Location: Car 1, seat 53 of bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, 3 hours into a 10 hour 800+ mile train ride north. Currently somewhere north of Nanjing.
Number of times the chap next to me has fallen asleep on my shoulder: 1 (has been asleep in that position since)
My first impression of China outside of Shanghai is it’s very wet, at least in this region. The landscape has been pretty consistent in offering up small paddy fields, swamp land and miniature fields of maize. It resembles the flatter areas of rural England, indeed at times the only thing suggesting otherwise is the sound of spoken Chinese coming from my fellow passengers, and the policeman who keeps on coming in and shouting at us. Everyone seems to ignore him though so I guess he’s just trying to make work for himself. Here and there are little brick farmhouses with higgledy-piggledy slate roofs, glassless windows and tumbledown outhouses. Were it not for the washing hanging outside the front doors you’d think they were deserted. Occasionally a bamboo-hatted farmer can be seen on his mini-tractor, his wife riding in the back, but other than that, it’s a landscape devoid of human movement.
The urban districts are made up of what look like 1960s apartment blocks, although the larger cities, such as Nanjing, are seeing great redevelopment projects, with whole sections of the city becoming populated by new estates; row upon row of identical concrete boxes. Trees seem to form a key part of the development plan, as all new roads are lined with green lollipops, even in rural areas. It’s good to see that solar panels are popular too, with even the oldest of houses having one perched on the roof. It makes you wonder why we haven’t cottoned on in the West!
2 hours later
I’m starting to think that the only thing anyone eats in this country is sweetcorn. The past couple of hours have seen us pass by nothing but vast maize fields. Remember that we’re travelling at about 150km/h, so that’s a lot of maize! There’s a lot more life in this area too. This upgraded railway track frequently passes over little unpaved roads, many of which have quite a few three-wheeled covered bike carriages on them. They’ve clearly had torrential rain recently as the rivers are full to bursting, and virtually every underpass is flooded.
A temple rises above the endless fields of maize
Occasionally we shoot over an underpass that has become impassable, and groups of locals stand looking on, debating whether their motors will make it through the water. Big roads are few and far between, but when they do show up they are ridiculously wide and almost deserted, save for a few of the same 3-wheelers, built for a deluge of traffic that failed to show up. I’ve not seen a car for a long time. There’s an impressive number of people working on the railway; dressed in orange cotton tops and wearing bamboo hats, carrying picks and shovels, they look on as the bullet train speeds by. Passenger trains are a rare sight – the majority of traffics is freight, taking the form of impossibly long chains of wagons.
Incidentally, the speed at which we are travelling, and the electric wires overhead make photography a little impractical, which is a great shame. This is a China that I would dearly love to explore by bicycle. I want to stop and take photographs of the little red brick houses with their communist slogans and faded flags, the young boys playing in the pond, the old men pulling carts stacked high with rough planks of wood, the convoys of mini tractors and trailers, the old bamboo-hatted women weeding between rows of beans. The bright beach umbrellas found at regular intervals along the road which runs parallel to the railway line. Underneath them a cart, stacked with what I assume to be drinks and snacks. The little stone-walled communities, half in ruin, half occupied. The goat herders keeping their herds moving.
I’ve been thinking recently that I would actually like to do this trip by bicycle, from England to Japan. I’m not yet at the stage to set a date, rather, I’m more at the stage where I’m thinking that I must get back on my bike, even if it’s just to explore the peak district.
An Hour Later
All it took was one river for the landscape to make a dramatic change. Suddenly, rocky mountains rose up from what had been an endless plain, and I felt like I was back in Greece. There’s still the scattered walled communities and the laundry, but the vast fields of maize are gone – the crop is now confined to mini-terraces ion the foothills.
Crikey, my bum really hurts.
Been on this train for just over eight hours now. Two more to go before I arrive at Beijing (I’m glad I bought that extra MacBook battery!) The more I see out of the window, the more I want to explore. I love these little clay-brick communities, and want to get closer.
When I arrive at Beijing I’ll get a taxi to the home of a friend of John John’s, whom I was introduced to last month via email by our mutual friend, Shinji. He has very kindly offered to let me stay at his apartment which I’m very grateful for. It’ll be nice to plug back into my network.
Boy oh boy will I be glad to get my bum off this seat!