China Railways

Sometimes, journeys generate more than a travelogue…

Riding the Iron Rooster

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on May 11, 2011

Unexpectedly, The Cross of Bethlehem begin and ends in China. This was one of the very few changes during the editing stage, since the original manuscript ended in Vientiane, on my dramatic escape to China. Any other of the countries mentioned in the book - even Switzerland - would have been a more obvious choice. After all the book is not about Asia. Moreover, despite a lifelong desire to see the Middle Kingdom, my first and largest visit was unplanned - as good journeys always are.
In one of my trips between Bangkok and Vientiane, I was reading a china guidebook. An acquaintance in Vientiane "Sam" in the book - had asked for it it. Once there, I found myself at the Chinese embassy asking for a visa. Shortly after, I entered china through its backdoor without any specific plans for the visit, just a long list of must-see places. Xishuangbanna was painful, too similar to Southeast Asia, yet distinctively Chinese. The details were wrong, the culture was different, and the spicing was different. It was less Buddhist, less polite, more materialistic and convenience oriented. There was also that distinctive feeling of knowing for sure foreigners were closely watched.

A few days later, I was standing in front of Kunming’s railway station and took a fast decision: a railways tour of the Middle Kingdom. Modern China marks the rebirth of railways technology. Its vast population relies on iron roosters for fast transport along the huge distances. During the Chinese New Year, migrant workers - in the many tens of millions, the largest seasonal migration on earth - return from the megacities along the seashore to their hometowns. China railways can to the herculean task.

I didn't hesitate, first, I traveled northwards through the incredible Kunming-Chengdu Train which crosses over a hundred tunnels and bridges and then continued to Beijing. There, I almost froze. It was the middle of the winter and I was wearing clothes bought in summery Singapore.

After taking a quick look at one of their walls and eating an imperial duck, I moved a bit southwards and warm-wards to Shanghai. From there began an awesome journey westwards all the way to Urumqi and Kashgar. Finally, I left the kingdom via Guangdong, Macao and Hong Kong. Later I returned for shorter trips.

Despite not being very fond of China, this trip was the best journey I ever had. It was possible only due to the railways which let you travel efficiently while still enjoying the landscape, human and natural as one.

Oddly for a communist paradise, the cars were divided into classes. Most Chinese trains include several kinds of cars, the main ones being first, second, and third classes and the dining cars. The difference between the first and second classes – called soft and hard-berth for historical reasons – are minimal. The first class compartments include just four berths while second class ones have six, beyond that there are not significant differences able to justify the big difference in the fares. Most significant are the differences in the berths, despite the lower ones being more expensive they are a bad choice since during the day they are used as coaches by everybody in the area. Moreover, the quality varies with a specific line importance. A second class car in the Beijing-Shanghai line is much better than a first-class one in the secondary connecting Kunming with Chengdu.

The third class ones are the sitting cars, which display several subcategories. They are definitely not recommended for long trips, though for short ones they offer interesting encounters with the locals. If traveling in such a car, the dining car becomes an important addition, since once food is purchased there the traveler is allowed to spend as much as he wishes in this less crowded space. Toilets exist at one end of each car. Those in the third class are definitely not recommended; regardless the class the traveler is traveling on, nobody would question a foreigner using the first class toilets. For obvious reasons, toilets are closed whenever reaching a station, thus some planning is required. At the opposite end of the car is a samovar with hot water, free for the use of passengers. The ones at the third class cars get sometimes empty, but walking around the train with an empty cup and searching for hot water would raise no questions. In long trips – like the line connecting Xian with Urumqi – women with hot water thermoses approach the train windows each time it stops and sell hot water.

I didn't care about classes and tried them all, my only concern being just to keep moving. Crowded sitting, 3rd class cars and comfy beds in shiny new cars, dingy samovars and classy dining rooms, hawkers standing in the middle of nowhere attempting to sell hot water through the windows and chatty members of the communist party all of them provided me with delightful sights and experiences.

Here are a few

The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on May 11, 2011

I woke up in Boten, Laos and, waiting for the bank to open, ordered a coffee at the shop next to the guesthouse. First, they served me a cup of green tea, then a big bowl of noodle soup with fresh sliced tomatoes and, after I complained for a second time, they served a diluted coffee with too much condensed milk. The small village consisted of some shops and buildings that housed the officials. The only people staying overnight were shop owners in their adjacent houses, officers in the closed compound next to the border and truck drivers in their vehicles with noisy whores. Its single street had some twenty buildings scattered along it and ran parallel to the narrow road leading to Udom Xai, northern Laos’ main traveling hub, almost four hours south from here.

Two of the buildings were guesthouses with simple rooms. A double bed with a mosquito net in a wood structure with small neon lights was all the furniture featured. The toilets and the cold shower were shared, but at the time there were no other guests. At slightly less than two dollars per night, it was a little overpriced considering the location, but the rarity of tourists made the high price necessary for the guesthouse owner. However, I stayed to allow an early start in China, because an hour would be lost when crossing.

My intention was to return to Thailand once my trip in China was over, but now it was time to cross to the Middle Kingdom.

Zhongguo means the Middle Kingdom in Chinese and is their ethnocentric way of reminding foreigners of their country’s position in the world. "Zh," the strange couple of consonants in pinyin, their Romanized script, is pronounced like the English "j," Jong-guo.

The planned highlights of this visit would be my travels along the Silk Road, Kashgar and Xian. Sightseeing and the book business were not the main attractions on this trip. I was more interested in the train trips west.

At 8:20 AM the Lane Xang Bank was still closed, but a tourist entering from China exchanged some money with me, leaving me with just enough Laotian kips for the tuk-tuk to the China immigration office at Mohan, a couple of kilometers after the Laotian exit point. Mohan was a big town in Laotian terms, but a negligible one in Chinese terms. There was substantial construction work going on; a deep layer of rocks was being laid for a new road along the town’s center. Many buildings were built with diagonal layers of bricks. Sometimes one or two were missed and created holes. The method saved construction materials but it didn’t seem stable. Still, we negotiated the road.

Immigration gave us no problems and I picked a small minivan to Mengla. At the station I had a mute argument with a Chinese couple over the seats in the front row, the only ones with windows. I won when I signaled with my hands that I needed the window since everybody else smoked. After an hour and a half delay while they worked on another part of the road, adding a new layer of pressed ground before the re-pavement, the driver argued with the people at the barrier. Finally, they let us move forward to the actual construction site, where we waited till the ground was flattened enough to let us pass. Around us were rubber plantations. Each tree featured a black ribbon spiraling down and leading the precious liquid to a bucket.

An hour after noon, we reached Mengla’s southern bus station. It was a featureless city, except for the bright orange tiles on the roofs. After a short walk to the long distance bus station, I bought a ticket on a minibus to Jinghong. A heavy-set woman in a uniform checked the passengers’ tickets against a computerized list and we left on time in a half empty vehicle, an unthinkable thing in Laos. The road north passed left of the Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve and more rubber plantations, but I was thrilled by the road signs, which were made of pure cement and molded in one piece. However, photographing them while traveling at full speed proved to be a difficult task. At the passing villages we picked up people until all sixteen seats were full and then, no standing passengers were allowed.

People ignored me whenever I was looking around, but couldn’t take their eyes off me and my writing, whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. A man across the aisle kept spitting on the floor and smoking, the cigarette’s ashes dispersed over the spit with great care. Outside the window, a man was leisurely smoking and holding a big bag open, while a woman next to him was shoveling earth inside. At the different stops, women sold pomelos, sticky rice, peanuts, eggs and maize; fruit stalls bordered the station.

I had already seen the sun set in Jinghong, after crossing the Mekong River. China was the sixth country where I met this giant. Here it was known as the Lancang River. Next to the terminal was the Hong Feng Hotel. In the big room I secured there, the hot water was a dream. There were two beds to choose from, a television, a phone, lots of working lamps and mirrors, and a thermos with hot water. After the trip in Laos, this was a close replica of paradise. The television showed CCTV9, the Central Chinese Television English Channel, and documentaries accompanied me until I fell asleep.

Early in the morning I gave my laundry to Mei Mei Café, in the backpackers’ area, a typical Southeast Asian all-in-one service center for tourists. Then I went for a walk. Jinghong was a small and compact city. It felt more like an extension of Southeast Asia than like a Chinese province. Thais called it Chiang Roon (several Roman transliterations of this name exist) and considered it the
cradle of the Thai culture. It was re-baptized by the Chinese, following the annexation of the Yunnan province to their empire. Food stalls sold Thai Som Tam, a spicy salad of green papaya, peanuts and chili. The food ingredients all around were similar to those in Thailand with the addition of yams and carrots. However, the spices were different with less chili and more pickles.

Hungry for traditional Chinese sights, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, in a sleeping bus. The upper berth was slightly cheaper, so I took it. While boarding the bus, I was asked to take off my shoes and put them into a bag the driver gave me. In the bus were three rows of short beds, each one with a mattress, a pillow and a thick blanket, to protect the traveler from the strong air conditioning. The bus left seventeen minutes late, with only one third of the beds occupied. Two movies were shown in a row, both of them dubbed in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles, because of the different spoken dialects; all dialects used the same written language. With Chinese subtitles any Chinese person could understand the movie.

The first restroom break shocked me. The toilets were constructed of cubicles over an open ditch, with no doors. To flush, a water hose was used at the beginning of the ditch, allowing the water to flow out the other direction. An hour later we reached a military checkpoint. Everybody had to show the soldiers their identification cards. When I asked the soldier if I need to show my passport, he said "Thank you" but refused to take it. Some people were asked to step off the bus for a luggage check, but everything ended well. After dark, we stopped at a bus station for food. We received a ticket from the driver, which we used at the restaurant to get food. A small metal tray was filled with soup, rice, two kinds of vegetables, and two kinds of meat – a reasonable variety. The taste was a bit strange, but I attributed that to my tongue being unaccustomed to the spices. However, after midnight my stomach started to rebel and I spent most of the night vomiting. Maybe that was the reason I was handed an empty nylon bag while boarding…

(Excerpt from Chapter 53. The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

Running Out of Lines

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on May 11, 2011

A bit before 8:00 AM I arrived at Kunming, the city of a million bus stations. With no trash bin in sight, I took the nylon bag, filled it with my last dinner and spent a few minutes in the station searching for a place to dispose of it. There weren’t any signs around and I couldn’t find my terminal. Worse yet, the streets were marked only in Chinese and my map wasn’t very good. Feeling too sick from the earlier food poisoning to search for a hotel, I took a taxi directly to the Camellia Hotel, the backpackers’ headquarters. I sank into bed and kept my electric kettle busy all day, while increasingly developing a taste for CCTV9.

Next day, still worried about the food poisoning and thinking that I might be forced to shorten my trip in China, I decided to speed my way north. Kunming was the southernmost place reached by the Chinese railways, so I walked to the train station, at the southern side of "Beijing Lu" Road. The ticket windows were more difficult to locate and deal with than in the other countries I had visited. The first cashier refused to sell to me, and the second called a third who spoke some English. Finally, I bought a hard sleeper ticket, a code that means a second-class berth, to Xian for the same night.

I spent the next day touring the sunny city and ate in places serving tourists, which I assumed to be safer. Later, while waiting at the train station, the open windows in the waiting rooms left me cold and shaking, but at least free hot water and instant noodles in big plastic bowls were available. Two girls selling rice meals at a wheeled stall wanted to finish the day and were giving double rice rations to the happy clients.

The train was considered "K" class, meaning it was the second fastest in the system and boarding it was quick and efficient. An officer changed my ticket and put mine in a well-ordered file. The second-class cabins featured six beds in two rows with a small table in the corridor between them, and soon I felt glad to have requested a cheaper upper berth; the lower ones served as benches for the public’s benefit. Even before the train left, a vendor with a moving stall approached us selling fruits and drinks. Another one sold comics. A little later the wagon attendant passed with hot water. A man standing next to me said "Hello" and started to speak Chinese. I responded in English and he continued in Chinese to the others. They laughed. After the train began moving, I found the hot water samovar at the car’s entrance. The discovery allowed me to make coffee at will. The small table was next to the heaters where I spent a relaxed evening writing notes.

The train stopped in several stations during the night, once for a full hour, and people went in and out. In the morning the view consisted of the same mountainous terrain, but dryer. The leading color was brown and all the agricultural fields looked abandoned. There were brown, naked terraces and small vegetable parcels with half-dead cabbages. We crossed uncountable tunnels. At 8:00 AM the food vendors made another pass through the train cars, but I decided not to eat.

Half an hour later frost appeared around us and light snow fell in the mountains. In a deep valley an old woman with a black hat stood still, holding a pole on her shoulder with a substantial pile of food in buckets that hung from each side of the pole. In the car, a man was eating a fat round bun with a dark molasses filling and looked in my direction from time to time. In the following hours we traveled alongside a river flowing in a deep valley. Around noon the landscape finally became green, although it was still foggy.

A woman named Nana kept me entertained. She was born in Shiplin, was studying in Kunming and was traveling to some professional exams in Xian. Other neighbors came to talk as well: an aging music teacher, a young couple with an unfriendly husband, and a few others. After a while, I lost count. Writing while speaking with them became impossible. The talks took the expected routes and the many repetitions for the sake of the changing crowd tired me. In the afternoon, we stopped at Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and a huge industrial center, and Nana asked me to go down with her to the station. Once there, it seemed like she wanted to tell me something, but she didn’t.

A few moments later, back in the train she said, "You know, that man is a member of the Communist Party. You are very lucky to meet one." She pointed at the man with the bun. He was short, well fed, and had a certain air of authority about him. The music teacher added something in Chinese to him and he approached me. After the introductions, he asked, through Nana, why I wasn’t eating.

Tired of that question, I told Nana, "Please repeat the story to him."

She did so, received a reply and added in English, "He says you should eat one of his breads. They have molasses inside and will make you healthy."

"Xie Xie," I thanked him, in my rudimentary Chinese.

After I finished another cup of coffee and the bread, he hung around, looking at me. Not knowing what to say, I asked Nana to translate. "Tell him that I did my secondary school in a kibbutz in Israel, which is a communist community."

Finding a common background would create the opportunity for an interesting conversation I hoped...

(Excerpt from Chapter 54. Running Out of Lines)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

A Casual Encounter

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on May 11, 2011

The next morning Xian was covered with snow and frost. My new beard helped me to cope with the cold. Rooms around the main road in front of the train station were expensive, maybe due to the many tourists. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and began walking in ever increasing circles. Shortly after, I discovered the red light district which was surprisingly active at this hour. Women sat inside small rooms next to coal heaters and invited passersby to enter. Nearby were many hotels. In the one I chose, the receptionist didn’t speak English, and after some unsuccessful attempts at communication, the receptionist took out a paper and showed me her scribbled Chinese, thinking that I simply spoke some weird dialect. For them, their characters are universal and it was hard to conceive an adult unable to read them. I signaled that I could not read Chinese characters and next to them wrote the number sixty. She understood the message and I received a very good room.

After the long train ride, I wanted to take a walk to stretch my legs and the unusual beauty of the city was an additional incentive. Subzero temperatures during the day were new to me. The snow was piled away from the sidewalks at the base of several trees. From there, people shoveled it into special trucks. The central plaza was a masterpiece, with a classical Chinese bell tower at its center, surrounded by disguised shopping malls. Magnificent pagodas were scattered throughout the city’s center which was delimited by restored city walls. Their main staple was a bread resembling a pita pocket. Some were sold filled with meat and vegetables in them. All around were ambulant sellers of sugared fruits and of solid blocks of nuts and raisins, which were sold by weight.

I dedicated another day to the city center and walked to the temple of Eight Immortals, one of the best Taoist temples in China. In front of it there was a small antiques market offering books, coins, stamps, stones, jewelry and other useless items. Later I crossed through the city’s Eastern Gate, where at the surrounding canal an old man was standing to his waist in freezing water to fish. From there I advanced to the west, through the central plaza until I found the Muslim quarter, populated mainly by Hui people, the name with which Muslim Ethnic Chinese distinguish themselves. I entered the big mosque at its center, Daqingzhen Si, for free since my beard and salutations in Arabic confused them into believing I wasn’t a tourist. The interior was surprising, as it looked completely Chinese with concentric yards and no central dome as in a classical mosque. Since it was the time for prayer, a time when the temple is closed to tourists, I snapped a good picture of the muezzin calling to the believers, but at this stage my actions drew their attention so I left before being approached. Hungry from the walk, I found an excellent Hui place to eat Yangrou Paomo, a soup made of thin rice noodles, mutton meat, oil, some vegetables and a big round loaf of bread, which was added into the soup in small pieces.

I exited the quarter through a market aimed at tourists. The most colorful shops there were selling bilingual name chops, one of them even a Hebrew - Chinese version. One house caught my attention because it had a classical Chinese look with a stone lion at each side of the door and it was well preserved. I could see through the open door that the interior was constructed in the local courtyard style and that the wood was carved in exquisite detail, albeit there was no furniture at all. From an unexpected direction a young woman appeared and walked towards me while smiling.

"Hello, come in please."

"Hi, to where?"

"Come and see the house. It has been restored. Don’t worry it is safe."

Her English was good, and I felt certain this was a tourist trap, but I wasn’t sure how. Reluctantly, I entered and followed her across two yards to an empty inner room on the way to the final room in the back of the house. Paintings of traditional Chinese themes on silk and paper hung on all the walls.

"We are art students and here we work and sell our art. You see the signature?" she asked pointing to a red square filled with Chinese characters.


"That is our teacher’s signature. It shows that the works are original. Do you want to buy some?"

"Your teacher made them?"

"No, it’s our work, but he backs it."

"But they are all the same, the four seasons or the three ladies," I protested.

"These are our traditional themes, but we painted them, I can give you a
good price" she said and began to quote prices...

(Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

Carla Forever

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on May 11, 2011

Next morning, train tickets to Beijing were still unavailable at the train station. An agent nearby wanted a forty-Yuan premium over the ticket price. Hoping to find something better, I wandered around and spotted an office selling tickets for the same day. There, the touts returned their tickets at noon, since that was the last opportunity to get a refund. Then the ticket seller sold me one at the regular price.

A fast "T" class train took me to Beijing, and in the freezing morning, I had no choice but to take a taxi to the town center, since the final train station was at the western terminal, not the central one. All the dormitories listed in my guide were closed and after a long search, I found the Saga Hotel, which transformed two of its rooms into a dormitory and was close to the Forbidden City.

Beijing Duck was the natural choice for the first lunch, and Qianmen
Quanjude Roasted Duck, in front of the Qianmen Gate at Tiananmen Square
was the place for that. The duck was roasted on wood from fruit trees and
treated so that no bones were served while each piece contained meat, fat and skin. Although the meat was excellent, the huge amounts of fat spoiled the experience. Afterwards, I checked the subway and found it to be antiquated with humans selling tickets and humans checking them. The train’s coverage of the territory was minimal.

On the way back to the hotel, a familiar voice called, "Hello, do you remember me?"

"Umm, did we meet at the train?"

"No, I am Carla and you saw my paintings in Xian, I came to Beijing to visit
my professor, do you want to join me?"

Intrigued by the seller’s perseverance spanning such a long distance I agreed and we entered a nearby apartment. There, sitting by a huge pile of paintings was the aging teacher surrounded by two young women who later I found to be his latest pupils. Carla presented me and mentioned my country of origin.

The teacher, in the same unusually good English that Carla employed, asked, "Do you like the pictures?"

"The limited variety and the lack of freedom of expression concern me," I said, only to hear once again about traditional themes.

"Next month I am going to an exposition of my works in Tel Aviv," he said casually.

"Really?" I said, while weighing different possibilities of what was going on here.

"Yes, there and in Cyprus. The Chinese embassy invited me. Can you tell me something about the situation there?" By now, I didn’t buy the story that Carla and the professor were casual encounters.

"Well, I haven’t been there for a while and I don’t follow newspapers here. But I’m sure the embassy at Tel Aviv will be able to give you good and accurate advice, and since they have invited you they’re sure to keep a close watch," I said, wondering if they got the double-entendre.

Somehow that was not the expected response as he started to speak about the prices of the paintings and offered a price lower than the girl offered in Xian. "The paintings are nice," I told him, "but I can’t carry them due to the nature of my trip."

(Excerpt from Chapter 55. A Casual Encounter)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

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