Hong Kong QuickTrip: Lushan

The QuickTrip is a regular feature I would like to post. As I read in a book called Vagabonding, time is our only real commodity. Derek and I joke that the only ways to extend our lives (or, rather, alter our perception of time so that our life appears to last longer) is through travel and opera. Indeed, there’s nothing like travel for heightening our senses, altering the way we perceive and interact with the world around us and teaching us so many new things in every short block of time. While some of this additional awareness of living may be achievable simply through a frame of mind that one can adopt at home, as Rolf Potts suggests in the book, removing yourself from your usual surroundings is a sure-fire method. Such experiences, however, need not come in months-long breaks of time, or even a week-long vacation—with careful planning, flexibility and a little daring, an inexpensive two-day weekend can provide a travel experience that is perspective-altering and feels like a genuine escape. A QuickTrip.

For my first QuickTrip posting, I am choosing a trip I went on earlier this month, to Lushan (庐山, or Lu Mountain) in Jiangxi Province. I actually didn’t think too much of Lushan as a destination, but I do feel that it illustrates well some QuickTrip methods.

I’d traveled now to some of the big cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou), but not yet any of China’s mountain tourist attractions, which are many. I was eager to see what exactly these mountains were like, as well as to enjoy cool mountain air during the hot Hong Kong summer. While I would love to travel to Emeishan, Huangshan, Taishan, Huashan or Zhangjiajie in the near future, all of those destinations are a bit tricky to reach on a short trip from Hong Kong. I believe Hengshan (or Nanyueshan) in Hunan Province to be the closest mountain destination, but descriptions of it always seemed unremarkable to me, and so I never made plans. Recently, I learned of Lushan, which is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also not too far from Hong Kong.

Transportation is the most important part of a QuickTrip. In order to maximize the time you have at your destination, you want to ensure that the destination you choose can be reached in a time efficient (yet economical) manner. Unless your QuickTrip destination happens to be fairly close, this usually means taking a flight (in the case of a weekend trip, hopefully departing Friday night and returning Sunday night) or if possible an overnight train. If such transportation options are not available, the destination simply is not suitable for a QuickTrip. From my research online and maps, Lushan appeared to be approximately one hour from the train station at Jiujiang and a bit over two hours north from Nanchang’s airport. I checked www.diyto.com for train schedules and eLong for flight schedules, both from Shenzhen. Departing from Shenzhen is a must for almost all China QuickTrips from Hong Kong, as domestic flights from Shenzhen are far more frequent and economical than China flights from Hong Kong (the exceptions being the most popular destinations, such as Beijing or Shanghai) and essentially no QuickTrip-worthy trains depart Hong Kong for China (the one exception being the KCR Intercity to Guangzhou East).

On www.diyto.com, I found that train T186 from Shenzhen to Shenyang North (all the way up in Liaoning Province) departs Shenzhen at 8:40PM and stops in Jiujiang at 8:35AM—a nearly perfect schedule as it allows plenty of time after work to get to Shenzhen’s train station at the Lowu border with Hong Kong (a process, after immigration, I estimate at 90 minutes) and a restful night’s sleep. The flight schedule on Friday night was not as good, as they left too early (the amount of time from Hong Kong to Shenzhen International Airport is no greater than 90 minutes, but of course flights require one to arrive at the airport in advance, whereas one simply hops onto a train before it departs) or too late (a late night arrival would mean either a night’s sleep in Nanchang or near Nanchang Airport, or a middle-of-the-night arrival in Lushan). I also favored the train as 1) I love trains, especially sleeping on them and 2) the train would prove cheaper, especially because I may not be able to negotiate a great fare for the relatively long drive from Nanchang Airport to Lushan (public transportion would require a detour into Nanchang proper or Jiujiang, time I did not want to spend).

The return trip was a closer call. There were evening flights from Nanchang to Shenzhen, which would allow me most of the day in Lushan, that were relatively cheap. While this would still require hiring a taxi to take me from Lushan to Nanchang Airport, one usually has a little more bargaining power hiring a taxi to an airport than from one. The best train was K115, which originates at Jiujiang (minimizing the chance of delay) at 4:00PM and arrives in Shenzhen at 5:50AM. This was a bit early, but ensured that I arrive to work on time even if the train ran a little late, as they sometimes do. However, the train option would not allow me as long on Lushan. In the end, I opted for the train because 1) I love sleeping on trains and 2) it was a bit cheaper.

On previous QuickTrips, we had learned that long-distance train tickets from Shenzhen, especially on the weekend, can sell out days in advance. We were eager to avoid this mistake, and so were prepared to either 1) travel up to Shenzhen to buy the tickets in advance or 2) pay an agent in Hong Kong to book the tickets for us. Mistakenly, we headed first to CTS, which has many locations but provides mediocre service with often poor English language skills. While CTS is able to book China train tickets for a charge, as long as you approach them a few days in advance, we found the process frustrating. Giving up with CTS and heading up to Shenzhen to buy the tickets ourselves, we happened to find an office of the China Railways in Hung Hom Station (there is also one in TST). Not only can the office book tickets for you up to ten days in advance (at a charge of approximately HKD100, or USD12, per ticket), but, unlike CTS, they are directly connected to the China Railways reservations system and can print them for you right then and there, and speak good English to boot. We found that the service justified the commission cost, and purchased our train tickets there rather than heading up to Shenzhen. Unfortunately, for the trip to Lushan, we were forced to purchase rather expensive tickets to a more distant destination (RMB400, or USD52), as tickets for the Shenzhen-Jiujang sector are not sold on the T186 long-distance train. The China Railways office wrote us a little note to give to the conductor explaining that while we have tickets for a further destination, we wish to be dropped off at Jiujiang, where the train would stop anyway to pick up passengers.

As I mentioned, the trip itself was unremarkable, and the weather on Lushan cool but otherwise horrible (as it often is, I believe). The only thing I will mention, in case you want to go, is that one needs to take a RMB5-10 (~USD1) taxi ride from Jiujiang train station to the bus station to catch a bus to Lushan, or a taxi may be commissionable for around RMB50-60 (~USD6-8). Lushan admission is a steep RMB180 (USD24) per person. But one other anecdote: For the return trip, I was only able to secure a hard seat, rather than a hard sleeper berth. (For those not familiar with the Chinese train system, overnight train reservations usually come in hard sleep, hard sleeper and soft sleeper, with hard sleeper being both comfortable and economical and soft sleeper the second choice.) I had taken hard seat very briefly once and felt that it would not be bearable for a long-distance ride, especially one after which I would need to head directly to the office. I explained when I got on board that I would like to upgrade, and was instructed to put my name on a very long list of passengers seeking sleepers. I had nearly given up when, a couple hours later, the attendant came to me (understanding that I would not understand the announcements instructing me to come to the service counter on board) and offered me a hard sleeper berth. I gladly paid the fare difference, which was not much, and slept comfortably to Shenzhen, crossing the border by foot when it opened at 6:30AM.

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