Once the main way to travel in China, diesel-powered ‘green trains’ have given way to sleek high-speed rail. But one photographer has been documenting the farmers and migrant workers who still rely on the slow and affordable rail service.
If you’re traveling in China and short on cash—and don’t particularly care when you arrive at a destination—there’s a transportation option called the “green train.”
For decades, the trains, so named for their distinct forest-green tint, have served as the cheapest—and slowest—way of getting from one city to another.
They lack air-conditioning and heating, and they’re frequently delayed, but a ticket on a third-class carriage can cost a tenth of the price of a business-class ticket on a high-speed train.
Some of the rolling stock dates back to the 1950s, and they rumble through some of China’s most remote villages.
Some of the rolling stock dates back to the 1950s, and they rumble through some of China’s most remote villages. Farmers use the trains to transport their goods, riding in specially retrofitted cars with the seats ripped out to accommodate their baskets of produce.
Migrant workers who have jobs in the city take them to the rural areas where they call home. Tables can be seen piled high with sunflower seeds and peanut shells left behind by passengers.
There are no beds, so some long-distance commuters try to sleep with their heads propped awkwardly against window frames with a rolled towel or bunched-up T-shirt for a pillow.
It’s the old-school way of traveling through China, favored by those who can’t afford high-speed rail. And one man has been documenting life on China’s slowest trains before they completely disappear.
Qian Haifeng, 52, started photographing his travels on the slow train in 2008, the same year China introduced its first high-speed rail service.
“I went in the other direction...on the slow, obscure services, the cheap, old trains without air-conditioners—the ‘green trains.’”
“I went in the other direction,” Qian says, “treading the opposite path from the way the country was supposedly heading, on the slow, obscure services, the cheap, old trains without air-conditioners—the ‘green trains.’”
Qian only started taking the green trains because he couldn’t afford the sleeker high-speed rail service. In 2001, he was diagnosed with nose and throat cancer, and underwent treatment at a hospital.
The process was costly, but when he got the all-clear in 2006, it felt like a weight had been lifted off his chest.
“It was a bit like being reborn,” he recalls about his recovery. “I realized I didn’t have to hang around for hospital appointments or spend money on medicine. I also worried I hadn’t been anywhere and wanted to see as much as possible.”
“I’m interested in the common folk and places you’ve never heard of. That’s where you get a picture of China.”
But the medical bills were high and the salary he was making as a hotel electrician had plateaued at $280 a month. So he decided to ride the slow trains and visit smaller, unknown places—and he brought his camera along with him.
“I’d go anywhere,” Qian says. “I’d sleep in youth hostels and on people’s sofas. The cheapest place I ever stayed was in Inner Mongolia. It cost 5 yuan [70 cents] a night.”
China’s high-speed network now extends across the country, and it’s the preferred way of travel for many passengers. A trip between Wuxi and Shanghai, about 90 miles, takes just 45 minutes on the high-speed train, compared to 2 hours on the green train.
Across the country, green trains are a dying breed. There are now only about 80 trains left in operation, according to the state news agency Xinhua, and most of them operate in hard-to-reach rural areas.
But for Qian, there’s a quiet energy on the slow trains that can’t be found anywhere else.
“Many young photographers who went to university are concerned with conceptual art these days, but that’s not my cup of tea,” he says. “I’m interested in the common folk and places you’ve never heard of. That’s where you get a picture of China.”
Qian’s photographs of the everyday folks on China’s slow trains have been exhibited worldwide, including in France and Japan. In 2015, he won the grand prize at Lianzhou Foto, one of China’s most prestigious contemporary photography festivals.
“His images capture a realistic, serious, and neglected side of China in an insightful way.”
“Qian wasn’t part of any art circle,” says Bao Kun, a Beijing-based curator who got Qian into the show after seeing his work. “He did his photography for photography’s sake because he liked trains and was interested in people. His images capture a realistic, serious, and neglected side of China in an insightful way.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.