Saturday, March 24, 2007


Something just snapped in me yesterday as we travelled through the yellow rapeseed fields from Yichang to Nanjing. Maybe it was the smoking, spitting, shouting, shoving migrant workers at Yichang railway stations. Or the polluted air, the disturbing sameness to the cities and the farms. Or frustration at my inability to speak the language or to freely travel around without relying on others. Even the food. Or all of the above. Suddenly my tolerance of China disappeared. I found myself wishing I were somewhere else.

I certainly did not want to be on that train. As we walked up the steep steps to Yichang railway station we were surrounded by peasant workers, belongings wrapped in makeshift bags of sheets. The Chinese push in whenever possible, don't give way. I've learned just to barge in and not care if my backpack takes bystanders out.

Not knowing where to go we passed our bags through the x-ray machine and entered the general waiting room. It was a scary experience, surrounded by crowds of people whose appearance was that of those shouting, shrieking drug addicts you sometimes see on the streets of Sydney. But I guess that this is often a new experience for them too and most are probably very nice people.

Backing out, the security guard pointed us in the direction of the "soft class" waiting room. A helpful local had to point out ts entrance behind locked doors. The soft class attendants ushered us straight to the train, not even bothering to check our luggage.

The soft sleeper cabin was a lot less comfortable than the cabin we travelled in from Hong Kong to Bejing. Four narrow, hard beds arranged in two bunks. Dodgy looking linen. The carriage toilet a dirty squat.

The old couple we shared the compartment we very nice and kept offering pomelos, apples and sunflower seeds. Thankfully they didn't like smoking either, for the overcrowded train contained plenty of smokers in the corridor in defiance of the no smoking sign. However the lady insisted of leaving the door open most of the time. This may have been a good thing as she kept coughing through the night (and no hand to cover the mouth, of course). Probably going to get tuberculosis, SARS or fish flu from her now.

The train stunk of urine and cigarette smoke. It was NOT comfortable whatever the Lonely Planet might say. We couldn't face another night of this, were already worn out from many late nights and early mornings, feeling a bit unwell.

We decided that we were willing to sacrifice some sights for more "stop" time to rest and recuperate. So I rang the wonderful Zhou Yan at CITS on the mobile and cancelled our itinerary post Nanjing, moving forward some nights in Shanghai.Thanks to the wonders of modern mobile technology (2.5G here) I was even able to email the instructions and receive a reply to my mobile phone.

Arriving in Nanjing at about 9:30am we quickly booked an onwards midday ticket to Shanghai (easy!), then spent the next hour in McDonalds near the huge train station. We did try a dumpling place first but it was full and we couldn't order.

The young lady who served us might have spoken English, but their toilet belied the McDonald's legend. It was a squat and it was dirty, with an overflowing rubbish bin of shit covered toilet paper. From the tray cover I'm also concerned about the source of their beef. The cow looks mad and on hormones.

The extensive canal system was visible after Nanjing, which barges chugging up the waters or decrepit boats just sitting there doing nothing. I would love to take a cruise up the Great Canal, just to observe life on either side.

It is good to be in Shanghai. This three star hotel might be a bit far away from the centre of town, but it's got a light rail stop, plenty of shops and a park nearby. Catching a proper modern metro again was also a good feeling, despite the number of interchanges.

We stopped at Renmin Square and walked along Nanjing Road East until we hit the Bund. From the riverside you can see ultramodern Pudong with its famout Pearl Tower and another, much lower, skyscraper showing video on the side of its walls.

I don't want to give the impression that the Chinese are an awful people or that China is a boring place. It's not and we have met many wonderful Chinese who have brought a smile to our faces with their friendliness and helpfulness.

I think we just need some time to rest and get used to the cultural differences again. I'm certainly exhausted after that train ride and I'm certain tomorrow will find us enjoying China once more.