Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai by train turned into a learning experience and worth the effort as this was no ordinary train but a super-fast air-conditioned carrier offering a potlatch of paraphernalia linked to alphabet of train. T is special express with C and D the flying ones followed by Z the direct express trains. The 4 bunk soft sleeper is spacious and carpeted with
personal TV, 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 different colored slippers. The important difference between Soft and Deluxe sleeper is placement of toilets. In Deluxe one has luxury of exclusivity while in Soft sleeper the toilets are, choice between squatting and western, at two ends of the coach. Towards end of journey you are lucky to find a clean one with toilet rolls. Anyways it is through train and like us so one could go clean toilet-spotting.
T 98 streamed out of Hung Hom at 15:15 p.m. and in between the settling down we passed through Sha Tin (Hong Kong’s New Territories) on way to Lo Wu (HK/China border). The familiar Pearl River Delta green belt continued across to Guangzhou bypassing Shenzhen, the shopping city. A continuous drizzle added a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains. The magic moment soon passed with pastoral-landscape metamorphosing into warehouses and buildings with trees planted along tracks, probably serving as shields, and no English signage to figure where we were heading to. I tried asking a fellow-traveler, the minute she got off her cell phone, but her expressionless stare put an end to any friendly overtures. Language was to be 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 though crowded, managed a table and ordered whatever appeared eatable. The menu offers limited choice and pictures are of no help either. By 9 p.m. the staff was giving us crabby looks willing us to leave, probably wanting the place for selves as smoking is permitted in restaurant cars and not in corridors.
It was still too early to call it a day but with nothing visible outside there was no choice but to sleep it out. I did wake up once, probably when the train halted, but could make out only silhouettes and empty platform. T 98 stops at few stations including Guangzhou where passengers are allowed to disembark.
Next day 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, 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 village ambience of street corners and food stalls.
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 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 minus the swastikas and Nazi guards. The station was deserted with no milling crowds except for station staff. The health check and disembarkation forms had been handed on the train itself and within minutes the queues, carriage by carriage, moved out of the privileged area.
The first push and shove and this was China of billion heads. The language problem reared its head again and after a few false directions somehow located the ticketing section, for booking Beijing-Shanghai segment, and an English-speaking counter with locals outnumbering tourists. It took time explaining, in slow diction and this transaction took more than the designated time for each person. The line by now was getting restive and a frumpy middle-aged woman came up and hollered, it appeared to me, for taking so long. I felt like hollering too but decided otherwise and waded through the flood of people.
By now our collective patience was running out with the high-pitched babble and went in search of taxi stand. The ‘stand’ turned out to be 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 helped us and before we could figure out our bearings were swamped by drivers who seeing easy targets demanded exorbitant rates. It was a matter of collective patience and finally it was settled for 200 Yuan for the ride to hotel on Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang district. Fortunately we had Chinese translation of hotel name, otherwise it would have been a taxi ride around Beijing. We later learnt from hotl staff that taxis are metered and one should take the receipt.
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 a Forbidden City. Railway stations, hutongs and shopping complexes offered brief encounters with people from different corners of the vast country and in process a window into their world.
Shanghai: Beijing Station (south) turned out a mammoth structure and making 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 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating.
The other two passengers were already in the 4 bunk Soft sleeper, we had the lower bunks, so quietly fixed our suitcases and had sandwiches and salads purchased from Seven Eleven store. D 301 would touch Shanghai at 7 45 a.m. and for 730 Yuan it is a luxury one does not mind. Beijing to Shanghai is about 1,500 km travel time with 2 hours by air and 12 hours by train
Shanghai station was a let down. The train glided to a decrepit platform with non working escalators, men wanting to carry our luggage to taxis reminding of Indian stations, though slightly cleaner and presentable. The previous experience in Beijing was a lesson learnt and we prepared ourselves to haggle for taxi fare.
RETURN JOURNEY: 36 hours in this ‘Paris of the Orient’ and ready for return journey to Hong Kong via T 99. Reported an hour earlier for immigration clearance and patiently wading in slow motion to train through teeming mass of luggage toting crowd. This time it was Hard Sleeper with 6 bunks, the upper, middle and lower. The bunks were passable, padded with clean sheets, comforters and pillows. The items missing were water thermos, TV, sliding door and slippers. Our companions, youngsters from Hong Kong, girl studying in Switzerland and her friend probably working in Hong Kong, were non-communicative. 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 sqaushed in our middle berths….small mercies.
The carriage was crowded but the narrow folding table and chairs for middle bunk people, placed in the corridor, was a convenient sitting cum look-out. There was this tourist busy pounding on his laptop probably blogging his experiences; a group playing cards and a mother tutoring her daughter. Generally 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.
Next morning was bright and clear and the irritating piped music did not lessen the vibrancy of the transitory countryside as the train passed through Zhuzhou and Guangzhou East to reach Hung Hom at 13.00 hours.
A seven-day journey to be remembered and reconstructed at leisure.
* Train Information: http://www.china-train-ticket.com