Saturday, October 17, 2009

Huoche / Choo choo

- You're going to Beijing? We're only going as far as Zhengzhou.
- Lanzhou?
- No, Zhengzhou.
- Zhoucheng?
- No, not Zhoucheng, to Zhengzhou.
- Ahh, Yangzhou!
- No! Zhengzhou. In Henan.
- Hunan?
- No. Zhengzhou IN HENAN.
- Oh, Zhengzhou!!

It's only a couple of hours into our journey and Gayle is already chattering away with the other passengers with mixed success. We're in hard sleeper class, which isn't as bad as it sounds - with two top berths out of a set of six. The carriage is carpeted, air-conditioned and kept clean by an attendant, despite the best efforts of the passengers who at some point all seem to be eating sunflower seeds and leaving mountains of husks everywhere. Hot water for tea and pot noodles is available between the carriages. It all seems so civilised.

Most of the passengers are heading back to Beijing after a few days holiday in Hunan. They're well-dressed and look rather urbane after our three weeks' travelling on country buses with the yokels. A couple of older women in the other berths keep an eye out for us and a young man and his girlfriend, who both speak good English, come and chat in the evening. Three young girls tentatively say hello and half an hour later, as I nod off, they are huddled around Gayle who is using the phrasebook to ask them questions.

Walking around Jishou before we left we had noticed for the first time many people giving us a second look. It's the kind of place that sees few tourists, I guess. Sitting down eating noodles at a street stall draws a few comments from observers who are probably amazed anyone could manage to eat anything holding chopsticks like that. Some people smile, some poke their friends and nod towards us, and a few shout "hello". If we reply, they dissolve into giggles. This is nothing new now for us, and if it's not irritating us it's reassuring in a funny kind of way.

On the train it seems quite normal for folk just to plop down on a seat and start up a conversation with others. It's like we've all been invited to someone's house party. Maybe it's this particular carriage load, but everyone appears very sociable. We could never imagine anything like this in Britain. Meanwhile the scenery flies past, like a frenetic slide show, as we pass through hundreds of tunnels. Green hills, empty valleys, little towns, big rivers, high bridges all zip past in a blur. At about 9pm people finish off their card games or pot noodles and start getting ready for bed. At 10pm the lights go out. We sleep until the attendant wakes us at 1.30am - time to alight at Zhengzhou. We're both sleppy and light-headed and everything has a dreamlike quality as we stagger out.

Chinese railway stations are fairly bleak, functional and souless buildings. For a start, you can't enter the waiting rooms without a ticket. These halls are designed to cope with crowds, not to provide comfort, and on this journey we aren't even allowed onto the platform until the train has pulled up. The only platform action you get is a desperate surge of prospective passengers lugging suitcases and a week's supply of pot noodles towards a closely-guarded train. Each door is defended by an attendant in navy uniform, brass buttons, epaulettes and a "Don't even think about messing with me" look. And it works. People get aboard and the train leaves on time. But there's absolutely no fun or romance in it - none of that expectant excitement thinking about the next destination. No family farewell scenes, no platform hawkers, no wooden benches worn smooth by the bums of previous travellers.

At 2am we emerge outside Zhengzhou station onto a wide open square surrounded by tall neon-lit hotels and 24-hour fast food chain restaurants. Travellers come and go in dribs and drabs. Some are lying down and sleeping. A police officer cruises past in an electric golf buggy, eyes peeled. There's nothing for him to do - no drunks, no unsavoury characters to move on. Just a whole bunch of bleary-eyed travellers like us. And like them, we retire to the nearest McDonalds for a hot drink and a blatant kip at the table.

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