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