Tag Archives: train

Guilin to Hong Kong day 20

A day of travel in various forms. Bus 100 to Guilin north station. 3 hour train journey to Guangzhou south, the city being shrouded by a heavy grey sky and electric storm, making it even more dystopian. A gamble that I can get to Guangzhou east in 2 hours and get on a train even though I haven’t booked in advance pays off, though is slightly stressful with 40 minutes of rammed underground trains, and disorientation at east station. I think my least favourite thing in China is trying to cope with these huge stations. Anyway I’m now on the Hong Kong train. Feels like I’m going home. Certainly I’m back in a “more developed” society. This means everyone is on their phone, looks tired, weary and is indifferent and unfriendly. I’ve come a long way in one day or so.

Here is some fruit from Guilin, forming most of my lunch. 

   3 more metros and after 9 hours of travel I’m back in Hong Kong at fortress hill again. This time I’m in the main hostel block and the room has more character and even a view. Vege buffet just around the corner 😀

To Guilin day 11

The express train
We are now doing 236 kph. In a tunnel so it could be any speed. It doesn’t feel fast. It’s rising to 244

Guangzhou sprawls with a horizon of layer upon layer of the crenellations of groups of towers. A vast scrapyard full of motorbikes. Vast waterways with container ships. The sprawling suburbs give way to the grids of fish farms divided by low green dykes. Elevated roads on stilts that stretch above the city as far as the eye sees. Concrete. Concrete that eventually gives way to the mountains north west, hence the tunnel. It’s become countryside at last. The other side of the mountains is less planned, less urban, picturesque!
Guangzhou south station was like an air terminal. 26 platforms for ultra fast trains with thousands of passengers waiting, some playing chess on the floor. Numerous departure boards, lacking in consistency and clarity. Another screaming 5 year old, wrestling with his mother in the queue at the ticket gate.

The train takes us over a fertile plain full of paddies and small low rise towns with people gardening. Kids play on the ruined pillars of a former road bridge on a river. As we approach he zhou the surrounding landscape becomes an awesome dusky series of majestic pointed limestone peaks, like a drawing from a fairy tale book, the pale oranges streaks of sunset fading now. Like halong bay on land.
The following hour is played out by soaring music like “there there” by radiohead and “transeurope express” by kraftwerk in my headphones, as we plunge through dark tunnels emerging onto more water and paddies and now the bright orange disc of the sun cutting shards of gold over the lakes and rivers. What an amazing rail trip.

I think I’m doing well when I get straight on the recommended bus in Guilin but panic a bit and lose my bearings, getting off too soon and have to walk 40 minutes down Zhongshan road, partially accompanied by a local who calls me his teacher. The hostel is, as the name riverside hostel would suggest, right at the rivers edge. There is a peaceful terrace that steps you out into a walkway lot by coloured lights. The city is certainly a tourist Mecca. A street market selling jade, calligraphy, paintings, lucky stones, durian. It’s quite low intensity and very different from Guangzhou. 


Averaging 270 kph, top speed 306 on the way from Xian to. Beijing on a G-train. It’s smooth spacious, clean, on time and I’ll do an 700 mile journey in 4.5 hours. Kind of puts the uk’s transport system to shame.

The landscape through shaanxi and then shanxi province is pancake flat and is unremarkable; either intensively cultivated or urban sprawls marked by swooping concrete flyovers suspended on pillars, multiple rail lines, worker camps, yards full of concrete pipes, girders and heavy construction materials, and massive pockets of monotonously plain and identikit high rise concrete shells and even higher yellow cranes. On the outskirts of the cities these developments reach off to the horizon. About 70% are unfinished carcasses, and seem to be abandoned projects, presumably as the developers have run out of funds. This is urbanisation and modernisation at a vast almost inhumanising scale: the construction of 30 storey homes that are bought as investments, the creation of an infrastructure of hyper fast communications links. The skies are yellowy-grey, heavy, dense with smog. The life seems to have been sucked out of the land. Concrete jungle is the term. If this is the future I don’t think I like it very much.



It’s all very well going for the authentic local experience, but there is really little point, other than getting first hand experience into how cramped and slow the buses are, how awful the traffic is and what I don’t have to deal with back home. But, I didn’t have much choice as the trains from pingyao to xi’an were fully booked days ago. Hence I had to get a bus for a couple of hours north to taiyuannan then. Across the city by taxi to get to the southern train station which looked and felt like an air terminal. Taiyuan city resembled pretty much what I was expecting from China. Miles and miles of wide multi-carriage ways sweeping past rows and rows of 20 storey concrete blocks, many still under construction. The sky is grey, rather there is no sky, but a blanket of smog, trapping in the heat, as the day warms up, and stinking of sulphur. The roads into the city are gridlocked and we edge in inch by inch. In contrast the southern station is bleak, clean, gleaming, orderly and so vast it feels empty, even though there are hundredsofpassengerswaiting their trains. I’m now on the D-train waiting to be spirited by super high speed to xi’an.


Leaving Beijing, but will be back soon

The weather has changed to cool, but muggy with occasional down bursts which evaporate pretty quickly. Cooler and sticky still. The day of the parade approaches and there seems to be a holiday as places are closed for a change and the trains are full of people getting out of town. Miraculously I negotiated Beijing west station successfully and I didn’t spend so long in the seething crowded hot waiting room for it to be unbearable. I’ve never seen so many people waiting to go to the same place. I can tell the ride to pingyao won’t be too chilled out with people around me. Already shouting into their phones.

Yesterday was the Great Wall adventure. The lonely planet info wasn’t quite accurate in. Terms of time, distance and effort involved to get to the jinshanlin wall. In fact I did need a ride from the persistent local taxi driver to get. Me from the the highway to the east entrance, which was staffed by one sleepy non- verbal woman, who looked like she hadn’t seen a soul all day. After a slog up some windy steps through a forest populated by bright green and black and orange striped catapillars, as well as beautiful long tailed blue. And white birds I emerge at the longest man made structure on the planet. The mountains rise and fall in a windy ridge as far as I can see and beyond, dotted with watch towers. Mongolia to the north, China to the south. It’s a bit misty and wet. There is silence. I would like to say I was a lone but out of the watch tower appears a wizened leather skinned old man who asks to see my ticket the scampers down the sloping wall to catch up with the peaches that fall from my bag. My original plan had been to walk from gubeikou to jinshanlin, and I still wasn’t sure whether I had made the right decision to abort that plan. However on heading east to the next tower where the restored wall gave way to wild wall I quickly realised the clambering up into the towers is very difficult, and that doing a wild wall trek would have been really too challenging. In fact the walk along the restored jinshanlin section was at times tough enough with steep climbs and descents. I think I saw enough of the wall in any case, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

I guess the strangest thing was what I encountered in the general tower, which is halfway along a spur wall which extends out into a pass from the main wall, with a beacon tower on the cliffs East and west. On clambering through the tower there is a mirage. The semi-ruined Qing dynasty tower, open to the sky has been turned into a fairytale dining space, with rose petals strewn on the ground a large round table elegantly set for dinner and fine wine. What was happening? Some kind of romantic reception, but all who was there was a black guy in a polo shirt and a slim blonde woma in large sun glasses. I don’t know who was more embarrassed and surprised, me or them? This is my wife he told me, when I asked what was going on. Congratulations, I replied. Perhaps this was their honeymoon. Too Bad it had started to rain. Looking back I realised that this guy was probably a footballer. Only they have the money and the delusions of “taste” to do something this tacky…or maybe an athlete. Perhaps from the world championships happening in Beijing.

Coming down from the wall after 4 hours walking I mean Israeli couple who I go back into town with. They are a bit naive and got fleeced by a taxi driver. I take them to the vegetarian restaurant (they are also veggie) near the lama temple. We have a great meal, but the woman begins to fret about hygiene and hairs on food etc…

What else to report? Well 972 art district was a big surprise: a vast former industrial area, with the factories now used as galleries and workshops. Communist slogans adorning the wall. Some of the plant has been left in situ like some massive art installations. Saw some art by xu bing which made me ponder more on written language. There seems to be much more around you in China than in UK. And of course it is all rather abstract to me, who can’t understand it, just recognise fragments. Oliver was unable to read the xu bing scrolls, and it led me down a line of questioning about why he didn’t understand it. Could it be that these are characters that he hadn’t seen before? If that is the case then what does being able to read mean? Can you ever say you can read everything? At what point can you say “I can read”? Can I read because I recognise a number of Chinese characters? It seems knowledge is encoded in written form, so our ability to know is restricted by our ability to read. Here, in China, I know virtually nothing. I know, from studying xu bin that he plays with the written word, and indeed uses characters that are “correct” in form, but have no intrinsic meaning. But, from the little I understand from Chinese writing, should it not be the case that a literate Chinese could make a stab at deriving some meaning from a “nonsense” or unfamiliar character? Why couldn’t Oliver do that? I think my philosophising over language is above his level!

I often think I have some awareness or sensibility to other cultures, but there is so much I will never get my head around, and inevitably I will make comparisons and use what is familiar as my reference points. I’ve been reading “the narrow road to the deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and some of it has really struck me. The central story is one of pow slave labourers working on the Death Valley railway in Thailand, which not exactly coincidentally, I visited last Christmas. The narrative voice rotates between several of the characters and you get a disturbing insight into the Japanese soldier’s take on the slave labour and their sense of ethics. To them honour and duty are central. They see the allied pow’s as sub-human as they have degraded themselves by surrendering: suicide would be the honourable thing for a Japanese to do. As for slave driving, torture, punishments, the Japanese major believes that he cannot be considered a war criminal as he was merely fulfilling his duty of carrying out his emperor’s wishes. These are very weird standpoints, and it makes you feel, though without empathising, that the Japanese guards were also victims of war. This Japanese thread is quite topical with the approaching Beijing parade. All around the city are posters of glorious soldiers and the number 70. This seems to be a celebration of winning a war, rather than a remembrance of losses, and a marking of peace. This is all rather explicitly anti-Japanese.


Nakhon si Thammarat day 3

Ning and co come and pick me up at 7.45 to take me to the class at the uni. It's raining.

They tell me the students will be so surprised, and excited. The uni is about 8 miles out of the city, at the foot of a mountain (which freshers climb, believing conquering it will enable them to graduate). At the far end of the entrance driveway is a massive seated Buddha.

This is the university of communication studies. I meet the vice dean, who is a northerner and an ex-well-known radio dj. She also shows gratitude for my coming and wishes her students to swell the size of the group to over 50.

We have to remove shoes, both teachers and students. The classroom is quite formal in layout and has a raised wooden stage and a framed portrait of the king at the teacher's end. Students are in uniform, though rather scruffily, of white shirt and black trousers/skirt. They are a rag-tag bunch. Pretty little girls, some with powdered white faces and finely plucked eyebrows. Callow boys with moustaches and open top buttons. Some Muslim girls with head scarves, a rather ballsy loud girl with a top knot, brimming with personality and playing to the teachers and crowd. The teacher uses a microphone, which seems somehow to create a distance between her and the class. She greets them in English and is replied by a clumsy chorus. It's difficult and slow to manage the class into small groups, and I don't think they, or the teacher are used to this more dynamic and interactive pattern. The vision was that the students would ask me questions… I get involved in setting up how this could work. Smaller groups. Time to prepare….

Their English is mostly quite poor. They have trouble constructing questions. In the end most manage to ask me my name. The girls want to know if I'm married. The boys get energised when we talk about football. Their are some odd questions: ” do you think x is a hermaphrodite?” !!! ” what is your motto?” (I have to think, but end up with some cliche that they might understand : life is short, so enjoy it..). Anyway I have a lot of fun chatting to them,but I'm not convinced they learnt very much. At. The end there was a surprise. One of the girls stood up and made a speech she had written, expressing the class's appreciation for my coming. Then 3 girls, one with a ukulele, sandy a song in English..something like ” we hope you enjoyed the show”. This was followed by 3 more girls (never the boys) singing and doing a little dance in thai, led by the flamboyant girl. Later I Learn that in her interview for the uni, she stated that her ambition was to be a star!

After lunch we visit the teacher' s house. Very impressive. Just build, airy, spacious. Contains a shrine. Ning says I should drive her car to trang, rather than her. Well, my first time driving a car in Thailand, first time diving an automatic…not a big deal, but the weather is dreadful. Heavy rain, pools of water on the road. By the time we get to tang the rain is easing, but I'm still unsure of what to do. Go to libong, another island, stay in tang City, go elsewhere….amazingly, although I've only been ther once, I'm able to easily navigate us to the centre and the place where I can get some concert info about the weather and the availability of accommodation and of transfers to the islands. I make up my mind to go back to ko muk. We get some fruit and set off, then down comes the rain. I sense Ning thinks this is a bad idea, though she won't actually say so. She mentions getting a train somewhere. I pull over and check my train timetable. There's a train going north in an hour. I have to make a decision, now or never. We go back to the station and I get a sleeper to hua hin, basically because anywhere else would mean arriving in the middle of the night, or be too close to bkk.

I get an Indian meal to eat on the train, and Ning and I finally say goodbye. She drives back to hat Yai,and I settle into a peaceful ride and a sleep, I hope. However the guy in the next seat strikes up a conversation. He is a flabby, stinky American called mike. Turns out he is a psychology professor at a bkk uni. He. Smells of booze, and eventually he lets on that the clear liquid in his bottle is whisky, and it smells quite surgical. He offers me a nip. It's strong, and I can see now he is a bit pissed. Later he tells me he enjoyed talking with me, thinks I'm a smart guy. It's funny how so many people seem to latch onto me and want to tell me their life story, which he does. It's full of conspiracy, hardship, fighting court cases, being branded a terrorist by his family for expunging anti- American views. He feels in-American, despises the place and the people,and has lived in Cambodia and now thai land for 20 years or so. Something he tells me is quite creepy. It's about the murde of the. British tourists. He says he knows who e killer was, and that this person is high up and connected to the royals. This person is a student at his uni,. Nothing will be proven against him. Conspiracy, cover-up, scapegoating of the burmese workers. Hearsay….

I sleep until 3.30. Get off at hua hin at 4.20.


Ban pong station

No digital departure boards.

No branded refreshment franchise, just a soporific store selling cheap cakes, drinks, pot noodles.

Station master rings a brass bell hanging over the platform.

Control room full of 1960s looking signal machinery.

Analogue clock on the wall. Doesn't matter if it tells the right time as the train runs at thai time and comes. When it wants. In this case approx 1 hour late. Military uniforms, neat and clean station, but certainly not run like clockwork.

A toilet staffed by a garishly made up woman sitting behind a counter with tv, carpet on the floor, lounging husband in football shirt. 3 baht for a pee.

Potted ferns in ornamental pots. A 2 metre portrait of the king in ceremonial regalia flanked by the yellow royal flag and the red blue white thai flag.

The platform is open to all and is a place where mothers hang out with young children. Families stroll over the lines to the food stalls on the other side.

Porters pile up stacks of cardboard boxes and what looks like bull bars wrapped in paper ready to be loaded on the next train.

I don't care if it's late. Waiting at a thai station is quite relaxing.