Beijing: Slow Train to Winter

beijing-east gate of winter


A while ago I posted a blog called Bangkok: Bladerunner by Daylight. Well as you probably guessed Thailand didn’t work out and I instead ventured forward to China. December marks my fourth year in this vast and fascinating country so here is an excerpt from the upcoming book about my first port of call, the capital Beijing. 

After an inexorably boring night patrolling every square inch of both Hong Kong’s terminal buildings or that which could be covered without breaching security, I set off in the early morning light for the Hung Hom train terminus at Kowloon. Again I am there way too early but get my ticket for the top hard-sleeper to Beijing. It will take 23 hours to do it. Not including the eight or so I have to wait remembering that had I caught any other flight out of Bangkok it would have meant missing the train by two hours and then having to wait as many days for the next one, so although it’s a nuisance it’s the lesser of two evils on this occasion. As I have all bags (even a large locker won’t accommodate all three) my only option is to hang tight, unknowing how close the main shopping district actually is though with the luggage I wouldn’t have been able to get there anyway.

The best I can do is meander over the road to a shopping centre which is mostly dead but for the top floor, full of infant schools. Perhaps it is a sign. I later mail all of them my resume to no response. Perhaps itself a sign only that HK is not for me. Hung Hom has no internet and neither does the train so I can’t notify my contact that my bank card is not working (my bank has rather helpfully stopped my card). There is the possibility that I’ll be charged the remainder of my money for overweight baggage, a first for a train trip and with my card not working, I can’t risk buying any food. This means I am stuck for a day without food and no way of getting to my contact. Also unknown to me, the colossal and seething Beijing West Station has no currency change office and no metro (*this may have changed by now). I go through immigration without hitch. They don’t charge me for the bags but it’s too late to buy any form of nourishment.

The train is more pokey than I imagine and the top bunk has little room to manoeuvre for me alone never mind any baggage. This is the beginning of many steep learning curves China would throw at me. My compartment mates are two Chinese Americans who are also the first of many to exude a generosity that my fellow countrymen can only dream of. Most of the trains inhabitants carry the kind of cheap pot noodles in round cartons that back in the UK you assume the Chinese wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, so it’s an eye opener to see they do embrace them with great abundance. There is some hot water in a silver furnace and a small table with 3 beds on either side; a bottom bunk – the most expensive, the middle one and mine, the top, the cheapest and most difficult to get into. I am near the ceiling and have trouble bending my body to place my bags which are being passed up to me by one of the others.

There is not much info on the train as to our location or the route we will take. I ask several times if the buildings outside are neighbouring Shenzhen but am told ‘no, still Hong Kong, China is big’ they say. I can only agree as I expected HK to be a blip but it’s still going by outside a good 45 minutes into the journey. I also wonder why the train did not appear to go under the harbour and find that the mainland is in fact behind Kowloon and the New Territories NOT the glitzy buildings of HK island and Victoria Peak as I had thought for years. We do stop in Shenzhen but there’s not much to see before nightfall and the vast array of neon that calls Guangzhou home. It too stretches some considerable distance. A vast building turns out to be a fish restaurant and the night I spend trying to sleep but with the excitement of a child at Christmas periodically catch glimpses of villages through the window not quite believing that it’s the real China before me.

The following day is spent at a stately trot traversing what is only the eastern sliver of a huge country. The sky is bright blue and though there are plenty of townships outside the dry silver roads stand mostly silent save the odd bicycle, car or small truck travelling beside us for mere moments at a time. This is a T train. Not the fastest but I later learn not the slowest either. On the journey, I am embarrassed but have no option but to explain my predicament and my fellow passengers not only offer me food but help call my contact from the train as well as listen to my Chinese (or abundant lack of it) and help with my pronunciation.

We pass stone heads of what look like important figures from a bygone dynasty and a pagoda on the hill. The Yellow river also makes an appearance but there’s no sign of any significant city. Several big towns with towering apartment blocks come and go but it’s anyone’s guess what they are called. It is too early for them to be Beijing so that when the capital does appear I almost expect it to be somewhere else. The train has swung east a while back so I know the buildings in the distance could be it and a few moments later my Chinese co-travellers confirm it is indeed the outskirts. The brilliant blue of the day has become a hazy pink afternoon sky as we skirt the final stretch into Beijing West. Now I have to somehow get hold of my contact or a freezing night will ensue. My partners in travel have said go to McDonald’s for free internet but what they haven’t mentioned is that in order to do that I’ll have to navigate not only the exit and entrance to the station but also a staircase to do it. I opt to avoid the McD’s at the station, which is a seething mass of people. It is inconceivable to think this place exists without a connecting metro station, thus continuing the near vertical learning curve of many a Chinese conundrum.

Still in the station I stop by some phones in a convenience store. I attempt to explain to the smiling girls there that I need to change money but they don’t grasp what I’m saying and keep repeating that it’s five yuan to use the phones. Two Chinese men are hovering on my every word and I want to tell them to fuck off but in the end keep my cool considering events with the bank and having not eaten for a day. I leave the station and manage to find a bank and spot another McD’s in the process. Each are in opposite directions, so I do the bank first. They give me what looks like Monopoly money and later find that the light aluminium coins they’ve given me are useless.

I am now walking toward McDonald’s and manage to navigate my way through conundrum 2 – escalator’s seldom work in China. Awkwardly I push my way up the stairs onto the flyover and back down the other side via another shopping centre as devoid of life as the one in HK. This time the down escalator doesn’t work and I throw one of my bags down the dormant silver steps through my astonished anger. Next door is McD’s and I manage one last push through the stiff doors backwards dragging my bags in with me like they are wild horses dragging their hooves. My attempts to get online are in vain, even placing my pc in the unlikely environment of the front counter. The staff to their credit get out their phones and try translating but it’s all too much. I pack the pc away and begin to ask if anyone knows where there is a phone shop or an internet cafe. That’s when I met Jerry. Out of all Beijing, an editor. He kindly takes me next door and offers to buy me a sim card which I’m too embarrassed to accept. Instead he rings my contact and I wait in the warmth of the humble fast food chain with Jerry and his mother who is awaiting her train back to provincial China.

My contact finally makes it and we spend another 10 minutes trying to flag down a cab to his place. The first thing he tells me is crossing the road you have to have eyes in the back of your head (as vehicles can turn into your path even when the pedestrian sign is green). He’s bloody right and thus I say hello to conundrum 3 – a green light to walk means nothing in China. Eventually we manage to find a willing cab driver and he pays to my further embarrassment. My contact points out the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium – it’s lattice work glowing red like a charcoal from within. I had no idea we were about to stop and his apartment would be a stone’s throw away from it. After dinner at TGI Friday’s next to said nest, I spend the next 10 days in his spare room during which time I gain some work at a Korean academy. On the way there a girl says to me in stilted English ‘we Chinese are – very – friendly.’ I appreciate her speaking in my language and more so, she was for the most part right, they are fantastic people. Unfortunately the Korean kids were not.


2 thoughts on “Beijing: Slow Train to Winter

  1. Pingback: China: Five Years in a kingdom of Red | kelvin hayes global creative

  2. Pingback: Rail Journeys | kelvin hayes global creative

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