Train journeys, whether in home country or across continents, is a sure way of stepping on stones and warts. I am no stranger to train travel, short or lengthy, reveling in the feeling of searing across open land or tearing through crowded cities. But few have been flabbergasters as the one I undertook from Hong Kong to China (2009). The journey was not ‘epic worthy’ on the lines of the Great Train Journey but a journey that burst the ‘China bubble’ of invinsibilty of an unknown country and its impassive ‘masked’ people. The country appeared to be red-washed, glistening in the over cast skies, and as someone pointed out the flowers and grass had been landscaped to give a green veneer to Beijing but they missed out painting the skies blue. Our trip was after the Beijing Olympics and the city was refurbished and beautified, the hutongs uprooted and replaced by wide roads and swanky constructions. There was a feeling of deja vu because apart from architectural wonders, ancient and man-made, the people remained elusive due to language and to me, cultural differences. The soul was missing.
Our friends had misgivings about my decision to cover Hong Kong–Beijing–Shanghai by super fast air-conditioned trains when there were planes to fly in. They were not as scathing as Neville George Mullard or Bunt ( Paul Theroux‘s novel KOWLOON TONG) who considered his manager’s act ‘to wake up and take the train to People’s Republic of China and return before ten the same morning’ a foolish act (I would have done the same if given the choice of modes of travel) but were skeptical about the outcome of pushing into a country where language was going to be a barrier. There were three of us, two friends and me, and none knew Mandarin or Cantonese, but we still went ahead.
Plans finalized, bookings done and on designated day we were at Hung Hom station, (Kowloon) waiting for the train selected on basis of alphabets. T is special express with C and D the flying ones followed by Z the direct express trains. For us it was T. The choice of bunks is linked to dollars and it was the 4 bunk soft sleeper, spacious and carpeted with personal television, clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (along top of bunk), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights and new different colored bathroom slippers. A luxury compared with train travel in my home country India.
If prepared to splurge one can opt for Deluxe sleeper for two with toilet en suite. For us, the Four sleeper travelers, there was choice between squatting and western toilets at the two ends of the coach and towards end of journey it was difficult to locate a clean one with toilet rolls. Anyways, it is through train and one could go clean toilet-spotting. Hung Hom station was crowded, too many people preferring track travel, but to credit of passengers we queued up for our berths and except for the slight mishap of standing in different queue till corrected by an impassive ticket checker, it was smooth take off.
T 98 streamed out of Hung Hom at 15:15 p.m. sharp. The layers of my travel misgivings were slowly peeling off and I settled down waiting for others passengers of our coach. We were three and the fourth berth remained a silent witness to our sense of space. The train, meanwhile, continued on its journey passing Sha Tin, (New Territories) on way to Lo Wu on HK/China border, chugging across the familiar Pearl River Delta’s green belt and continued across to Guangzhou ignoring Shenzen, the shopping delight glittering million dreams.
A continuous drizzle added a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains of the Delta. The magic moment was short-lived with the pastoral-landscape metamorphosing into warehouses and buildings with trees planted along tracks, probably serving as cover-ups for the habitats, and with no English signage to figure out where we were heading to, left it to conjecture.
I stepped into the passage, to view the other side, and tried asking a fellow-traveler the name of the town we crossed, the minute she got off her cell phone, but her expressionless stare put an end to any friendly overtures. Language was a major issue, and decided to buy English/Mandarin dictionary in Beijing. By now feeling hungry we walked to the restaurant car, a few carriages away and managed a table after a wait of 30 minutes. The menu offered limited choice and pictures were of no help either and ordered whatever appeared palatable, egg-plant with boiled rice. The car was crowded and we also stayed put, drinking tepid black tea and listening to the chatter. By 9 p.m. the staff was giving us crabby looks willing us to leave, probably wanting the place for them selves as smoking was permitted in restaurant cars and not in corridors or compartments. A few stare backs later we obliged and dallied in the corridors as it was still too early to call it a day.
By 10 pm it was a ‘silent’ train with no loiterers around and with nothing visible outside, it was still raining, there was no choice but to sleep it out. I did wake up once, probably when the train halted at a station, and could make out silhouettes and empty platform. T 98 stops at few stations including Guangzhou for passengers to disembark.
Day 2…early morning was bright and sunny and this somehow metamorphosed into ‘last sunrise’ for next 5 days, Beijing was grey and gloomy and Shanghai a shade better, The light brought along some life along the tracks and roads with pensioners sitting in front of houses and somewhere along the line children playing in the accumulated rain water. We were moving towards towns or cities with progressive tangible structures and well-organized greenery interspersed with sections of crowded housing and perfected village ambiance of street corners and food stalls. The region appeared compartmentalized, nothing dusty or droughty as the Indian countryside, and somehow I felt a bit cheated.
Lunch in the restaurant car accompanied by black milk tea, tasted more of Carnation milk and not worth 30 Yuan (teapot), and the twenty-two hours were stretching into forty-eight. There was no interaction with fellow passengers, still in their cocoons visible through half closed doors. The toilets too were loosing out on cleanliness and we were looking forward to a refreshing water soak and cup of hot Indian or black milk tea.The train streamed into Beijing West platform or what, to me, appeared a mirror image of a ‘World War Two’ German station as depicted in movies minus the swastikas and Nazi guards. This section of station was deserted with no milling crowds except for station staff. The health check and disembarkation forms had already been filed and handed over on the train itself and now we had to wait for our number to move out of the privileged area.
The first push and shove of the exit and this was China of billion heads. The language problem reared its head again and after a few false directions located the ticketing section, for booking Beijing-Shanghai segment, and an English-speaking counter where locals outnumbered tourists. The transaction took time, explaining in slow diction, and by this time the line was getting restive at the extra minutes we were appropriating. A frumpy middle-aged woman came up and hollered, as it sounded to me, at the counter person for taking so long. I felt like hollering back but decided otherwise and waded through the flood of people to relative quietness.
By now our collective patience was running out with the high-pitched babble and next step turned equally infuriating. After much asking around the taxi stand was on the lower level, from where we had just come up, and to add to the injustice the down escalator was not functioning. A ‘girl’ Samaritan guided us and before we could figure out our bearings were swamped by cab drivers quoting exorbitant rates.The fare was finally settled for 200 Yuan for the ride to hotel on Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang district. Fortunately we had the Chinese translation of hotel name, otherwise it would have been a taxi ride around Beijing. The hotel reception staff advised us to take metered taxis and ‘take receipts’.
We had traveled from an ‘anthill’ to a ‘mountain’ and the vastness of Beijing remained elusive under its grey skies presenting differing images: the new CCTV tower of ‘Big Shorts or Dakucha’ fame (its shape of two buildings joined together in mid-air) straddling the world; the muscle flexing Great Wall of China or the evanescent triviality of Forbidden City. It was at the railway stations, hutongs and shopping complexes that there were brief encounters with people from different corners of the vast country. We stayed in Beijing for four days and the city remained ‘out of reach’ as it was on day one. The more we tried to get to know, there was always an invisible barrier between us. I am not much a food person and neither were my two friends so we limited our cuisine explorations to the least, fries and burgers or vegetarian noodles and rice. The newer constructions, The Bird’s Nest, appear large and impassive or as my friend put it, soulless. The rickshaw ride in a hutong was closer to real China experience, of personal and cultural, as were the wet markets and food stalls.
Shanghai: Beijing Station (south) is a mammoth structure and pushing our way through a labyrinth of escalators, waiting rooms, passages and walkways, finally located D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand new 200 km sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and slightly intimidating.
The other two passengers were already in the 4 bunk Soft sleeper, we had the lower bunks, so we quietly fixed our suitcases and had sandwiches and salads purchased from Seven Eleven store. The third friend had stayed back in Beijing so it was two of us now. D 301 was a 1,500 km luxury for 730 Yuan and 12 hours of travel time from Beijing to Shanghai. We slept our way through the entire stretch as did the two gentlemen in the upper berths, till we reached Shanghai early morning. The night travel was a mistake as we missed out the countryside that might have added some color to a journey that was turning out as bland as the grey skies accompanying us throughout the night.
Shanghai station was a let down. The train glided to a decrepit platform with non-working escalators and men wanting to carry our luggage to taxis… reminding me of Indian stations, though slightly cleaner and presentable. The previous experience in Beijing had prepared us to haggle for taxi fare and we finally made it to our hotel to the other corner of Shanghai past constructions and road widenings for the International Expo to be held in in 2010.
Shanghai was a whirlwind two day stop of sightseeing from temples to water towns, the No 1 commercial street Nanjing Road, the Bund along the Huangpu river, the Ming and Qing architectures, Yuyuan Garden, Xin Tian Di with its modern additions, the 1700 years ancient water town of Zhujiajiao, few miles from Shanghai, the Jade temple… the city is a mishmash of ancient and modern, of Chinese and western. Two days was too short a time to unravel the mysterious dark side of Shanghai, the city of revelry and artistic passion, the 1920s and ’30s ‘smoky, swirling den of iniquity and gangster landscape. Like true-blue tourists we went by the guidebooks, seeing what was expected of us, nothing unknown, and in our minds planning to visit Shanghai again.
Communication was a major handicap and it was the youngsters who came to our rescue…. when we lost our way or were stumped by restaurant menus. At one roadside eatery, my friend conducted an impromptu pantomime of flapping hands as chicken wings to order a chicken dish. It did not impress the grumpy waitress who dumped ‘beef’ in front of us. It was near closing time so we ate or ‘lumped it’, the vegetables, I am no beef-eater, while my friend had the beef. We also said ‘lump it’ and left without any ‘tippo’.
RETURN JOURNEY: 36 hours in this ‘Paris of the Orient’ and we were ready for return journey to Hong Kong via T 99. We reported an hour earlier for immigration clearance and patiently waded in slow motion to waiting train through teeming mass of luggage toting crowd. This time it was Hard Sleeper with 6 bunks, the upper, middle and lower. The berths were padded, with clean sheets, comforters and pillows and items missing were water thermos, TV, sliding door and slippers. But still way ahead of third sleeper of Indian trains. Our companions, girl studying in Switzerland and her friend probably working in Hong Kong, were too engrossed in each other. The first thing she did, next morning, was to diligently retouch her face, oblivious of our enthralled attention. The 5th and 6th passengers had not checked in ( top berths) so we did not feel squashed in our middle berths….small mercies.
The hard-sleeper carriage was crowded, and the narrow folding tables and chairs , placed in the corridor, were convenient sitting cum look-outs. There was this tourist busy pounding on his laptop probably blogging his experiences; a group playing cards and a mother tutoring her daughter. It was a tired and a quiet lot returning home or preserving energy for Hong Kong visit.
Once again we risked dinner in the restaurant car, oily eggplants with white rice, leaving the Kentucky Fried burgers purchased at Shanghai station for breakfast. There is hot and cold water available in train, convenient to make cup noodles or tea/coffee, the three-in-one variety.
We were woken up by the early morning sun streaming in through the windows…a boon after five days of grey clouds. The continous piped music was grating but it did not lessen the charm of the transitory countryside as the train passed through Guangzhou East to reach Hung Hom around One p.m.
An end to a seven-day journey to be reconstructed at leisure as a window to a country which till now for me was tagged with ‘Indian Chinese cuisine’ or ‘Made in China’ products. This was more of train-tripping, filling-in-blanks of an unknown China and helped in understanding a country better, a humane version peeping from behind red curtains.