inside thoughts on China and beyond

Fast Train

For a meeting I had to be in Chongqing. About 350 km south-east of Chengdu; crossing one mountain range and a lot of hills. It used to be a weekend trip. Or rather not a trip at all. Chongqing had nothing. Chongqing was nothing. Nothing but a boiling oven in the summer (one of the four, the others being Wuhan, Nanjing and Nanchang) and a cold flooded mud hole in the winter. Covered with layers of white and gray dust all year round, blown in from the too often deadly illegal mining pits in the rest of this municipality.  You wonder why people live there: each season offers it’s own suffering. Just last year,  much of the area was damaged by flood only to be followed by a long lasting drought that destroyed most of the crop and turned the Yangtze river into a shallow smelly sewage.

But the 5-8 hour train trip can now be done in about 2 hours. And that’s how I can have a meeting in Chongqing. I decided to take the 8 o’clock. And I was not the only one.

Knowing that by the end of this week the yearly migration for  Chunjie (Chinese New Year holiday) will start in full force, many have decided to leave their migrant work earlier to make sure they have a seat on the train. It takes a week of lining up in shifts to actually get a hard-seat ticket, but last year has taught us: better to loose some income by leaving earlier than to loose your life in the stampede that follows later. As a result, by the time I arrived, the station was an anthill. Young couples with kids tucked away in their pockets, carrying canvas bags on their backs and heads. Old men looking confused, sucking air through their long cigarettes more frantic than ever with the next waiting behind the right ear. The masses move on rumors. When word goes around that a door will be opened on the left of the station, they all move left, when it’s on the right, the wave flows to the right. It does keep them warm, busy and hopeful.

I push my way through this crowd, have my bags scanned and am excused for the full body search. It’s so good to be a foreigner.  I continue to work my way through to the end of the hall, to a narrow door with again some gatekeepers and scan machines, with the number of my train above it. Only the happy few can get through here. I’m one of them. The new smaller hall I enter is an oases of peace and quietness, especially compared with the anthill I just left behind. After a short wait, yet another set of doors are opened –this time no scanning machine, but our tickets are checked again, just to be sure- and we can move to our train. Stewardess-lookalikes with big smiles and icy cold hands (I think; I didn’t check it, but mine were freezing and I didn’t have to stand in the cold for that long) are posted in each wagon to greet us.

The windows are spotless. A cleaner is still polishing the glass when the train starts to take off. The city is quickly behind us. Tucked away in the hills are the ugly concrete boxes that house most of China’s farmers now. They all seem to have hired the same architect. Off and on you still see a traditional old mud house or what’s left of it. Small meter-high dikes slicing up the shallow valleys in thousand little plots of paddy fields guiding little canals to the now slightly flooded river in the center of the valley. An early farmer chases her 3 ducks to the pond, walking bent-over after too many years toiling in this heavy red soil. Smoke is coming from the roofs. Some snow on the round roof tiles. Cone shaped conifer trees ripped of its branches for as high as the farmers’ saws could reach and bushes of meters high bamboo are scattered over the hills and around the farm houses, giving it all a more romantic appearance than the stories of its inhabitants would reveal -especially when viewed from within my comfortably heated train wagon. We are speeding by the farmlands where time doesn’t move.

Two TV-screens in each train wagon show in detail the crimes of the Japanese. Gosh, I’m glad not to be a Japanese! They better take the plane, at least there you can choose your own movie. But why? It’s not that the government need some foreign evil to unify its Chinese subordinates and keep them quiet and their minds distracted. Most of them are too busy making money, the rest are too busy spending it, so why worry?

As it appears, each wagon has their own set of friendly young stewardesses, keeping order in their territory. Not that this is really needed and with a daily income that is already covered by one half of my ticket, they probably won’t bother anyway. But they are helpful none the less.

We arrive at a station north of Chongqing where the farm fields and old factories and nostalgic mud houses of the long worshiped working class are replaced by the villas and skyscrapers and low-tax zones of the new and admired higher class. Fast train. Fast changes. But for China not fast enough. Next year, this trip can be done in only one hour. And on my way back, the anti-Japan propaganda film is resting on the shelf and the successes of China’s national railway development are shown. Two tired looking Japanese business men sitting opposite of me are watching it with admiration and approval, but before long are sleeping soundly.


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