Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20th: Trains and Time

I woke up a bit before my alarm went off at seven thirty to brilliant sunlight streaming in the window.  It promised to be a beautiful day.  I showered, repacked my bag, checked my email, and checked out of the hostel about nine; my train was at 11:05 and I wanted to be sure to have enough time. 

I had slept well (not always the case for a backpacking traveler in trains and hostels), and my bags didn't seem to weigh me down at all, although I was carrying my hiking backpacking, my (large day pack) purse, as well as a small shopping sack with some squishable souvenirs and food for the trip.  I stopped by the little convenience shop at the corner that had become my favorite during my days in Beijing--the motherly lady who runs it is fair; everything has a reasonable set price; she doesn't tell foreigners an inflated price as many do in touristy areas.  I bought some cookies, crackers, and drinks for the trip.  I was a bit disappointed in the weather, but not for the usual reasons.  It was clear with a bright blue sky--an incredibly rare occurrence with the smog of Beijing--and it wasn't even too hot.  In fact, and this is something to celebrate on this trip--I don't think I've broken a sweat all day (and it's already dark now).  The disappointment was that this was the best weather I'd seen so far, and I would be spending this glorious day on the train, where it wouldn't have mattered if it had rained buckets or been so humid you can't breathe.  Oh well, that's the chance you take.  I did wish just a bit that I could go poking around the Great Wall again to see it writhe across the mountains in this clear light. 

On the main street just off the hutong where the hostel is nestled, I flagged down a taxi. "Beijing nan zhan." "Beijing South Station."  We drove through Tiananmen Square (pictured), by both new and old high rises, ancient gates and temples, clusters of apartment complexes in various states of repair and decay.  Everything seemed to sparkle in the sun; even the dismal side roads with their laundry and rust and piles of trash at the end seemed cheerful. 
The south station sparkled brighter than nearly all of the rest--a soaring modern building of steel and glass.  The expansive canopy  and the entrance ramp framed a cross section of distant building, so colorful and varied against the chrome outline of the station.  Inside, it seemed even more massive.  Twenty-something waiting areas stretched out in an area that must have been two or maybe even three football field wide.  I bought some food for the trip--there was a French bakery near my assigned waiting area (19) where I bought a pizza stick and a chocolate-chip pastry like I haven't seen since I was in Italy.  I had left myself more than enough time after all, so I sat in the waiting area and basked in the sun pouring in the skylights that made up half the roof. 
Chinese train stations are run like airports--you must arrive at least an hour before your departure time; in fact, if you arrive less than ten minutes before, they may not let you board the train.  You must go through security, including putting all of your bags and luggage through the x-ray machine, and you go to a gate instead of the the platform.  They call boarding, at which point you present your ticket the same way you would present a boarding pass, and are then allowed to the platform to board.  Train tickets go on sale ten days ahead of time, and often sell out quickly; you can never just show up at the train station and expect to get a ticket.  Even though it seems a bit much to me, being used to the easy-going European system, I have to admit it's very efficient. I suppose it's a necessity in a country with as much traffic as China. 

The cheaper overnight trains were sold out when my friend's sister went to buy a ticket for me, so I had to take the faster, fancier day train--Shanghai in only ten hours.  Eurostar level, at least, if you're familiar with the European rail system.  Quite a bit of leg room; wide aisles, bathrooms fairly clean (although still no western toilets, of course, but I'm used to that by now).  Like an airplane, they even played in-route movies: "Fearless," a movie about a legendary Chinese martial arts hero that turned out the be quite good even though I didn't understand much of the dialog, and Rush Hour 3 (in English with Chinese subtitles, although the volume wasn't very high so I didn't understand much more of the dialog than in the first one) featuring Jackie Chan and that-black-guy-who's-not-Will-Smith who always plays the doofball sidekick in cop movies.  Chris something, maybe.  Chinese people are very proud of their own--the most famous Hollywood actors here are of course Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.  Other than movies, the tv played an endless array of advertisements and documentaries about the ongoing Shanghai World Expo 2010.  I plan to go to see it just to say I did, but I'm nearly tired of hearing about it.  It's everywhere--China seems to be wallpapered with expo propaganda.  It's a national obsession.  You can't even say the word Shanghai anymore without launching immediately into a discussion of the expo.
The only discomfort on this train is that there are no armrests on the seats--I feel like I can't completely relax because there is nothing to lean against; if I fell asleep I think I'd fall out in the aisle. I have an aisle seat, so I feel like I'm sitting a bit on the edge of my seat to avoid being too close to the person next to me. 
I enjoyed a daytime trip to see a bit of the countryside on the way--we've passed through cities, farms, mountains, crossed rivers--most of the trip was sunny as I'd left Beijing, but also we passed through periods of clouds, and now that it's dark I rather think it's raining.
All the corn fields and rice fields are lush and green this time of year.  I especially enjoyed passing through Nanjing just at sunset.  The silver skyscrapers contrasted nicely with the pale purple evening sky, and the most distinctive tower among them caught and reflected the last golden reflection of the sun.  The lights were just beginning to come on.
And now, we're coming into Shanghai.  All I see so far is the irregular pattern of lights in windows in the high rise apartments that fill the windows on every side; I'm looking forward to spending a few days in a huge modern city--I've seen history in Beijing; now I'm ready to see the future in Shanghai. 

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