, you will normally find a thermos flask, slippers and some chopsticks are provided. At the end of your carriage is a hot water boiler allowing you to enjoy a cup of coffee or a simple snack whenever you like.
Many Chinese live on just instant noodles throughout their journey and these trains have a small army of people wandering up and down the corridor selling such snacks. You will be amazed at the range of toys, souvenirs, and clothes they sell in addition to food and drink.
Once you are feeling suitably hungry, head for the dining car. Ask your carriage guard in which direction you should be walking, and how many carriages away it is before you set off. Some of these trains are over 20 carriages long, so it's a useful test of your sign language and basic Mandarin. Tip – most carriages look the same, so mark your door with something you will recognize for your return.
Ignore the stares of any curious locals when you first enter the restaurant carriage. You may well be the talking point of their supper! The person dressed like a policeman loitering at one end is in fact the person who normally takes orders (and payment) for food before you sit down.
If you have a meal voucher, hand it over and you will be directed to a table to sit at. You may not have a choice of food, as the voucher might be for a single set menu, so be prepared to be adventurous and enjoy the dish of the day.
If you don't have a voucher, you need to bend the rules a little bit. Smile, gesture to a table and just go in and sit down. There will be a menu on the table, and the staff will normally let you order your food from this and pay when you leave. Now comes the fun bit..
Can’t read the menu?
The menu will just be written in Chinese. Don't panic though, as there are two good solutions for those that can’t read Mandarin. The first one is to look around the tables of your fellow diners and take a photograph (using your phone) of any dishes you see that you like the look of. Don't be shy, no one will mind. Then you can then show this to the person who comes over to take your order.
The second, and my preferred approach, is to pick up the menu and ask diners to point at which dish they are eating – so you can then order like a Chinese restaurant carriage regular by pointing at the menu. If you can memorize the price of the dish it can be easier to find again on the menu. The people who have helped you will be very keen to know if you enjoyed their choice..
Of course all of this fails if no one else is eating, in which case a “point to it” style picture book can be a brilliant back up plan.
Tea is usually served in a glass with a pile of leaves sprinkled on top of the hot water. Coffee is instant and normally not so good (better to bring your own). Pretty much every Chinese train will sell you a bottle (or can) of reasonable pilsner style beer. The brands vary, and that's all part of the fun.
Some trains sell a Chinese wine (both red and white) called “Great Wall”. It’s actually quite pleasant (tasting note - quite sweet), but not always available. Be careful if you are thinking of trying the Chinese “brandy” on sale in thankfully small bottles. It has a unique flavor that many Western palettes may associate with stale socks.
Chinese restaurant carriages actually still use fresh ingredients on huge gas-powered woks and only usually cook food to order. As it’s not hanging about for long you would be very unlucky to have a problem, other than possibly eating too much!
Not at all. There is one price for everyone and the food is priced to be very affordable. Note that it is cash only, and don't expect to be able to pay in US Dollars or anything other than Chinese RMB. There is of course no service charge, and tipping is not expected.
Enjoy your meal, or they say in Mandarin – “qǐng màn yòng” – or literally translated, “please eat slowly”!
Matthew Woodward has recently returned from his third Trans-Siberian rail adventure, now having covered over 50000 km on the train from his home in Edinburgh, reaching Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo. His blog can be found at - http://toadstraveladventures.blogspot.co.uk