So apparently the cheapest and most efficient way to get across China is on one of its gleaming new trains which will magic-carpet you to your chosen destination.
Yes and no.
I had my first experience on China's rail network last night when I took the overnighter from Shanghai to Pingyao via a transit in Taiyuan.
Firstly, the 500km/h maglev trains which we read so much about? Well, that's only limited to the Shanghai Airport - Pudong route. A ride of 8 mins. The rest of the country is still on conventional rail.
UPDATE (16.05.15) - I stand corrected. PARTS of China's rail network is capable of speeds greater than 200km/h, and that's classified as High Speed Rail (HSR). See bottom of the post for more information.
Secondly, the reality is that long-distance rail travel is well, long, owing to the massive size of the country. Shanghai to Taiyuan, which is roughly a third of China's East-West breadth, is a journey of 14 hours. To Pingyao, including transit time is about 20 hours. Total distance of about 1,500km.
Thirdly, I can tell you that you won't be travelling in supreme comfort.
Well at least they're relatively clean. The pillows and sheets had erm, minimal staining, and the toilets flush. That's like a quantum leap from 15 years ago. They are, however, painfully short on amenities. You get a hot water tap. No food cart, no drinks station. BYO thermos and instant noodles.
They somehow managed to squeeze six (6) bunks into a space 9 feet tall, 6 feet long and 5 feet wide. This means that everyone effectively gets the space the size of say, a family fridge, to themselves. And with the bunk being 2 feet wide, you're more or less constrained to sleeping in the "coffin" position. Come to think of it, coffins have better padding than these bunks.
Of course, the overall experience could deteriorate significantly depending on the overall hygiene of your cubicle mates. I was lucky, but if you take a gander down the hundred or so cubicles on the train, you can pick up some pretty spectacular aromas.
And don't even get me started on farts. A typical person farts 8-20 times a day. Let's call it 14. 6 people (myself included) multiplied by 14 hours is 3.5 man/woman days. That's a lot of farts. And it's not like you can go anywhere to relieve yourself if you're on the top bunk, three levels up. Getting up and down is an acrobatic venture of the highest order.
Ok, I'm ranting. And I shouldn't be. I should be grateful. Even a third-class sleeper is better than the ultra economy seats - bolt upright and the size of a mousetrap. For 14 hours straight. Thankfully the doors between the sleeper carriages and the sitting carriages are double locked (no kidding). We wouldn't want to know what "I would kill for a good night's sleep" really means.
UPDATE (16.05.15) - I travelled from Pingyao to Xi'an on one of the High Speed Rail (HSR) trains. It hit a Vmax of 243km/h. So it ain't so bad. See below for a map of China's HSR and Conventional rail network.