Monday, 26 September 2011

Leaving Beijing for Hanoi

Beijing West station is not a convenient station as it has no metro link, even though it is huge. I arrived at 2pm with plenty of time to find the 3.45 train to Hanoi. The ticket office is incomprehensible mayhem so a good job I bought mine earlier at a ticket agents that only cost a few pounds extra. Without a local guide or a good hotel concerige life in Beijing is difficult for non-Chinese speakers with specific tasks to perform or deadlines to meet.

I always double or triple check advice I'm given & soon discover I've been told the wrong departure room for my train. Departure room 7 has about 600 people in it & 200 seats, so I find a little nook & squat on the floor - hoping that the spit-mop ladies have been asiduous. I attract much attention as I'm the only European face in the room; l expected to see a few backpackers.

30 minutes before departure I begin to feel edgy as nobody is moving except a group about 50 yards away on the far side of the room. A tiny sign says they're boarding the T5 for a 15.45 departure, so I join them. I'm the only occupant in a 4 berth soft sleeper cabin & feel smug after I see the ranks of faces peering from the cattle truck like hard sleeper carriage. They get a squat toilet & soft class get a proper sit down job.

Boiling water at the end of the carriage is used by people who had the sense to bring tea & dehydrated snacks for the journey, I've an apple & an orange; fortunately there's a restaurant car & I've kept back some cash

Trundling out of town there are blocks & blocks & blocks of apartment blocks - its truly mind boggling & gives some physical scale to the massive Beijing population. Three hours out of Beijing a relatively small town has dozens of skyscrapers under construction & this is replicated in every town down to China's southern border.

The restaurant car is like a old fashioned cafe, a team of cooks out back & waitresses shouting orders back & forth. There are no European passengers & no English menu but a friendly carriage attendant helps me & orders a spicy chicken & celary dish. Its a good job I can manage chop sticks otherwise I'd be scooping it with my fingers & everyone is already peering suspiciously at me as it is. Top notch food though, including 3 beers cost 40RMB, the price of a single Beijing beer (about £4).

It seems that older people chat together, groups screech & shriek whereas teenagers just fiddle with their phone & ignore each other. All Tee-shirt & sweat-shirts have English language motifs or slogans, I wonder if they're statements or merely symbolic.

I sleep very well & the train tracks are smoother than the Russian ones, not so many sudden lurches. We're 14 hours from Beijing & rice fields compete with peppers, onions, cabbages & much else I can't identify - but there are always houses in sight & occasionally grotty tenement blocks in the middle of the countryside. Presumably this is where the - too clever by half - intellectuals were sent to shovel pig-shit during Mao's revolution.

The landscape is straight from a Chinese painting - jagged mist shouded mountains in the distance, whose feet completely disappear & mysterious tree-clad pinnacles of rock standing like gigantic spoil tips.

Later I try one of the KFC bucket-sized pot noodles that many people have, you add 4 sachettes of flavours & its surprisingly good for 50p.

Changsha is a vast city of endless skyscrappers disappearing into the distance, within 3 minutes I count 37 massive construction cranes on top of new tower blocks - from just one side of the train. A couple with a baby join my cabin & the first thing they do is sit on my bed & get the baby to pee into the wastepaper bin.

Dad is very friendly & introduces the baby to me as 'Grandpa' & the baby, of about 18 months, puts his hands together & bows to me - they can't be Han Chinese. After half an hour & much chatting to the carriage attendant they move to a different cabin. Not sure if its out of respect for a grandpa, the wife's horror at sharing with a strange, inarticulate European & its plausable that I smell a bit as its been really hot & there's no shower. Either way its great news as I later hear the baby whinging & crying further down the carriage.

The rivers, ponds, streams, paddy fields & greenery make it very humid; there's bamboo, banana trees, oleander, fish ponds with water lillies, water buffalo, women in coolie hats working in the paddy fields & a huge factory chimney belching black smoke - almost a perfect vision of old world China.

Every station has stalls & kiosks selling food & there's a regular stream of sellers walking the train corridors - except its hard to fathom what's in the packaged food.

I'm escorted off the train at Nanning, where most passengers depart, & requested 'to rest for 1 hour', in a comfy waiting room. The train had been uncoupled & only 2 carriages continue on to the Chinese border control at Ping Xian, which is done on the train. It then continues on to the border town of Dong Dang where I disembark, go through Vietnamese border control & board a Vietnamese train.

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