Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Hong Kong to train!

I got the idea from one of the around the world guide books that I purchased in Canada. It mentioned a non-stop train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing, and I thought this would be a good way to get to Beijing, our No. 1 destination in China, and see some of the countryside, while avoiding at least one somewhat trying air flight. (While we always enjoy our Emirates Business Class outings, the shorter flights on smaller airlines are not always as much fun.) Furthermore, train travel has always had a certain allure for us since we traveled Europe on Eurail Passes in the 70’s.

We went to a travel agent to investigate buying tickets. It was a bit confusing. There were no classes of travel, but you could buy a hard bed (upper, lower or middle), a soft bed, or a super-soft bed. After a few probing questions, we realized that the quality of the bed was not the only consideration. Hard beds had 6 people to a compartment, but no door; soft beds 4 and a door; and super-soft 2, and of course, a door. So we asked for super-soft, since I suddenly had memories of an overnight train from Paris to Marseille in a compartment with a man who never stopped smoking gauloises or spitting and coughing all night. “Sorry, just one place left” said the lovely girl at China Travel. “Ok, we’ll take two soft beds.” “Upper or lower?” “Lower.”

When we arrived at the train, some of the compartments looked quite nice, but as we walked to our carriage, they seemed to be deteriorating. “I don’t like the look of these,” said Sally, as I handed our tickets to the conductor. “No, wong place, down there” he said pointing to the portion of the train we had just walked by. And so we entered one of the nicer cars with 4 bed compartments and lots of pink frilly covers. We then waited for our traveling companions to arrive.

They never came! Fortunately, we were traveling on May 1, the equivalent of Labour Day over here, and it’s not that busy. We had the compartment to ourselves, and it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps the travel agent knew this would be the case, and therefore didn’t sell us the more expensive ticket. (I say this in part because Sally is convinced we are often getting better treatment in restaurants, hotel, tourist spots, etc because we are Caucasions…)

The 4 berths were made up as beds, and while there were quite comfortable, with adequate headroom, I was wondering where we were supposed to sit. As I walked up and down the carriage, I realized that most people were settling into their compartments. They were getting out food, whiskey, cards. They were obviously there for the trip. I started looking for someone who might speak English. I discovered a lovely couple two compartments away. “Do you speak English”. Oh yes, they said, and after a couple of minutes I discovered that he was in the diplomatic service, and they had been posted to Calgary for two years.

She didn’t comment on her work, but from the stylish way she was dressed, she could have been a fashion designer or model, or just the wife of a diplomat.

“Where are we supposed to sit?” I asked. “Is there a dining car or bar car?” They politely confessed that they didn’t know, since although they lived in Beijing, and worked in Hong Kong, they too were trying the train for the very first time.

Over the course of the trip, we had wonderful conversations about the different places we had both visited, the differences between people of different countries and cultures, and why the Chinese were very similar to the Jews. Since I knew more Chinese people than they knew Jewish people, they had to take my word for it. But to help teach them about Jewish Culture, I recommended that they watch some Woody Allen movies, especially Match Point, which is one of his last, and Alice, since it features a Chinese herbalist. If you haven’t seen them, they are both very good.

As I write this post from the Train, we have had breakfast (a mixture of traditional Chinese food, and a Chinese take on an American breakfast) and lunch, which included a bordeaux I picked up in the Railway 'duty free' shop. But I am concerned that the time is passing too quickly, and I will not get to do many of the things I had planned to get done during the trip. I am particularly enjoying watching the changing countryside, which quickly transforms from farmers' fields into major urban centres, some of which look just like parts of Richmond.

While there are lots of older dull grey concrete apartment blocks, there are a surprising number of new high rise developments which could be anywhere in GVRD. Some of the farms are quite delightful, with neatly planted zones of rice and other vegetables. Every once in a while I see something that I don’t understand, and I can envision a great business opportunity. Someone should package this and other train trips around the world with an audio visual guide, similar to those in Art Galleries. It would let you know what you are seeing at key points along the way, with appropriate explanations. Perhaps it’s a project for the creative people behind the Rocky Mountaineer! One thing they will have to consider for this trip is whether to allow the train to continue serving the rice congee and fried noodles for breakfast, or ask them to change to more traditional international breakfast: bacon and eggs and baked beans. They could offer the 6 berth people bacon and egg on a bagel from McDonalds. After all, an increasing number of Beijingers are now having that for breakfast.

Thank you John and Helen for making this seem like such a short train ride. I wish it had been longer! We look forward to seeing you in Vancouver.