“The largest evacuation since Dunkirk”

It’s hard to think of a more fittingly bizarre metaphor for the state of the world today than this:

Nearly 15,000 Thomas Cook customers have been repatriated so far following the travel company’s collapse, with about 135,000 more still stranded abroad.

It will take about two weeks to bring all the Britons home as part of Operation Matterhorn, the UK’s biggest peacetime repatriation and the largest evacuation since Dunkirk.

Rival travel firm TUI is helping to get people booked on Thomas Cook flights home.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) completed 64 rescue flights on Monday, the first day of the operation, bringing 14,700 people back to the UK.

It is expected to bring back 16,800 people on 74 flights on Tuesday in a flight programme costing at least £100million.

Did I not prophecy the end of tourism? Could Operation Matterhorn be the inflection point marking the start of a new era – the unwinding of global travel?

And most importantly, are you not entertained?

A bit of a stroll

Karl Bushby walk

Karl Bushby’s route (Source)

I’ve always been interested in the idea of long walks… really long walks. Two of my favorite travel books are Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester and The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet by Graham Earnshaw, both written by Englishmen who took the trouble to perambulate across an entire country.

But another Englishman (I’m sensing a trend), Karl Bushby, puts those two authors to shame by attempting to walk an unbroken path around the globe, from the tip of South America to Hull, England. Bushby started his pedestrian odyssey in Pantas Arenas, Chile in 1998, and in 2006 he crossed the Bering Strait on foot. Yes, you can actually get from North America to Asia by scrambling across drifting ice floes, if you’re feeling adventurous. Some swimming may also be required.

Bushby was detained by Russian authorities for illegal entry and deported back to the US, but he didn’t stop walking. After a few detours and setbacks, he is back on the road and now appears to be somewhere in Central Asia (last spotted in Mongolia).

If he completes his journey – and there is no reason to think that he won’t at this point – it will rank as one of the more impressive feats of travel in modern history.

The end of tourism?

International tourism arrivals grew by nearly 6% last year to 1.4 billion, according to figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Experts at the UNWTO predict that by 2100, the entire planet will be like a giant international airport, with a permanent floating population of billions of backpackers camping out in every Brazilian beach, Thai village and Mongolian yurt, turning the world into an extension of Instagram.

Backpackers

That is, of course, if current trends continue. But what if they don’t? We take it for granted, but the ease and safety of global travel today is really unbelievable, relying as it does not only on technology, but also the low cost of fuel, geopolitical stability, the openness of many countries to tourism, and a global middle class that can afford to vacation abroad. The problem is, none of the above conditions are set in stone. A large-scale war, economic depression, or energy shock, among other possible disruptions, could trigger a collapse in international travel, perhaps marking the end of the era of mass global tourism.

Consider this item from last week:

Americans traveling to Europe will soon have to add a new item to their packing lists.

Starting in 2021, the European Union will require US visitors to get a pre-approved, visa-like travel pass issued by the European Travel Information and Authorization System.

The permit will cost about $7.90 and will have to be requested at least four days before the journey—making romantic last-minute jaunts to Paris impossible.

The new requirement is described as a “security check.” It may be just a minor hassle for travelers, but a continued tightening of visa rules in Europe and elsewhere could put a serious damper on tourist flows. And as one blogger comments: “This throws a wrench into international travel, but the bigger wrench will come when the EU collapses.”

Nationalism is on the rise, and it’s possible that many countries will develop a sudden allergy to foreign backpackers, especially as concerns grow about “overtourism.” In this context it’s interesting to note that Thailand has closed Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie movie The Beach, indefinitely, while the Philippines shut down the popular island of Boracay for a six-month cleanup last year – it reopened with strict limits on tourist numbers.

Another factor is the state of the “rules-based international order,” which looks increasingly wobbly at the moment. The US State Department warns its citizens to “Exercise Increased Caution” when traveling to China owing to the latter’s coercive “exit ban” policy – thus international travel between the world’s two largest economies is officially fraught with risk. The situation could get far worse if geopolitical tensions continue to escalate, and it goes without saying that a world war would pretty much destroy the tourism industry. And global conflict is on the rise.

The takeaway? Enjoy Boracay while you still can!

The ultimate road/rail trip

Trans-Siberian road map

Source: CNN

It would have be the fanciful, proposed railway and superhighway connecting New York to London via the Bering Strait. With high-speed rail, I reckon that you could hurtle from one city to the other in about three days (read to the end for how I calculate that).

From the article:

At a Russian Academy of Science meeting in March, Vladimir Yakunin, the 66-year-old head of Russian Railways, unveiled detailed plans for what may seem like an impossible infrastructure project. Yakunin proposed engineers could build a high-speed railway through the entirety of Siberia, dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR)—the final destination of which would be the mouth of an underwater tunnel crossing the Bering Strait. Highway, too, could be constructed adjacent to the tracks, effectively making ground transportation possible from Anchorage to Moscow—or for that matter, New York to Paris. Or, if we’re going to go there, Miami to Johannesburg.

“This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project,” The Siberian Times reported Yakunin saying at the meeting. “It should be an alternative to the current [neo-liberal] model, which has caused a systemic crisis,” by which he means an economy based on investing in derivatives and stock buybacks and, in consulting engineer and infrastructure expert Dr. Hal Cooper’s words “things that are easy to do on your computer, but which don’t benefit the real world.” The idea is to instead focus on reviving economic forces that revolve around building something—and in this case a very big, maybe impossibly ambitious something—in the physical world.

Impossible? Of course not. But very, very expensive:

Of course, in order to do this, approximately 12,500 miles of road and new railway would have to be built starting at Russia’s eastern border—which would include the 520 miles between the frigid shores of Nome, Alaska, and Fairbanks, the northernmost point of the Alaskan Highway. And then there’s that 55-mile Bering Strait tunnel itself, which has been priced at somewhere between $25 billion and $50 billion. And what Dr. Hal Cooper calls the “Worldwide Railroad Network” in a 2007 report could range from between one and $1.5 trillion which, Cooper notes, “will be the equivalent of what the United States will spend in total on the Iraq War, for which there will be no measureable benefit to anyone.”

Estimated cost of the US “war on terror” through FY 2019: $5.9 trillion, or about four Worldwide Railroad Networks.

Interestingly, the idea has a long history:

Dreams of bridging the East and West across the Bering Strait have been percolating since the 19th century. Cooper told me that as early as 1846, then-Colorado territorial governor William Gilpin invested in a study to build railway up to northern Alaskan shores. And, it turns out, even decades after being ousted from office, Gilpin was still publishing plans for the “Cosmopolitan Railway” which would fuse together all continents chiefly via the Bering Strait.

The real problem is organizing the resources and manpower to get it done, which requires both political will and a population that is able and motivated to work together on difficult projects. This is becoming more rare. The last man walked on the Moon in 1972, and the Concorde supersonic flights that zipped passengers across the Atlantic in three and a half hours were discontinued in 2003.

The next question, then—which has been on the table now for 150 years—is whether anyone would be willing to invest in a project that could collectively cost trillions of dollars and whose anticipated economic yields would be a generation away.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by CNN, the proposed superhighway from New York to London would stretch about 12,910 miles. Assuming high-speed rail could be built along this entire length, with trains running at the average speed of the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train service (181.4 mph), then we’re talking about a rail trip of 71.2 hours, or just under three days.

If the trains could run at the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev Train, or 268 mph, then you could expect to blast from New York to London in just over 48 hours. Now, would that not be the world’s most awesome trip?

UPDATE: China is also mulling a high-speed rail project across the Bering Strait. Of course!

Fuling

Originally posted on Nov 11, 2013

Fuling China market

This summer I traveled to Fuling, a district of the vast Chongqing Municipality in central China. It was disappointingly easy to get there: flight from Shanghai, then van ride from the Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport to Fuling. A former colleague and her boyfriend greeted me at the bus stop where the van left me, and that was it.

Getting to Fuling was a little tougher for the noted American journalist Peter Hessler, who taught there for the Peace Corps from 1996 to ’98 and wrote a lyrical memoir about his experience, called River Town. For him, the journey involved a seven-hour ferry ride down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, at the time administered as a separate city. As you might imagine, people in Fuling didn’t leave much.

Fuling Chongqing China map

Fuling is now a district of Chonqing

Not long after Hessler finished his Peace Corps service and left Fuling, a new highway was built, reducing the journey to an hour-and-a-half transit over smooth asphalt. Fuling now has an abundance of highways and train lines linking the once isolated town to the outside world.

Many other things have changed too. The absolute poverty that Hessler witnessed in the ’90s is receding fast. The students he taught at Fuling Teachers College were the children of peasants and they wrote essays describing the indignities and hardships of rural life. But the middle-class students I met in Fuling seemed to belong to a different world, both materially and psychologically. Whereas most of Hessler’s students went on to become rural schoolteachers after graduation, many of the students I met were aiming for comfortable civil service jobs. One guy, whose English was excellent, enthusiastically questioned me about the U.S. (he seemed to know more about American pop culture than I did). Another student complained about having lost her iPhone on a bus.

Fuling China senior citizens

With a group of students at Yangtze Normal University – the new name for Fuling Teachers College – I strolled around the university’s new campus and headed downtown to explore. We toured the Underwater Museum of Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge), which bills itself as the first subaqueous museum in the world. Visitors descend a 300-foot escalator to a viewing gallery 130 feet below the surface of the Yangtze River. Through three-inch-thick portholes, we peered at the White Crane Ridge, a long strip of sandstone celebrated for its ancient fish carvings and calligraphic inscriptions.

Fuling China Yangtze River

The White Crane Ridge used to surface during the winter season, but it’s now permanently submerged under the waters of the Yangtze, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, the colossal barrier a few hundred miles downstream that has tamed the world’s third-longest river. Now the ridge and its inscriptions can be seen only through murky water, like a sunken shipwreck.

Fuling China Apple store

My Fuling friends and I ambled around the town, where we played a street ring toss game, checked out the wares on display at a bustling outdoor market, and ate lunch and ice cream at KFC. The poor and sleepy river town of Hessler’s teaching years now has a clean and modern town center, an upscale department store, and cars crowding the streets – visible signs of an exploding GDP. Fuling does not yet possess that important benchmark of development, a Starbucks (Shanghai has well over a hundred), but it will – I’m fairly sure of that.

Fuling China bookseller

Unsurprisingly, foreigners are still a rarity here, and I received my share of dumbstruck looks and excited greetings on the street. The manager of the guest house near the university where I stayed burst out laughing the instant he saw me. “Foreigner!” he shouted with delight, pointing at the comical figure that had just walked in. (As it turned out, he and his family were extremely hospitable and, on the day of the traditional Dragon Boat Festival, they cooked lunch for me – one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in China.)

The students took me to their university’s old campus, which has the feel of a ghost town. It’s apparently up for sale and is mostly deserted, though we saw a handful of students playing basketball and using the library. Thick vegetation grows everywhere and some of the rundown buildings have windows missing or are choked with weeds. It occurred to me that the campus would be an apt setting for a post-apocalyptic movie.

Fuling China night riverside

But across the street from the main gate, new buildings are rising under red construction cranes. On the opposite side of the campus, huge concrete walls are materializing on the banks of the Wu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), along which a new road will soon appear. I took it all in, carefully, because I know things will be different whenever I come back.

Top 6 Scenic and Cultural Hotspots of Nanchang

The below article from 2013 is an attempt at Lonely Planet-style travel writing following a trip to the provincial city of Nanchang, which is notable for its role in spawning China’s Communist revolution (and is therefore a key destination for “red tourism”). As the capital of one of China’s poorer provinces, it’s sort of a backwater, albeit developing fast — the city has since opened its first two metro lines — and an important manufacturing center. It’s a very likeable place with a friendly, laid-back feel despite having a population the size of Chicago. Some of the information below may be outdated by now. Enjoy.

Cradle of revolution and “Hero City” of Communist legend, Nanchang – the capital of southern China’s Jiangxi Province – is gritty, dynamic, and compelling. When not wandering its charming back streets, visitors to this fast-growing but laid-back city can discover a wealth of history, culture, and even entertainment at these popular sites:

1) Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁)

Ascend this nine-story tower to peer at the Gan River from on high, enjoy a traditional music and dance performance, take in the colorful frescoes that decorate the interior, or get photographed sporting the golden dragon robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor.

Originally built in A.D. 653 by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty as a townhouse for his younger brother, the eponymous Prince Teng, the pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries – the current incarnation, in Song Dynasty style, was completed in 1989 – and immortalized by a famous Preface penned by the poet Wang Bo.

In the base of the pavilion you can wander around the China Imperial Edict Museum (华夏圣旨博物馆), housing a collection of – you guessed it – imperial edicts and other government paperwork from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. History buffs may find these bureaucratic relics intriguing, though adrenaline junkies should steer clear of such items as the “Official receipt issued by the Provincial Administration Commissioner and Provincial Judicial Commissioner of Anhui Donation Head Office of the Supervising Department.” Of more interest, perhaps, are a printed silk cloth and miniature books that were used for cheating on the imperial civil service exam.

Admission to the pavilion and grounds is 50 RMB.

Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁 Téngwáng Gé), 榕门路 Róngmén Lù, ticket office hours: 7:30 AM – 6:15 PM (May 1 – Oct 7), 8:00 AM – 4:50 PM (Oct 8 – Apr 30), +86 791 8670 2036, (http://www.cntwg.com/)

2) Musical fountain at Qiushui Square (秋水广场)

Qiushui Square fountain

One of the largest such displays in Asia, this complex, fifteen-minute extravaganza of music, laser lights and elegantly gushing water is fun to watch – even if, like other spectators, you do so with a smartphone held up between the fountain and your face. In the show’s dramatic finale, water spurts as high (allegedly) as 128 meters. The free show starts at 7:50 PM, 8:30 PM, and 9:00 PM every night.

Qiushui Square (秋水广场 Qiūshuǐ Guǎngchǎng), ask around for the fountain (喷泉 pēnquán) (you can’t miss it), +86 791 8388 3496, (http://english.nc.gov.cn/tour/scenicspots/200911/t20091120_187749.htm)

3) Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆)

Explore the rich history and culture of this important province. The museum is divided into wings for Natural History, History, and Revolution. The Natural History wing features minerals, dinosaurs, and wildlife dioramas.

In the History wing, you can check out artifacts from Jiangxi’s many-layered past, stretching from Neolithic pottery fragments to Song Dynasty jewelry and Ming Dynasty ivory chopsticks, and learn about the region’s traditional arts, literature, industry and government (labels in Chinese and English). This wing also houses an exhibit on the Hakka ethnic minority and a jade and precious stone collection.

The Revolution wing chronicles the Communist uprising that broke out in Nanchang through a myriad of historical photos and kitschy propaganda art. Captions are in Chinese only, except for the introductory labels which have English translations.

Admission is free.

Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆 Jiāngxī Shěng Bówùguǎn), 新洲路99号 Xīnzhōu Lù 99 hào, Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 791 8659 5424, (http://www.jxmuseum.cn/)

4) Bayi Square (八一广场)

The first shots of the Chinese Communist uprising were fired in Nanchang on August 1, 1927, occasioning Mao Zedong’s famous remark that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Led in part by future Premiere of the PRC Zhou Enlai, the revolt marked the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and the start of the decade-long “Agrarian Revolutionary War” against the Nationalist government and hated class enemies. Although the Communists were swiftly ejected from Nanchang and then decimated by Nationalist garrisons on the way to Guangzhou, the somber monument looming over Bayi Square – named after the date of the uprising (bayi means “eight one”) – celebrates their extremely short-lived “victory.”

Bayi Square (八一广场 Bāyī Guǎngchǎng), always open

5) Youmin Temple (佑民寺)

First built during the Liang Dynasty in the sixth century A.D., Youmin Temple housed the reportedly huge-tongued Zen master Mazu. Today it’s an active temple with few tourists, and you may get scolded for taking photos in the quiet, serene interior. The sprawling temple complex, decorated in bright primary colors, contains beautiful statuary, including a giant bronze Buddha.

Admission is 2 RMB.

Youmin Temple (佑民寺 Yòu Mín Sì), 民德路和苏圃路 Míndé Lù hé Sūpǔ Lù, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 0791 8529 2203

6) Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区)

Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery Nanchang

Take a taxi about 20 minutes from downtown to spend an afternoon roaming around this expanse of parks, woods, galleries and other cultural sites on the banks of the Meihu Water System.

Follow the signs to reach the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall (八大山人纪念馆), which has a gallery of classic works by the Nanchang-born painter and calligrapher of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. Of particular interest are the gloomy, eccentric master’s freehand “flower-and-bird” works and his literati paintings, which fuse the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry.

On the Scenic Spot’s grounds you can also find the Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery (程允贤雕塑艺术馆), an austere collection of sculptures of Chinese Communist leaders and heroes – including busts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Admission is 15 RMB.

Keep strolling and you’ll find a Painting and Calligraphy Art Showroom (书画文玩展厅), outside of which is a Bansai Garden (盆景园) – I found both places completely deserted – and the somewhat eerie Jiangxi Celebrity Sculpture Park (江西名人雕塑园), featuring statues of historical figures from the province.

Admission to the Scenic Spot is free.

Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区 Bādà Shānrén Méi Hú Jǐngqū), +86 0791 8529 2203

Khaosan Road: a mile-long mosh pit

Khaosan Road in Bangkok, aka the “center of the backpacking universe” — actually a quarter of a mile long, though it feels longer — is a fun place to visit, if you enjoy being surrounded by approximately 2 trillion people in a loud, confined space.

A similarly pleasant experience can be had at a Chinese train station during the holiday travel rush, though unfortunately without the tattoo parlors and street hawkers offering you delicious fried scorpions.

Personally, I’d prefer to spend my time reclining:

Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam (Phra Noon), Ayutthaya

Contemplating the Temporality of things:

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon Ayutthaya

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (the Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory), Ayutthaya

Or riding a clickety-clackety old train between Bangkok and the ancient capital of Ayutthaya:

Nanchang photos

Some photos I took during a trip to Nanchang, capital of China’s Jiangxi province, and a nearby village in 2013:

Nanchang is a city of 5 million people (2.3 million in the urban districts) in southeastern China and is famous for the 1927 Nanchang Uprising, when the Communists revolted against the Nationalist government, kicking off the Chinese Civil War.

Blast from the past: China at 186 mph

Originally posted March 28, 2013

In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.

The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.

Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque

For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.

Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.

Ticket hall, Guangzhou South Station

“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?

Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)

As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.

Gigantic scale

Skylight over departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.

Passengers at departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Low-altitude flying

The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.

The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.

Bullet train, Beijing South Station

Boarding a bullet train, Beijing South Station

The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.

The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.

Bullet train, Beijing to Shanghai

On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:

And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:

At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.

Average cruising speed

The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.

Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.

Costly and unnecessary?

These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?

It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.

Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.

This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.