Posts Tagged ‘Beijing’

Backwaters......Mumbai

Backwaters……Mumbai

Traveling on an Indian train is a series of mechanical exhalations, specifically for an Indian, whether in general second or cattle class or in First A/C. The surrounding levels of odors set the tone of the journey and with olfactory senses already in a limbo by the time the train streams out of the platform it is the sights and sounds that keep you engrossed.

An adventure prudie, guided by age, my the finger zeroed on Rajdhani Express for the rumbling journey in mid April 2015, across the plains of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan to Mumbai and from here a taxi ride along the Western Ghats to Pune. An ambivalent travel decision, to fly or track it, had resulted in Second a/c sleeper in the August Kranti Rajdhani, a clone of the original Rajdhani, clanking between Delhi’s Nizamuddin railway station and Central Station, Mumbai. A disappointment as I was hoping to touch down at Victoria Terminus or the present Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with its  Victorian-Gothic style of architecture, constructed in 1888, a reminder of the British Raj pre-independence and more recently the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack.

The August Kranti train, named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement, launched in August 1942 and the train metamorphosed into more than a steel contraption. I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene is concerned. Late booking of tickets had resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for senior travellers to climb up is nothing less than an acrobatic flaying of limbs. The consolation is that one can ask a younger traveler to exchange seats, but our luck was on back-burner. There were senior citizens on the other two berths and an elderly lady on the berth along the aisle leaving us with no choice but to butt up.

Discomfort forgotten, this was the first long distance train journey in India after a gap of nearly thirty years. The earlier train journeys had mostly been short distances, to Nainital via Kathgodam or to Mussorie and Shimla and later after marriage between Delhi and Allahabad. The August Kranti would be covering nearly 1,377 kilometers in 17 hours and 15 minutes and in train speak it was one of the reliable ‘on time’ trains. The diehard BJP supporter, in adjoining berth, attributed this to present government’s railway policies and we hoped for the best…clean and sit-able for 17 plus hours.

The coach was clean but it was the morning train toilet smell that I dreaded. In 1998 I had traveled  Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong by express trains and sitting in the Indian train it was a reflex comparison with the lux coaches of the Beijing-Shanghai express, the spiffy uniforms of attendants, the bathrooms, the hot water availability. Though by end of Hong Kong-Beijing segment we were toilet searching for usable ones.

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Personal fiefdom…Mathura Station

The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and jogs, judders, lurches past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, industrial townships of Faridabad and Palwal towards Mathura- the land of Lord Krishna and his shenanigans. The Mathura platform played host to a cow or bull, could not make out from the moving train and I wonder how it came to the platform. So much for ‘Clean India’. The phone service provider had kept us updated about territorial boundaries as we crossed Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra…the last two in the night and early morning. Nothing appeared to have changed as the setting sun highlighted the stark villages, the mud houses in between newer brick constructions. As sunlight faded I turned inwards, to the compartment and its inmates.

We were sharing the lower berth, sitting with the lady, a silent request granted silently. The gentleman was not so obliging and stuck on to his lower berth. They were seasoned train travelers judging by the way they made themselves comfortable. The lady was enterprising, carrying her gastronomic condiments along…crushed cardamoms to add to the train tea and pickles and chutney as food asides. More interesting was her bagging the sachets of tea, milk, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, served with tea and dinner, and by the time the train touched Borivili (Mumbai suburb), her departure point, she was richer by a few sachets. Her preferred mode of travel was train because of airline baggage restrictions giving credence to Santosh Desai’s words… ‘We never travel alone… we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin’   (Mother Pious Lady..Making sense of Every Day India).’ Santosh Desai.

The gentleman, a shoe trader, was returning to Mumbai after attending his Guru’s camp in Mathura while the lady was on her way to attend the sermons of her guru in Mumbai. I found him taciturn and vocal by turns and the duo turned us into mute audience of their wisdom talk. Within time the conversation veered towards professions and economy and I watched how the lady inveigled an interview/assignment for her shoe designer granddaughter.

Finally, it was time to clamber up to our berths and In between toxic stares at the shoe trader, for not offering me the lower berth, I dozed into dreams of clean toilets, clean stations and gourmet cuisine. Waking up I realized that I should accept that ‘travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away’. (Pico Iyer).

The early morning scene of the peaky backwaters of Mumbai was a pleasant sight till we nudged closer to the city and the whistling local trains or steel cages transporting herds. Finally Bombay Central and a vortex of human bodies, stench and luggage, and we made a hasty exit for the taxi stand for commute to Dadar station. A 20-minute journey extends to more than 45 minutes, as the streets/lanes are jammed with humans, vehicles vying for tarmac space. The scene was reminiscent of Indian movies, of village bumpkins lost in the clamor and chaos of this tinsel town that is more squalor than cheesecake. One wonders why the state’s political parties squabble over beef bans and Marathi supremacy instead of channeling their energies towards making the city clean and livable.

(Did not click any train and station pictures)

Duronto Express….Return from Pune

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Pune Station

The return train journey was no Continental soiree across rambling Alpine villages or prairies of North America, but a staid rumbling in another superfast train, the fully air-conditioned Duronto express, across the plains of Central India towards New Delhi, the capital city of India.

IMG_2830We were advised to book berths in the Duronto, as it is the fastest train on the Delhi – Pune sector covering 1520 kilometers in about 19 hours and 45 minutes. The luxury is the fairly comfortable padded velour first class berths and the freedom to stretch, burp or loll. The full day cooped up in a coupe was slightly discomforting and I segmented my hours; first few hours, till lunch time, gazing out at the flashing landscape that was no ‘Picasso blur of light and color’ but burnt sienna of the Deccan soil. The patches of green fields, the flat mountainous projections in the hazy distance add occasional people brightened up the dull scenery of the Western Ghats.

The train makes it first stop at Lonavla and later at Khandala and I start to hum ‘Aati kya tu Khandala’ from film ‘Ghulam’, sung by actor Aamir Khan on-screen. The station is least inviting and I leave Khandala and my humming behind and look forward to, two more stops,  ‘shining’ Gujarat. There is very little to differentiate between the villages and towns of the adjoining states, Xerox copies of each other, and it is the signboards that are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries. The people waiting on platforms mirror the city or state, the train had stopped at Surat and Vadodra, and we had a brief glimpse of colourful Gujarati turbans shielding business-dead pan faces. By this time the velour comfort takes hold and i stretch out,  breathing the rhythm of ‘back and forth’ as the train trundles on towards the desert plains of Rajasthan…..it is night by the time we cross the Gujarat border. The clacking over the rail joints and brief stops in middle of night fail to rouse me from my sleep.

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Green cover

Train food is nothing to slurp over, a slight improvement, and the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Continental fare  accompanied by ice cream, were edible. Being First class the service was good and the chicken cutlets with steamed veggies a shade better than the lunch fare.

A.H.Wheeler...still continuing

A.H.Wheeler…still continuing

We had opted for train travel, probably trying to relive the romance of the railways and not compare it with airline travel. The one advantage of land travel is that there are no long queues, security pat downs, luggage restrictions and most important, the space or leg room. Stretch, exercise or play along the aisle, as the young mother and her two kids were doing, and no reclining seat-in-your-face. I finished a 250-page novel, curled up on my personal berth served by polite attendants, oblivious to the occasional flares of light from villages and stations as the train hurtled into shadowy blackness.

The 5.30 a.m. knock on the door and the smiling attendant placed our tea trays on the stool. What more could one ask for? It was time to unwind and prepare to disembark. A journey to relive the past had come to an end, a sanitized journey minus the shenanigans and subterfuges of past journeys when we had to chain the luggage for fear of pilfering during the night. The caution is still there, despite armed guards and security on board. Also missing is the constant stream of vendors, not allowed in First class compartments, climbing in and out at different stations. The stations too bore the ‘bare’ look as the proliferating books, fruit and snack stalls regulated leaving the platforms for travelers and their luggage.

On time and we were in Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi….the beginning of the end.

WATER TRILOGY – 2……….Suzhou

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On way to Suzhou…the color green

From the mysteriously prosaic Shanghai we drive to Soochow or Suzhou cocooned in shimmering silken legends of antiquity and a refreshing introduction to a different face of China.

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View from hotel window

The drizzle-y weather fails to dampen the two-hour car journey along panoramic green fields speckled with occasional farm hands and blue motorized carts, as we enter Suzhou, situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Yangtze River Delta) on the shores of Lake Tai, guided by the setting sun through haphazard traffic and congested lanes. This is Suzhou in its present incarnation, a center of industry and commerce and one of China’s fast developing industrial cities. From our hotel room window, Holiday Inn Youlian Hotel, located close to the old town of canals and pagodas and the new of industrial parks and hi-tech zones, I see roofs of communal housing, blue and muted, lifeless and faceless.

IMG_0235Suzhou’s past splendor is everywhere — in once-grand houses lining centuries-old canals that make their way under still-existing 6,000 stone bridges, and in the many gardens, temple and markets. Marco Polo, the intrepid Italian traveler had described 13th century Suzhou as “Heaven on Earth”, referring to the 6000 bridges ‘such that one or two galleys could readily pass beneath them and where the citizens of this city, men of enormous wealth and consequence hobnobbed with philosophers, the literati and physicians schooled in nature’. *

Tiger Hill….Wanjing Villa

The best way to unravel the antiquity of Suzhou is to move around on foot, in a rickshaw or to glide down its canals. With time constraints we had no choice but to move around on four wheels and our introduction to ‘ancient’ Suzhou began with Tiger Hill Garden, a massive treasure hunt set in 4000 acres. Su Shi, the famous Song Dynasty poet had said “It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill’. I suppose his advice being followed verbatim down centuries, as Tiger Hill is a popular tourist destination with visitors flocking the gardens, the stony pathways leaving poetic and calligraphic evidence on rocks and pillars.

From a distance Tiger Hill takes on a shape of a crouching tiger but legend has it that a white Tiger had appeared on the hill to guard the burial spot of King Helü of Wu and hence the name Tiger Hill. We followed our Guide and the crowds via the Wanjing Villa showcasing pot plants and Bonsai shrubs/trees, a specialty of Suzhou, covering an area of about 1,700 square meters; the Sword Pond (Jianchi) the watery hiding place of the treasured swords of Helu and past more selfie-clicking tourists to the famous landmark, the 1000-year-old Yunyan Pagoda or the Leaning Pagoda.

Yunyan Pagoda

This is Suzhou’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy, and according to travel brochures is taller and predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 48 meter tall brick pagoda with seven stories and eight sides dates its existence to the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) when Wu was one of the rulers. The Tower, completed in 961 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), started to lean during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). This symbol of Suzhou is a stone replica of earlier wooden pagodas and the existing wood brackets and lintels are mainly decorative.

On way to our next tourist stop our Guide pointed out the ‘Daughter Tree’ and I still have to figure out the English name of the tree. More than the tree it was the story associated with it that was interesting. The tree, synonymous with birth of daughter, was planted in the family courtyard and nurtured along with the new-born. With successive years the growing tree was visible from over the walls and people knew that there was a daughter of marriageable age in the family. Proposals from boy’s families would follow and once marriage fixed the tree was cut and the wood used to make cases and caskets to be given to the girl. I was really impressed by the convenient and unobtrusive way of finding matches, especially, in comparison to present day Indian matrimonial columns and dating sites. The few ‘modern’ courtyards we passed were bereft of the ‘Daughter’ tree.

Our embroidery purchase

From ‘Daughter Tree’ the talk veered towards Silk embroidery and in particular Su embroidery. Possibly in continuation to romance of marriages, girls embroidered presents to please their future mothers-in-law and would spend hours bent over pieces of silk. We visited the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery and could have stayed all day watching the end products slithering out of artistic fingers transforming squares, rectangles into works of art. The patience of each stitch, the technique, and the skill was a needle stroke of excellence. One can buy embroidery pieces from stores and workshops on Embroidery street, but this was the particular Su style of embroidery, double-sided embroidery, where one single piece of cloth displays the same subject or picture.

IMG_0223The visit to Suzhou silk factory was an unraveling of silk production and we watched fascinated the entire birth sequence, from pupae feeding on delicate mulberry leaves, wrapping themselves in cocoons and the unraveling of the strands to produce shimmering silk fabrics and lightweight duvets. We picked up silk scarves, soft and graceful, as keepsake.

Wedding gowns on sale

Silken threads continue to mesmerize as we gawk at the wedding gowns on the fairytale ‘wedding’ street at foothill of Huqiu or Tiger Hill. The entire street and surrounding alleys and lanes are devoted to wedding gowns of different shapes, sizes and colors from 500 RMB onwards to cater to different tastes and pockets.

Chinese landscaping is a blend of art and nature and in 13th-century Suzhou landscaping art reached its zenith. There are more than 200 gardens, private as well as public, representing the garden styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The reason for the profusion of gardens was that the region south of the Yangtze River had produced some of China’s most refined scholars, painters and poets and the  gardens were their personal property and their refuge  from life’s disillusions and also place to create art, poetry and music. We have time for only one, the Master of the Nets Garden designed during the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The Master of the Nets Garden or the ‘Ten Thousand Volume Hall’, was assembled in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song Dynasty government. The story is that the owner of Master of Net’s garden was grateful to a fisherman for saving his daughter from drowning and named the Garden after him.  A more prosaic version is that the owner, a bureaucrat, got disillusioned with his government job and proclaimed that he would rather be a fisherman than a government official.

unnamed-9Whatever the reason, nature lovers are grateful for this ‘miniaturization of the larger universe’ with rock formations, placement of trees, ponds, pavilions and resting areas and the immaculate zigzag tile patterns, intuitively one does not stomp, that give an impression that one has traversed great distances. The rockeries, waterfalls, paths and corridors are perfectly placed amidst shrubs, trees and flowers, including the Longevity Bridge, a miniature arched bridge in the Central Garden. Our Guide made us step up and down to increase the years in our lives.

IMG_2095One can sit for hours in the quietness of the pagoda in the courtyard lulled by the peaceful ambience of the Garden. I look around at groups and solitary artists engrossed in capturing the scenes in their note books and wonder what they must be thinking. Or like me imagining the jeans and skirts and sneakers transform into silken robes with feet encased in silken embroidered shoes, flitting between trees, pavilions and rockeries.

The 5,400 meter garden is divided into three main sections: the Residential Garden, the Central Garden and the Inner Garden. The buildings, such as the Hall for Staying Spring, the Ming Scholar’s Studio, the Peony Study, the Watching Pines Studio and the Appreciating Painting Studio are easily accessible from the garden. The high point of the Central section is a lotus-filled pond, the Rosy Cloud Pool set amidst a limestone “mountain” and the poetically sounding ‘Washing My Ribbon Pavilion’. The name resonates with a fisherman’s song… “If the water of the Canglang River is clean, I wash the ribbon of my hat. If the water of the Canglang River is dirty, I wash my feet.” This is another China, of history, memory, and even nostalgia.

A brief stop for tea at the gift shop and we stepped out of a masterpiece into reality of gift sellers hawking mementos.The best time to visit is during April and May when blossoming flowers add color to the greys and browns or during Fall for a different take on the canvas.

unnamed-2From the Garden to the Temple was in natural sequence of events and Hanshan Temple or Cold Mountain Temple, a Buddhist temple and monastery in about 10,600 square meters did not disappoint. The temple, located near Fengqiao about 5 km west of the old city of Suzhou, owes it fame to a poem, “A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge”, by Zhang Ji, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet. The Bell of Zhang Ji’s poem had disappeared a long time ago and the present bell in the tower is a re-modeled version. Every year on New Year’s Eve in China’s lunar calendar, the bell is tolled to pray for the happiness and safety of the coming New Year.

A quick walk around the Grand Prayer Hall, the Sutra-Collection Building, Bell Tower, Fengjiang Pavilion and Tablets Corridor and the symbolic 42 meters Puming Pagoda, a five-storey Buddhist pagoda erected in 1995. The other historical relics in the temple are the statues of the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni in the Grand Prayer Hall and of the three eminent monks, Xuan Zang, Jian Zhen and Kong Hai.

IMG_1815Any visit to Suzhou is incomplete without sashaying down the canals of this ‘Venice of the East”. There were no shades of Venice in our matter of fact boat ride and instead of prolonging the agony of the boatman preferred the colorful 3.2 kilometers pedestrian/cultural Shantang Street or Baigong Di along the meandering Shantang River. This street, flanked by ancient temples, ancestral halls, memorial arches and guildhalls, was the gift of BaiJuyi, a Tang Dynasty poet who wanted to connect the street with Tiger Hill. This “First Street of Suzhou’, boasting of 1100 year, history retains its original character transforming itself into a roulade of gleaming red lanterns and music wafting from the eateries, pubs and residences. The famousBantang Bridge is the divider between the eastern section, fromDuseng Bridge inChangmen, showcasing old residences and shops and the West part, from the Tiger Hill, the scenic area.When we left, at 5 p.m. the street was already filling up with young and old, families and companions for a slice of the exotic.

IMG_0236 Close on its heels is the 1000 years old Pingjiang Road, once home to literary scholars, high officials, and members of the nobility and the best-preserved cultural-protection zone of old Suzhou.

A major disadvantage of conducted tours is time packaging and China towns require prolonged visits to know more about their antiquity. Suzhou belongs to this category.

unnamed-112. Mid-way between Shanghai and Suzhou we had stopped for lunch break at Zhouzhuang, a water town straddling the Yangtze River Delta. The blatant commercialization with gated entrance, ticket booths and accompanying amenities takes away the aquatic feel of this Qing and Ming dynastic throwback.

Busloads of tourists, locals and visitors, pour in at regular intervals to relax or appear bored at the contrived natural settings disbursed for a 100 RMB ticket. Avoiding the frenzied sellers we walk along the waterfront, mesmeric picture postcard scenery of loopy willows and bobbing boats and daily life rituals.

It is a small town dominated by mansions and canals and our first stop is a refurbished Shen house, located to the southeast of Fu’an Bridge on Nanshi Street,  constructed by one Shen Benren, a wealthy merchant,in 1742 during the Qing Dynasty. The mansion, encapsulated within five archways, seven courtyards and more than 100 rooms of different sizes, is a brick and mortar wealth impression put together in an area of 2000 square meters and built along both sides of a 100-m-long axis. The connecting courtyards are surrounded by dwelling quarters and to reach the inner most courtyard a visitor had to pass through 5 gates and winding corridors. The house is a maze and one can unnamed-10imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.

IMG_1799But more picturesque and unique were the fading, dilapidated water front houses, once white with blue roofs hidden by willow curtains dipping in the greenish waters of connecting canals.

Lunch was in one of the old family restaurants along the river, and on the next table I could see a family enjoying the famous Wansan pork shank, a specialty of Zhongzhuang. The dish, named after Shen Wansan, was once the prerogative of the rich. The Wansan Pork Shank is prepared by slowly stewing whole pork shanks (thighs, or upper legs) in large crockery pots flavored with special spices and herbs for nearly 24 hours till the flavors infuse into the meat. The meat is then sliced, garnished with fresh herbs, and served on platters as the main dish of the banquet. Listening to the Guide talk about the pork and pastries had certainly made me hungry.

Another unique Zhouzhang custom is tea drinking referred to by various names:  “Grandma’s Tea Drinking”, “Spring Tea Tasting”, “Full Moon Tea Drinking”, “Pleasure Tea Drinking”, and ” Tea Talking”, all of which belong to the tea drinking custom of “Sado South of the Yangtze River”. (Sado being a reference to the very refined and highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony sometimes spelled Chado.)  The’ Grandmas tea drinking’ was an elaborate ritual involving collecting rain water, instead of tap water, in large, free-standing ‘dragon’ water vats placed permanently in the courtyard. The collected water was then tapped into special crocks and brought to a boiling point over an open-air wood fire. The boiled water was poured over the tea leaves in an urn and made to ‘sit’ for some time and then the tea transferred into a pre heated teapot.

Lot of hard work for a simple cup of tea but I suppose it encouraged social interactions between different age groups. One could see the special Zhouzhuang tea sets, brightly glazed blue and white porcelain on special lacquered, trays in the shops.

unnamed-12The high spots of this water town are the stone bridges spanning the river and the waterways. The prominent one’s are the twin bridges, Shide and Yong, constructed between 1573 and 1619 and referred to as Key bridges as each bridge has one square and one round opening similar to ancient keys. The other bridges from the Ming and Qing dynasties are the Fu’an Bridge, a 1355 single arch bridge with towers at each end, at east end of Zhongshi Street across Nanbeishi River and the Zhenfeng Bridge spanning Zhongshi River and connecting Zhenfeng Lane and Xiwan Street.

Our next stop is Hangzhou….another legendry water town set amidst tea gardens and lakes.

 

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……….

Neville George Mullard or Bunt (chief protagonist) in Paul Theroux‘s novel KOWLOON TONG (about Hong Kong) considered his manager’s act of ‘to wake up and take the train to the People’s Republic of China and return before ten the same morning’ a foolish act and our friends too had similar misgivings about our decision to cover Hong KongBeijingShanghai by super fast air-conditioned trains. This was in 2009 and the Shanghai high-speed Maglev train was in introductory stage otherwise this too would have figured in our itinerary. We went ahead with our plans and despite the lost hours on the tracks the journey was a  learning experience guided by alphabet of train. T is special express with C and D the flying ones followed by Z the direct express trains. There is a choice of bunks linked to dollars and for us it was the 4 bunk soft sleeper, 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 and new different colored slippers. A luxury compared with train travel in my home country India. Beijing and Shanghai 006 If one has the money one can opt for Deluxe sleeper for two with toilet en suite. For the Four sleeper travelers there is choice between squatting and western toilets at the two ends of the coach and towards end of journey it is/was difficult to locate a clean one with toilet rolls. Anyways it is through train and, like us, one could go clean toilet-spotting. The Hung Hom station was crowded, too many people preferring track travel, but to credit of passengers we queued up for our berths except for the slight mishap of standing in different queue till corrected by an impassive ticket checker. 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. A single person walked in, uneffusive, and settled down on his upper berth. We were three by now and the fourth berth remained a silent witness to our sense of space. The train, meanwhile, continued on its journey passing  Sha Tin (Hong Kong’s New Territories) on way to Lo Wu (HK/China border), the familiar Pearl River Delta green belt and continued across to Guangzhou ignoring Shenzhen, the shopping city of millions dreams. A continuous drizzle added a chimerical effect to the picturesque  antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains of the Delta.  The magic moment soon passed with 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 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 a major issue, four years in Hong Kong and I still did not know Cantonese, 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 few minutes. The menu offered limited choice and pictures were of no help either and ordered whatever appeared palatable, egg-plant with boiled rice. By 9 p.m. the staff was giving us crabby looks willing us to leave, probably wanting the place for them selves as  Beijing and Shanghai 005 Attendendts taking a break as smoking was, year 2009, permitted in restaurant cars and not in corridors. A few stare backs later we obliged and dallied in the corridors as it was still to early to call it a day. By now it was a ‘silent’ train with no soul around and 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, but could make out only silhouettes and empty platform. T 98 stops at few stations including Guangzhou for passengers 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 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 a perfected village ambiance 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 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 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 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 wanting 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. 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. We stayed in Beijing for four days and the city remained ‘out of reach’ as it was on day one. The food, the people, 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 fare. The newer constructions, The Bird’s Nest, and architecture, are 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 culture, as were the wet markets and food stalls.

Beijing Station West

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.

Shanghai train.

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 sleeper 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 gray skies were following us and due to night travel missed out the scenery along the route.

Outside Shanghai station

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 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 what appeared to a different corner of Shanghai. 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. Communication was again a major handicap and on occasions we were rescued by youngsters, when we lost our way or were stumped by restaurant menus. At one roadside eatery, my friend conducted an impromptu pantomime of flapping chicken wings to order a chicken dish though ultimately were served beef. It was near closing time so they just dumped whatever was available with the expression ‘ lump it’. I am a non-beef eater and saved was again helped by a youngster, who in his broken English, confirmed our fears. We also said lump it and left without any ‘tippo’. Beijing and Shanghai 153Shanghai warrants another visit and this time an exhaustive one.

Waiting for Train..Shanghai Station

RETURN JOURNEY: 36 hours in this ‘Paris of the Orient’ and we ready for return journey to Hong Kong via T 99. 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. 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.

Vendor selling food in train

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. The early morning sun streaming in through the windows was welcome after a five days absence, though the irritating 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 of its plus points, a window to a country which till then centered around ‘Indian Chinese cuisine’ and ‘Made in China’ products.

The Pearl River Delta

. * Train Information: http://www.china-train-ticket.com http://gohongkong.about.com

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