Tag Archives: Gravitational Tides

Stage Eight – Beijing – overland UK 2 NZ

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, see Stage One. Or you could start way back with Part I of planning. For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Front door of the Courtyard Hotel
Front door of the 161 Wangfujing Courtyard Hotel

First impressions of Beijing

Sounds. The orchestra of Beijing. Live! Footfalls of people, barking of cute puppies, motors and horns of cars, buses, scooters covered at the front with little sleeve blankies, bike bells, warning officials with their flags or coloured batons; all process with purpose. Going to the supermarket was a bold endeavour.

The guard is in the yellow jacket but I think raelly all she can do is observe and comment
The guard is in the yellow jacket but I think raelly all she can do is observe and comment

There is some regard for others but only as objects to avoid. Face masks, small people, both elderly and children, smoking, more people and more scooters all travelling, going somewhere, curling around, moving away, getting places. I was scared at the traffic lights even though there were supervisors. When little green man lights up the vehicles take their time to stop. And some bikes and scooters just keep going. I was constantly amazed no one got hit!

Just waiting for a good time to go
Just waiting for a good time to go – my back to the supermarket

I stayed in a small hotel in a traditional hutong near DongSi station away from the tourist centre but close enough to the subway to be within easy reach of everything. It was also surprisingly quiet. I had predicted my need some privacy after six days of train life and I was mighty glad to get into a warm shower and get a load of laundry organised. Both May and Zhao, the two girls on reception duty, spoke excellent English and could not have been more helpful.

Little quilted jackets for your scooter to keep your hands warm and quell the oncoming breeze
Little quilted jackets for your scooter to keep your hands warm
and quell the oncoming breeze

Around the hotel, and the hutongs generally, rose the familiar earthy sewage smell I’d grown accustomed to in Seville. These are old streets and drains and occasionally a burp is to be expected. However, unlike Spain, I couldn’t detect bleach and strong detergents. In fact, although my hotel room was impeccably clean, I did not smell any particular product at all.

Something interesting in the Hutong
Something interesting in the Hutong

As I wandered around the narrow streets of the hutongs I walked past an elderly woman. She was talking with another, a neighbour or sister, both small, bent and white-haired. As I came up the road she looked me up and down in the most blatant, obvious way. She pursed her lips and made a face like my mother would have, perhaps thinking to herself, ‘What is she wearing?’ or, ‘What sort of get-up is that?’ Then she caught my eye and I laughed at her outright, recognising the resemblance to my mother’s attitude and feeling great warmth toward her. She knew she’d been caught out but decided to join in my merriment and we both laughed heartily. What a wonderful moment. A reminder that the best communication needs few words.

Solar hot water on a hutong roof
Solar hot water on a hutong roof

The hutongs comprise narrow roads lined with concrete brick walls, folding back on themselves with twists and turns. Air conditioners hung high on roofs, doorways lead off the main street into further twists and turns into un-see-able interiors.

Hutong featuring flowers in front and tons of snack bars and trinkets behind me
Hutong featuring flowers in front and tons of snack bars and trinkets behind me

Elegant pot plants and ornate doorways decorated the exterior of more settled hutongs while some looked a bit run down. Like blocks of flats, but all low-rise, semi-gated communities. I saw a group of observers gather around some electric workers, moving up and down ladders and retrieving objects from the little truck that was actually a motorbike in disguise. You wouldn’t get away with much in the hutongs.

Gateway to a popular hutong near the river
Gateway to a popular hutong near the river

As usual, my first objective in arriving in a new place was to test my onward travel. Gained expert tuition from reception, jumped on subway and bought my next ticket from Beijing South Railway station. My dry-run complete, also achieved a Transportation Card and hopped back into tourist mode to face Tiananmen Square. I assumed there must be phone shops near there and popped into a fancy hotel to enquire. Three people on the desk, not one with English. Or if they did, relied heavily on the speak-and-translate app. They seemed to fight amongst themselves for who would be the unlucky one to speak with the gweilo. In the end, they all had some input and we managed to work out there was a China mobile shop 300 metres down the road. Off I trotted.

The tiny hole in the wall shop was overseen by a large fellow on a platform reminiscent of a favourite Mediterranean delicatessen in the western suburbs of Melbourne. He towered above me as I negotiated a SIM for China and Taiwan. Using Google translate he managed to find a card, snap out the SIM, insert it into my phone, say, ‘Internet Only’ which wasn’t what I wanted but he’d done it by then and asked for two hundred yuan. We both knew he was ripping me off but the phone now seemed connected to something and I wanted to get out of there. How could I argue when it was clear he didn’t want to communicate? I paid and hightailed it to follow Happy Cow to a vegan café.

Only, Happy Cow is partially affected by the FireWall, in that the maps don’t work, and I couldn’t find where I was wanted to be. (I hadn’t organised a VPN as I was only here for a week and I walked a very long way and the air got thicker and thicker and began to sting my eyes. Saw a sign saying, ‘Herbal Café’ and thought that might work. Up four floors in a department store. Beyond reasonable hunger. No-one had English. Waved my little sign that Kim had written for me back on the train – vegetables only – no meat – said ‘Bu shi’ to egg – dan –  and sat down to a plate of noodles with sprouts and onions. I avoided the heap of egg they’d left hidden in the middle with a sinking heart. My guts felt greasy for hours later. I have become sensitive.

How to get to Tiananamen Square?

Monument to the People's Heroes
Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square

I ate my mandarin in the foyer of the building to degrease. Catching the subway again, I went back two stops to join queues and crowds of people flocking towards Tiananmen Square. Felt inadequate. Felt duty bound to go sightseeing even though I really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to feel the power of that place, so recently marched over by the 70th Anniversary Military Parade.

Happy Anniversary, China
Happy Anniversary, China
A nice fruit basket for the birthday party
A nice fruit basket for the birthday party

I wandered through security, the kind young woman (and the folk behind me) waiting for me to fish out my passport, caught up in the flow of humanity heading towards the famous portrait of Mao.

Portrait of Mao ZeDong
Portrait of Mao ZeDong

Through the gate I went, fully expecting to join those paying respects. But no, we headed towards the Forbidden City.

As we went I could not see a ticket office and we drew closer to signs that said, ‘Ticket Inspection.’ I had missed a vital clue. The harassed guards at the gate waved hands at me and said, ‘Sold out!’ Okay, plan B. To be honest, I didn’t feel I’d missed out on much. Given the amount of tourist work I’ve been doing for the last few years one castle and a millennia of history less in my kit bag wouldn’t hurt. Went around walls, through gates and out to walk toward Jinshang Park where from I knew I could stare down over the fence and into the palace grounds.

I have an amazing knack at taking photos with hardly any tourists visible in them, don't you think?
I have an amazing knack at taking photos with hardly any tourists visible in them, don’t you think?

As I exited, I checked my direction on the phone and looked up to find a perky young woman attentive as a little bird asking if I knew where I was going? Could she help? She’d love to help. She knew lots of history. Let her help! I had done my homework and knew what this friendly lady was up to. I was on to her! Apparently there were scammers operating near the tourist centres. They were full of information and helpful hints and then guide you off to have a nice special Chinese tea ceremony or special beer or whatever takes your fancy while they share all sorts of good Beijing tips. Then the place charges considerable sums and you are sucked dry. So lucky I’d prepared myself for that, especially in the light of Mr SIM. I was polite but firm but, by golly, so was she! She’d be the guide to take me there, for sure. If I needed a guide to walk in a park.

Might have been a couple of other tourists up on Jingshan Lookout
Might have been a couple of other tourists up on Jingshan Lookout – certainly a few down in the Palace Museum

The flood of humans caught me up once more and off I went, marching along the footpath, in the shade of big old trees. The roads seemed to get more crowded with traffic. Possibly school pick-up time?

The smog got thicker as I walked around to the park. Met a middle-aged guard who stood in my path and started to chat. He finished by suggesting, ‘5?’ With his hand outstretched, Five. All of the fingers. Did he expect me to pay him? For what? Letting me walk on the footpath? I smiled and laughed and played dumb, waving both outstretched hands at him. Five? Let me show you Ten! Ten waving fingers! Ha ha! Although he kept smiling he stepped in closer. I shrugged in a friendly manner, said ‘Du bushi, wo bu dong’ (I was sorry, I didn’t understand) and stepped out to go around him. He clapped me on the shoulder, and then kept patting me as I walked, copping a casual feel as he patted. Still smiling like one of the boys in sixth grade. Beat it quick.

Heading up towards the Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
Heading up towards Jingshan Park Lookout

Nice couple let me in at the ticket window – well – I was there first. We all laughed. Marched up to the lookout. The path was quiet. Lovely moment between up and down. Not another person in sight. Noise volume kept down by the trees. Still. Took deep breaths of tree supplied oxygen and turned to my tourist duty once more. Off I went up to the top. Well, that’s where they all were! Must have taken a different path.

Some of my tourist friends look at the centre point of Beijing
Some of my tourist friends point at the centre point of Beijing

Sometimes I felt like I was invisible. A young lady shoved me aside to take a photo of her friend against the smoggy view. I offered in immaculate mime to take a snap of her and her friend together but she ignored me. Her friend noticed though, and after they’d gone a few steps they returned and she offered to take one of me with my camera. Using my mime to great effect once more, I refused, explaining I didn’t want to see my ugly mug! Laughed and made friends 4 eva.

The big point of Beijing
The big point of Beijing

Lovely lookout; if there was no smog. Apparently it may not be all pollution but also dust blown over from the Gobi desert. Not sure I understand how that would work. If Beijing is surrounded by mountains I can see how air particles would get stuck inside but how does it blow in?

Jingshang Park looking from the highest temple to the other
Jingshang Park looking from the highest temple to the other with the lovely city views

Came down from the lovely place and considering that I would be climbing the wall on the morrow thought I could try to level up on Beijing public transport. I would attempt a bus and save my legs for the wall walk. Wonderful lady, fellow passenger, helped me work out which bus would be good; 128 was the one for me. So pleased I had a transit card. I hadn’t even realised it was going past DongSi station so was thrilled to alight just across the street from the road to my hutong.

My friend in the supermarket - why wouldn't you?
My friend in the supermarket – why wouldn’t you?
Can't get away from advertising
At the bottom the sign said, ‘Support The Handrail’. Captive audience for advertising

Wandered around the big supermarket once more and found another lovely lady helping with my museli selection. Lots of smiles and giggles as she told me which one would suit my purposes best. All in dance and mime. After a bit more wandering I discovered another aisle had more options and stood looking at the pix on the packets when yet another helper came to my assistance. Soon we were joined by helper number one and the three of us all weighed in. Got to be the one with the kangaroo on the front. Second lady started pulling stuff out of my bag and exclaiming in wonder, ‘Where did she get this stuff from?’ When I unpacked later I realised each of the things she’d pulled out had contained smaller bags. Perhaps she was commenting on my lack of sustainable shopping? I had bought severe over-packaging in snackpack size.

What’s the best way to see the Great Wall of China?

When I was working in Kings, Brighton, a teacher had pre-prepared a lesson for his absence, about the Great Wall of China. Personal research time! I spent that ninety-minutes reading, listening and searching the internet with around a dozen international students. What did they think the best way would be? The discussions revolved around crowds and touristy trinket shops. I decided I would avoid them. Instead I would go on a private tour with a Trekking Company.

Driving out of Beijing, looking back at the fringe of the city
Driving out of Beijing, looking back at the cloudy fringe of the city

James picked me up bright and early from the hotel – driver Vincent had to go around the block a few times because there’s no standing in the hutongs.

The start of the walk. Both of us fresh and jolly!
The start of the walk. Both of us fresh and jolly!

As we drove out of town I asked James about the air quality in Beijing, being victim to the surrounding mountains restraining the smog. James told me there had been much improvement in recent years. Tree-planting, coal fires had been outlawed … Not so fast, I assured him my own lungs still contained coal particles from the week before! I had to show him the photos to prove it. He was surprised to hear it and assured me the inner city was completely coal free.

Great rocks in the Great Wall
Great rocks in the Great Wall

Mind full of autumn leaves in gold, yellow, brown and cracking vermillion into orange. Lizards flicked away, rocks crumbling, some hewn from larger foundations into rectangles, some shards placed to balance or fill, some sturdy, some loose, sound of shifting as footfalls, clinking as stones replace.

James up ahead on the track - harsh farming land
James up ahead on the track – harsh farming land

Terraced paddocks in far valley between steep rounded mountains, the girl raising the bike into the triumph for a photo on the peak at the three region marker, clean air, joy of concentration on a safe foot position, life, living on the edge, the wall, the drop, the hazards, the surviving. This was great fun.

Cyclists celebrate by carrying one bike to the point of three regions
Cyclists celebrate by carrying one bike to the point of three regions
The prisoners and soldiers building the wall must have had a tough life
The prisoners and soldiers building the wall had a tough life

The wall built by emperors who never saw it. Did it ever stop any Mongolians from marauding? Perhaps as it protected the soldiers who guarded it, the prisoners who built it and the farmers who fed them all.

The Great Wall of China - a cemetery for the prisoners and soldiers who worked to build it four-hundred years ago
The Great Wall of China – a cemetery for the prisoners and soldiers who worked to build it four-hundred years ago

James told me of Emperor Qin, first emperor of China, who heard a scholar examining the moon and as a result of his observations exclaimed that the Emperor must be away from the palace. The Emperor overheard and assumed the declaration was as a result of learning and science. As a result the ruler was scared and ordered all the books to be burned. My Tao 20 for the previous night had been that people would benefit if learning was discarded. There would be no more thieves if skill and profit were banished. Hmm. What does the scholar or sage do if they cannot study? Well, apparently, they get buried alive.

Autumn colour on the Great Wall
Autumn colour on the Great Wall

As I walked on the crest of those bony hills, I tried to work out what made the shapes of these mountains so distinctly Chinese. Obviously they were rocky, I’m no geologist, but even I could tell the folk who built the wall were using resources close at hand.

More autumn tones around the Great Wall environs
More autumn tones around the Great Wall environs

When I tried to remember Spanish mountains I thought Asturian mountains wider at the base but sharper at the top. New Zealand mountains were much sharper. Perhaps someone will tell me my theory is baloney but to my mind a Chinese mountain is a tall thin rounded mountain.

Crumbling ruins. I walked over the cemetery of the broken wall builders.

Unrestored Great Wall crumbles slowly away
Unrestored Great Wall crumbles slowly away
The point where three regions meet: Beijing, Tianjing and HeBei
The point where three regions meet: Beijing, Tianjing and HeBei
Restored Wall snakes into the future
Restored Wall snakes into the future – we did not go there. Instead we head downhill to a guest house and lunch!
The guest house is set back into the quarry
The guest house was set back into the quarry. The Great Wall was a good example of making the most of your resources
Chinese flag flutters over the guest house
Chinese flag flutters over the guest house where we stopped for lunch
Farmhouse feast with vegan inclinations
Farmhouse feast with vegan inclinations. The dish lower left is shredded potatoes cooked in soya sauce. Delicious.

Not sure if the Wall walk or rest had managed to calm my mind but I did feel considerably better on the third day of my stay in Beijing. When I had arrived I felt stirred up. I couldn’t think. Now, I just didn’t want to.

What is 798 Art District?

70 birthday celebrations inserted into 798
70 birthday celebrations inserted into 798

My next outing was to 798, the art district, risen like a phoenix from the industrial remnants of factories closed down to clean Beijing’s air.  The websites described funky warehouses and brutalist buildings. Cool. I was looking forward to some art.

Sui Jianguo’s famous Red Dinosaurs
Sui Jianguo’s famous Red Dinosaurs

It was a change on the subway and nine stops on the bus. I alighted outside an electronics shop and wandered inside to find myself a long overdue mouse. These are the sort of negotiations that take time and patience – not from me! The young woman who attended to me was incredibly helpful, showing me all sorts of mice and obeying my whim to see my selected brand plugged into a similar Mac. When I got it home I struggled with it for a day or two until it tamed me and I believe it has been successful!

Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone
Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone

On the train, Maria had asked me of my expectations of Beijing. I said I’d given up having expectations years ago. That said, I must have had expectations of 798 and they were not met.

Street art of 798
Street art of 798

Many galleries charged an entry fee – to my stunned surprise I even got a bonus bottle of water for my five-yuan ticket in one particularly big shiny art gallery – the water was from Tibet.

My bedroom window and water from Tibet
My bedroom window and water from Tibet

Happy Cow gave me no vegan options in the entire area. Any entrepreneurs, start-up businesspeople, here’s a potential market for sure. Did find an NZ café – Cafe Latte – they have two in the area – demonstrating Kiwi prowess with coffee. They even sold me some ground to take away.

Chinese Cafe Latte Cafe in 798 district
Chinese Cafe Latte Cafe in 798 district

I ordered a BLAT – without the pig – focaccia. When was the last time I even saw a focaccia? Couldn’t remember. Hopped in with teeth and smile.

Inside Cafe Latte, a NZ cafe with a kea chewing the streetlight
Inside Cafe Latte, with a kea chewing the streetlight

It had been buttered. Now, to you, that’s nothing. What’s wrong with butter? I’d had the conversation with the waiter about my vegan attitude, shown her the sign Kim from Singapore had organised for me, talked about pig and cheese and, for sure, there was no egg but I’d forgotten to say, ‘None of your rich, creamy NZ butter, thanks’. Why couldn’t it have been a scraping of delicious NZ olive oil? Bare bread? Or just smeared avo?

To you, I’m sure butter is terrific. To me it felt greasy, like I’d eaten an entire yellow lip-gloss. For the next hour or so I could feel it around my teeth and tonsils. I didn’t feel sick. It probably amounted to a teaspoon of cow fat after all but I didn’t like it. It was present in my gut for long enough to remind me to get the hostel staff to write me a clear note for me to carry in the future. Another lesson learned.

Bit unfair. The staff were hurrying to fix everything at CanArt
Bit unfair. The staff were hurrying to fix everything at CanAr. Fascinating show of famous artist Cao Li. Very detailed dream-like work

In only one gallery, a pop-up, was I truly engaged.

Gravitational Tides Rock 'n' Roll, big Universe serpent behind
Gravitational Tides Rock ‘n’ Roll, big Universe serpent behind

‘Gravitational Tides’ showcased a collective of ten cartoon and toy designers based in Beijing showing their creations and selling collectable models.

Lots of cute things - watch out for the exhibition in Japan
Lots of cute things – watch out for the exhibition in Japan

They’d arranged the space so there were a number of photo ops for youngsters hungry for selfies and fun group shots with their favourite characters.

Gravitational Tides exhibition poster and classroom set for selfies
Gravitational Tides exhibition poster and classroom set for selfies

Because the young guide was happy to practice her English, she showed me around and indulged in some fun portraiture. This at least showed an interest in the audience, vibrant set design and some intriguing design chops.

The serpent that lives across the Universe seems like a fitting seat for someone travelling across the world
The serpent that lives across the Universe seems like a fitting seat for someone travelling across the world

Disappointing art aside, 798 area was worth the visit.

Object d'art in 798 district
Object d’art in 798 district

The remains of big industry soared above the pedestrian, brutal, angular and powerful. Their utility gone, individual artists were beginning to mark various walls and commercial interests used the spaces in a variety of ways. I saw the Beijing Fashion Festival setting up near the big blue tank.

Event centre. I think Beijing Fashion was preparing
Event centre. I think Beijing Fashion was preparing

The atmosphere was like a fun-fair or theme-park. Old factories! Big art! And tons of trinket shops selling tourist stuff. I could see hanging and unpacking going on in preparation for a big art fair so some galleries were closed.

Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone
Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone

Plus it was a grey, rainy day so customers had stayed away. It’s perhaps too arrogant of me as a visitor to wish I’d seen more youthful art.

Ex-factory 798 art district Beijing
Ex-factory 798 art district Beijing

The space cried out for art schools and invention. I would love to have seen more fresh street art and less advertising but I’m sure I did not see everything.

One of the exhibitions at UCCA, a big gallery in the centre of 798 district, was a community-based show. The first piece was dramatic, a heap of burnt newspapers supporting glass printed with headlines. The pillars and stacks of blackened news reminded of ancient buildings, ancient happenings, while the roof of glass (glass ceiling?) could also have spoken of fragility as well as impenetrability. Thoughts of ephemeral events, judgement, censorship and biodegradability were provoked as I walked around the shapes. The other community pieces included a photography collection of stories from the hutongs and a fun skeletal walk-through student house.

Sculpture UCCA 798 - Fondation de Berceau
Sculpture UCCA 798 Fondation de Berceau – didnt smell at all
Sculpture tag UCCA
Sculpture tag UCCA

There was also a big American show, Redoubt, by Matthew Barney about myth, hunting and ritual in Alaska. A big space was filled with tree trunks, altered and filled with molten metals. There were a number of electroplates on the walls. The core seemed to be a two-hour long film about Diana hunting with her two Virgin assistants, observed by the Engraver and the Electroplater. It was intercut with footage of wolves and a hoop artist who sculpted herself into creatures with the additional hoops. I liked the part where Diana shot one of the plates. That is hidden away in a back room – a nice burnt bullet hole evident in the metal sheet.

None of those pieces added up to the excitement of walking in a Beijing street or thrills of finding my way in the subway or drama of visiting the supermarket seeking sustenance!

More sincere advertising
More sincere advertising

In Beijing, I found the lovely fresh innocent faces apparent in advertising were stunningly smooth and beautiful, almost entirely devoid of sexuality. Western ads, or what I remembered of them, were generally full of wanton stares and come-hither looks, buttocks and cleavages for male and female alike. Yet in Beijing the sweeties offer friendship, cheerfulness and companionship. You too, could be like me! The first ad I notice in Ningbo, a city over a thousand km south, is a woman in an off-the-shoulder skin-tone ballgown, as risqué as I’ve seen in China, but, still, her gaze is direct, honest and open.

Not sure whats shes advertising but Id trust it
Not sure what’s she’s advertising but I trust it

On the surface, I was not sure what this economic system missed in comparison with Western Life. Very conscious of people stuck to their phones. Their spines curve down like bananas to their laps on the subway. I calculated one in four were NOT on their phones. Saw one paper book and one e-book. Most folk are on their phones as they walk the streets, stop in corners of the subway, at the cafes, everywhere to play games, communicate, catch up with news, who knows …

Moving pictures once the train has picked up speed through tunnels
Moving pictures once the train has picked up speed through tunnels

Struck by tunnel ads flashing past the train after leaving tunnel. Slides? Electronic but presumably static. When train has picked up speed the pix line up and give the impression of movement, selling bright cheerful things. There are also video screens in the carriages, similar to Moscow. When you bring advertising to the people, better make it fancy.

Yonghegong station for Lama Temple
Yonghegong station for Lama Temple

Next attempt at tourist work was to visit the Lama Temple. On arrival I walked around the area until I saw shops and retraced my steps, going around the block until I found an arrow on a police bus pointing me in the other direction. Then I walked, repeating first steps, looking for an entry, until I reached another hutong area well past the Temple. It may have been closed for lunch? Another tourist fail. Luckily, Happy Cow informed me of two vegan options near the Temple and they were easily found without a map. I picked the first which, given the nature of Chinese dining, may have been an error. The woman spoke a little English and seemed to comprehend I was there by myself and wanted a simple lunch. Of course, Chinese dishes are meant to share. And so, I faced my delicious mountain of steamed broccoli, a huge platter of sweet and sour lotus root with potato and a bowl of rice mixed with corn with some trepidation. When I lived in HK as a child we employed an amah called Jean. Her sweet and sour sauce still held highest esteem in my flavour memory. This stuff was not a contender.

Again, I must still be vulnerable to expectations!

I was enjoying reminders of the Chinese aspects of my childhood even though overwhelmed by sights, people and smells, buildings old and new, sounds, those sounds of Beijing. I was living on the edge of another culture once more and I found it comforting.

Tao 22 talked of the way being crooked and then smooth. The paths, particularly when I thought of the Camino, were always shifting. Sometimes straight, sometimes twisty, and yet always the same path. On the TransMongolian, you only had to turn your attention away, read a book for half an hour and the landscape changed utterly. Yet we were still on the same journey.

Beijing Subway Stations have their own style
Beijing Subway Stations have their own style

I was glad to have taken James’s advice and left an hour earlier than I thought necessary. Having done the dry run I thought it would be straightforward. James warned me, ‘You will have to go through security. It will be crowded.’ There was something in his tone. The voice of experience. So I obeyed.

Big brekkie, enjoyable routine of packing, pulling up the little tendril roots I’d set down by rearranging the furniture to suit my odd ways. There was May, asleep in the foyer. I imagine she must hardly ever go home in the winter. She told me she lived a half-hour bike ride away.

Not sure if it was rude or interesting to leave all my small change behind. Euros, zloty, roubles and tögrögs … perhaps the small child can play banks with them if they cannot exchange them.

Many subways around the world are fencing off the trains and I really like the inspirational travel pic for failed tourists
Many subways around the world are fencing off people from the trains. At DongSi station I liked the inspirational travel pic for failed tourists

The air was fresh at 06:20 as I strode off for the last time to DongSi station for the last time. The security guard  was hunched in his jacket like the performers in the skit from Secret Policeman’s Ball waiting for the end of the world. He was a silent, bulky, sleeping mountain as I swung my packs into the x-ray machine to be scanned. I saw another head over the top of the scanners, bent and still. It did not move as I picked my bags up, ready to go.

There was a distinct increase in population after my line change but it wasn’t until I reached my destination until I found myself in an extruder of humanity up the escalators to ticketing floor 1F.

I went to refund my Transport Card. There was a deposit of 20 yuan and I think around another 20 yuan still left. I hadn’t paid much attention once I knew I’d have enough to get myself to Beijing South Station. As I stood in line a spritely woman darted up to me and indicated the sign saying there was no refund at this station. She looked happy, like she’d just landed a big fish. Ah, thought I, as she jammed my card into a machine and finding no number, turned to offer me a crisp 20 yuan note, enterprising. Especially if the note turned out to be fake! (It didn’t.) Apparently scammers, as mentioned before, have included forgery among their daredevil activities. But, I enjoyed the communication and wished her well.  

I made my way to security. Thank you, James, I whispered. For there were all the people. I lined up calmly for I knew I had plenty of time. Sadly James had not been able to advise others for many people were late for their trains. And they pushed and shoved and elbowed to get past blockages in the line, like me. I felt like a boulder in the middle of a river as I watched folk, completely ignoring me, strive to get past as if it were a matter of life and death. Here were human spawning salmon. Some panicked, rolled their eyes and twisted and turned in their efforts to find a weak point to break through. Like water under pressure, the queue moved towards each twist and turn in the path increasing speed. There was a press behind me and people pushed through as fast as they could go.

There were four gates and three diminutive women holding back the flood. The ID cards flipped cursorily against the scanners and there was no waiting for permission to go. I saw one man avoid the card section entirely. A man tried to get an attendant’s attention when he saw I was holding my passport like a butterfly flag over my head. It would not go through the scanner system. I was extruded next to the uniformed girl. Tapped her shoulder and she nodded at the passport as if she hadn’t ten thousand people bearing down on her. Scanned the luggage, took it round the corner away from the crowds. Stared aimlessly into the window where the young man stared at the little pink and green boxes sliding past on his screen. The guard must have felt my observation and turned to frown at me. ‘What are you looking at, punk?’ I melted away but not before wondering about the training they must undergo. To observe pretty pictures of see-thru suitcases for hours on end must take a particular skill set. (Unless asleep like the guy at DongSi!)

Beijing South Railway Station departures and arrivals
Beijing South Railway Station departures and arrivals. My train’s got to be there somewhere!

Then the pressure recommenced as we extruded up the escalators to the waiting area. Further, up, up to waiting room 2F. Now all I had to do was locate my train. I began by time, narrowed it down to train number and found entry 12/13. Off to the squatty potty for my ablutions. Again, the notion of queuing is relaxed, depending on how desperate you are to use the loo, I suppose. The rest was plain sailing.

The guard checking my ticket took his time to look at my passport but a woman with small child in arms disapproved. He was taking too long for her. I think he said, ‘Boil down, Lady,’ and easy down the escalator I went. Check I’m reading my numbers correctly, carriage 4, seat 5D. Lovely staff onhand, interested and smiling. There was a person in my seat who quickly disappeared when I showed my legit ticket.

Chinese Fast Train
Chinese Fast Train

Trains have come a long way since I arrived in Beijing. These days we had fast trains. Not a hint of coal in the air. Averaged around 295 km per hour. It felt a lot like an aircraft cabin, which is why I’ve advocated for airlines to get into the fast train biz. There was a lot of advertising. I saw a trolley going by filled entirely with fruit in plastic boxes. Anther sold drinks and yet a third type featured big orange plastic bags. What was in the bags? Why, roast duck, of course.

There was a screen showing a hero film and I wasn’t sure where the audio was from. I was surrounded by little game noises and people chatting on their phones, their individual phone sounds and songs as their relatives called for a natter. Most people hunched over their phones had ear buds jammed in their ears but many played their videos so other people could share in the delights. There were the sounds of coughing, sweet wrappers and I suppose the roast duck wrappers as well.

Inside the fast train carriage
Inside the fast train carriage

Surprisingly soon we were out of cityscape and back into rural surrounds. Oh. No. Back into city. Not so much rural life in evidence, actually. The city of Nanjing was huge. Row after row of high rise. People have to live somewhere. Lots of mono-culture tree-planting along the lines. If a disease or beetle should fly along many of these trees would be vulnerable, like a line of dominos. Perhaps they spray for that.

Once more my experience of life in a major city, Beijing, had to be merely surface. I had missed most of the tourist ‘must-sees’ (Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Big Shorts) and knew nothing of history or dynasties. I was a traveller, moving through the land, observing and interacting as best suited the moment. For who knew if there would be another visit?

On my train to Ningbo there were several recorded messages at first in Chinese followed by clear, concise English. ‘Please to mind the safety.’ One exhorted the passengers to behave well and not stand on things. One of them explained if you did not pay for your ticket correctly, or misbehaved in anyway, the information would be reported to the authorities and recorded on your credit history. How interesting that modern China invokes fear of credit, the traditionally capitalist manner of controlling people, down to the smallest infractions against the transport department.

The lady next to me in a purple tracksuit had been steadily eating an assortment of carefully wrapped snacks for hours. She stared at the instructions on her instant noodles for a very long time before going to fill the container with boiling water. (Most long distance trains offer boiling water for your cuppa.) I could tell they were very tasty but they did not smell like my cup of broth.

Housing on way to Jinan
Housing on way to Jinan

Went past a fun-fair apparently in the middle of no-where. It caught my eye because of the giant Sphinx. There was also the glass pyramid of the Louvre, a huge Greek temple and a giant robot. Perhaps monster mini golf?

As I stared around the carriage I thought the opiate of the masses had become the mobile phone. Generalising from my observations, people around the world do not talk to each other the way they used to. Common areas in hostels are quiet. People’s spins curve down to their machine in a way that looks painful. I’ve watched people looking at sunsets through their phones. But when I walked past, they weren’t taking photos. They were scrolling through Insta. Sitting next to their friends or loved ones, looking down and hunched. I’d seen parents chat on their phone and, when they’d finished, give the phone to the toddler.

We travelled around the satellite towns of Shanghai and down towards Ningbo. For those of you who have been following since the early planning, Ningbo was where I was supposed to catch the cargo cruiser. But I was only going to catch an ongoing train. Onwards, south to Fuzhou, a bus to Pingtan and a ferry to Taiwan. This was were the matter of the passports would be resolved, once and forever. I was headed out of China.