Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

imageThe familiar bleak friable landscape interspersed with algae ponds, cattle and livestock in different stages of thinness grazing on non-existent grass, the sparsely cultivated fields, thatched hutments, semi naked children chasing mangy dogs, men huddled on charpoys or walking listlessly with the familiar ‘lota’ (metal mug) for their morning ablutions, women head covered engrossed in washing, cleaning. I was aboard the Prayagraj train, named after my home town Prayag and present Allahabad, after a gap of nearly 20 years and sat glued to the window not wanting to miss out the familiar sights.

The excitement was visible as on night of travel I arrived at New Delhi station two hours before departure time to a deserted platform and wondering if had got the day wrong. Maybe I had the Freudian fear of missing a train and arriving at railway stations two hours ahead of time though unlike Freud I did not associate train travel with death. For Freud ‘Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey’. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’).

imageMy misgivings proved wrong and within minutes the rush started and deposited on my berth, second ac sleeper top berth near the entrance and the toilet. I was looking to swap my berth for a lower one, Second AC has two berths instead of three of Third AC sleeper, but my appearance, frail, nor my age softened male hearts. As one person I requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’. The ticket collector too was elusive and for a moment was tempted to pass on some bucks but an unbeliever in bribery resigned myself to the continuous footsteps and the all-pervasive urine odor from the rusty, rickety toilets (one is western and other squat).

An overnighter, the Prayagraj, is ideal for business or work commute but not for viewing the dusty plains of North India. I was awake early morning, 4 a.m. to preempt toilet use and for the first glimpse of the Gangetic plain awakening to dawn. I had done this journey umpteen times but the gap of 21 years made me curious about the changes as we crossed obscure hamlets familiar not for their names but appearance, decrepit stations with platforms stacked with parcels and human bodies asleep or the in between naps, oblivious to the rattle of speeding trains. The familiar food carts, the tea stalls displaying the mud cups or kullars and their owners parroting ‘chai chai’ ( tea-tea). Station tea tastes best in earthen cups with aroma of leaves mingling with the mud smell. Fathepur beyond Kanpur had been my favored station to drink the special brew as the train arrived here early morning.

Around 5 a.m., the filtering sun exposed derrières along the tracks and at one place a group of boys ( four- six years) appeared to be playing a game sitting in a circle. Not a pleasant early morning expose. There are no major cities on this route, till we touch Kanpur or Cawnpore of British India history. The motley procession of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees and being a history buff visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain. The Mutiny of 1847* .

There was still an hour to reach Allahabad and as I gazed into the horizon I compared the passing scenery with another train journey in 2009 from Hong Kong to Beijing – Shanghai and back to Hong Kong. Then it was T 98 a superfast luxury train and the Soft Sleeper (four berths)compared with present situation had felt a luxury on wheels with clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights, air cons and new colored slippers for each occupant. The toilets were clean but towards end of journey, toilet hopping, it is a through train, appeared a better option.

View from trainThe train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains, leaving behind the pastoral countryside metamorphosing into a clinical landscape of barracks and factories, the occasional residential complexes with children frolicking in puddles and the elderly smoking, squatting or working in fields.

Next morning we got a glimpse of the grey skies, a continuous phenomenon of our 10 day journey, as we approached the enormousness of Beijing station mid afternoon. Few days in Beijing and another train ride to Shanghai and this time in the swanky D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand-new 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating and we slid in quietly so as not to disturb the other passengers in the upper bunks of the 4 bunk Soft sleeper. It was a twelve hour nigh journey and we missed out the country sights.

Shanghai station is a throwback of stations back home, except for its voluminous interiors, with escalators not working and no one to tell you where to go. The return journey to Hong Kong via T 99 in Hard Sleeper with 6 bunks was a journey closer to real China train experience. The upper, middle and lower bunks cushioned bunk stacks and I had spent my waking hours in the corridor, folding table and chairs placed in the corridor, observing passengers trussed amongst bales, packets and luggage, playing Mahjong. We had planned the train journeys for a view of the countryside and to interact with the locals but it was nowhere near the ‘family’ atmosphere of Prayagraj, of camaraderie with friends, foes, acquaintances and strangers.

My bonding with trains is probably a residual baggage of my mother’s accounts of journeys aboard the British India Railways, the compulsory every six months winding up the hills to Simla and return to Delhi. Her stories were peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies, her vigil of the steel trunks carrying the family ‘silver’ …clothes, ration, and household stuff.

The steam engines wove their magic in my psyche and as a six-year-old I would dream of traveling the Indian countryside in the chuk-chuk trains. My elder brother, probably in line with family tradition, joined the Railways via Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) Jamalpur, an institute started by the British to rope in the best brains to manage the railways. His first posting was in Bhusawal, Maharashtra and my mother, me and younger brother spent a summer in his cottage in the railway colony. At night we would be woken up by frantic calls from the linesmen about some derailment or another and often my brother had to rush to the scene. He had been assigned a carriage, with bunks, washroom and kitchenette, which was attached to a goods or passenger train, depending where he was traveling. We joined him once for a regal ride from Bhusawal to Mumbai and Pune. The carriage was coupled at the end of a goods train for most part of the journey and our mother spent the entire night worrying about being looted by robbers or being stranded in some vague station. It was an experience having the humongous railways at our service, the linesmen, station attendants waiting to welcome the Sahib and train travel took on another meaning.

New modes of transport did not lessen fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across the dusty plains whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.

Here, I was two decades later re-living the romance of the philistine wheels not on an unknown journey but a journey to my past.

Photo taken from moving train with my iPhone on way to Allahabad.

Story Challenge: Letter “E”  Frizztext  http://flickrcomments.wordpress.com/

Entrance to the Museum

E is for Emperor Qianlong*, the Qing dynasty emperor who commissioned a secret garden, the Qianlong Garden, to immerse himself in art pursuits post his 60 years of rule. Emperor Qianlong was the sixth emperor (1711 – 1799) of the Manchu led Qing Dynasty and the fourth Qing emperor to rule over China.

I joined the queue of tourists, art lovers, the curious and school trips for the interactive exhibition “A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong” at The Hong Kong Museum of Art. The exhibition showcases Emperor Qianlong’s love of scholarship and the arts by featuring 93 relics from Beijing’s Palace Museum and 43 artifacts connected with the Garden that survived the intermediary years till the last emperor fled Beijing. Emperor Qianlong had issued an imperial edict reserving the garden on the western section of Ningshougong Palace (Tranquility and Longevity Palace) for use by ‘super sovereigns’ and the doors remained closed to outsiders. The Garden is now under renovation and will open for public viewing in a couple of years and till then the exhibition is our window to the enchanted Garden.

The Qianlong Garden, designed in the architectural style of Qing era had taken nearly ten years to be completed and looking at the murals one can understand why. The four sections of the Garden, the Leisurely Pursuits, Blessed Longevity, Enhancing Life for All and A Life of Art and Artistry showcase pavilions of Ancient Flower (Guhuaxuan), of Expecting Good Omen (Fuwangge), the Pavilion of Viewing Beautiful Scenery (Cuishanglou), the Hall of Wish Fulfillment (Suichutang), the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service (Juanqinzhai), and the Well of Concubine Zhen along with a labyrinth of corridors connecting the courtyards and other structures. The Garden had housed some of the most extravagant interiors found in the imperial palace complex and some of the calligraphy, murals, furniture and paintings are on display illustrating the cultural significance of  traditional Chinese royal gardens.

The multimedia presentations, the animation and computer programming offer an opportunity to understand and take part in the philosophical and religious beliefs of longevity and eternal bliss reflected in the design and artifacts of the Garden. Particularly fascinating are the Portraits of the Emperor while hunting deer, (the Emperor and the deer seem to be posing for the painter); the panel portraying the Emperor who ‘wants to be immortal’ by taking the place of the Buddha and the ‘18th century version of 3D-VR portrait of a royal family.

Few hours admiring the display and I agreed with the advice in Do’s and Don’ts for the ‘Garden’ Tour….’Bring eye drops in case the animation is so exciting that you forget to blink’. The real Qianlong Garden in Beijing, once it opens to the public, will be a place to curl in your nook.

*The Hong Kong Museum of Art: 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong.

My visits to Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Sanya, cities on the tourist map of China, by air and train were journeys to view the impassive facades of city life. Sanya, touted as the Hawaii of the East, is the winter holiday destination for cold East Europe and Mainland China. The Expressway route to Taizhou, Ningbo and Cixi, the emerging industrial icons, was of curiosity, of seeing the country in its natural form than the market friendly impression presented on different platforms. It was a five-day trip with Hong Kong-Guangzhou section done by cross-border train and Guangzhou to Taizhou by air, a five-hour travel time on same day. It was late evening when we landed at Taizhou Luqiao Airport and were driven straight for dinner or feast of specialties I had never tasted before. In particular was the ginger-egg combination and when I asked for its local name the host insisted on Ginger-Egg, probably thinking it is simpler this way……….