I am now in Beijing, taking a break in the hotel lobby before I can check in at midday for a much-needed shower and change of clothes.
I spent yesterday walking around the French Concession in Shanghai. As the name suggests, it was formerly run by the French, and the architecture reflects this. The street names, too, were once in French, although they are now in rather prosaic Chinese. Many of the beautiful buildings in their tree-lined avenues are now multiple-occupancy blocks of flats, their attractiveness crumbling and going seemingly unnoticed by their current impoverished inhabitants.
One interesting building in the area is the memorial to the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The photographs of the participants show how alarmingly young the principals were. It looks more like a school photo than a serious political organisation. Perhaps, however, their youth explains a lot... Most of the exhibits are in English as well, with the text decrying the former activities of foreigners and/or imperialists in Shanghai.
There’s also an exhibit of photographs of Deng Xiaoping, although that one, curiously, is unique in having only Chinese text. I was able to make some sense out of deciphering the labels, but the pictures were interesting even on their own. Photographs of Deng with his grandchildren; taking part in some physical-labour photoshoot, shovel in hand; meeting Western leaders of yesteryear. I don’t know what the opinion of the man in the street is, but I can tell that the official opinion is overwhelmingly positive. And I suppose that, indeed, he was a lot better than those that preceded him.
I left Shanghai last night, taking a taxi to the station for the night train. The taxi driver was incredibly good. I’d been a bit apprehensive about the prospect of taking a taxi in Shanghai, as the streets are absolutely crazy. In spite of this, my driver controlled the car with skill and grace, accelerating and decelerating smoothly and without throwing me around in the back. I wasn’t even scared once!
The night train to Beijing is a well-organised affair, which comes as a great suprise when compared to the chaos that reigns outside the front of Shanghai Station. If you have a “soft” reservation, then you can use the waiting room, which is refreshingly free of the rabble. Once you walk into the station, almost nothing is in any language other than Chinese, which makes it very difficult to work out what to do and where to go. More by luck than good judgment, I ended up in the right place at the right time.
Boarding for the train starts about half an hour before the actual departure time. You can set yourself up in the four-person, non-smoking compartment and get comfortable. I was lucky in that there was only one other person there, so we had plenty of space. At the end of each carriage, there are toilets, basins (although the soap dispensers were all empty), hot water and other amenities. It’s really rather comfortable.
The beds in the train are reasonably comfortable. Two pillows and a duvet are provided, and it’s far more amenable to spend twelve hours lying on a bed than perched in an airline seat. I actually got a decent amount of sleep on the train, which is more than I can ever do on a plane. In fact, once the train has got moving, and it’s dark, and you’ve had a bit of food and drink (it’s essential to bring something with you), there’s little to do other than sleep.
Having said that, however, the track quality gets progressively worse the further the train gets from Shanghai, and the stretch in the middle has some really rough stretches. I was woken on a couple of occasions by the jolting and shaking.
It’s a good idea to go to bed early, because you’ll wake up about 6 in the morning anyway, as it gets light and everyone starts moving around in preparation for arrival.
Taking a long-distance train in China is an interesting and enjoyable experience. It’s pretty cheap, too: although you can fly for not much more, you essentially get a night’s accommodation free on the train. The complete one-way price, by the way, was Y499, or about €50.
After the comfort and relaxation of the journey, arrival at Beijing Station is a shock. I can honestly say that it is the most horrible place in the entire world. It’s incredibly crowded with other people lugging suitcases; when you finally get through the doors, it’s even more crowded outside! There seem to be more hawkers and people with signs to pick up passengers than there are people coming off the train.
I broke through the throng eventually, and looked for a taxi. Impossible. There’s no taxi rank per se, although there are plenty of impromptu queues where people attempt to flag down a taxi. In the end, I decided that I couldn’t face the struggle, and as my hotel was only about 2 km away, I’d walk. Although it was hot and tiring going, I’m glad that I did so. It was definitely less stressful than fighting the crowds for a taxi. It was also interesting to see the buildings—many of them very grand, new, and imposing—and the locals on their way to work in the morning.
It’s strange to be able to go from the abject squalor of the station forecourt to the calm, muzak’d atmosphere of the hotel lobby in only a short space of time. The huge gulf between the rich and poor seems to be a feature of China.