by Tobias Thornes
The representative of the Vietnamese travel company was most apologetic. ‘We could not get your ticket to Beijing,’ she said. ‘Only to Nanning. You can buy the Beijing ticket in Nanning. We will refund your Beijing ticket.’ So that was that. It was nine o’clock at night; the Nanning train would leave in half an hour. All of a sudden, whether I’d get to Beijing in time, and thence get home, was thrown into doubt. There was little choice but to take the train and trust it would work out.
For such a huge city, Hanoi’s railway station was tiny – perched on an outskirt corner, with a single platform and a waiting room barely big enough to hold a hundred people, it hardly seemed the epitome of an international terminus. Crossing the Chinese border wasn’t exactly fun; woken in the middle of the night to disembark, we stood in long queues to go through both checkpoints, where many of the border officials also seemed lately roused from sleep. I could tell already that China was going to be somewhat different: at no other border crossing have I been asked to select on a scale of cartoon faces, ranging from a wide smile to a heavy frown, to rate my experience and the friendliness of the staff. I must admit, I was impressed.
Indeed, my first taste of China, in those few unexpected Thursday hours spent in Nanning, did not disappoint. I wasn’t supposed to have stopped off for long at all, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the high-speed onward connection to Beijing was sold out; fortunately, there were still spaces on another, slower service at five o’ clock that night that would still have me in the capital, thousands of miles away, within twenty-four hours. Given that I had to pick up the ticket for the next leg of my journey before Beijing’s offices closed for the weekend the next day at 6, this was cutting it fine – but I had no other option.
Nanning was busy and bustling, and very difficult to navigate amidst a peppering of high-rise offices and malls, but by now I was used to that. What really impressed me was the way in which China, somehow, seemed to have retained an authenticity amidst the western-style high-rises, a quality that other countries’ megacities had lost. Then, there was the relatively clean air. Gone were the puffs of petrol smoke which ruined other Asian cities; all here was electric, silent and clean. This certainly gave me cause for hope in China’s age of ascendency, when it was soon to become the foremost superpower charting the course of the world. Furthermore, there was the friendliness of everyone I met, from the special foreign-languages attendant at the station who booked for me my new train to the man who, in spite of my hopeless Chinese pronunciation, helped me to find the Internet Café.
Keeping touch, even occasionally, with home was a perennial problem in that age when everyone else seemed to possess a ‘mobile telephone’ capable of facilitating world-wide communications, for there was no longer much call for public telephones or computers. The Internet Café I eventually tracked down was full of Chinese teenagers playing an internet fast-action game, and the helpful proprietors logged me onto a foreign Virtual Private Network to get past the Chinese firewall blocking ‘Google Mail’.
Many of the same benefits I found also in Beijing. The journey brought me from the beautiful misty southern hills, where green pastures were turned to gold by the setting Asian sun, into China’s eastern industrial heartland. It was made all the more pleasant by two out of the country’s billion-plus inhabitants with whom I happened to share a compartment, who, despite the language barrier, seemed to become almost like friends. But when we arrived, everyone dispersed: our faces melting away again into the innumerable crowd.
It was raining, extremely heavily. The long queues to pass security checks on the underground delayed me, and when I eventually found the office holding my ticket, it was closed. I tried in vain to find my hotel. Drenched through and alone in the darkness, official infrastructure having failed me, again it was only chance human kindness that got me through. Another young woman practising her English saw that I was lost, and showed me my hotel. The woman at reception let me use the telephone, and what’s more my contact at the ticket office answered out of hours and let me rearrange the collection. Three small kindnesses, which made all the difference.
When the next day dawned bright and clear, the beautiful historic buildings of Beijing sprang into life, not crowded nor diminished by their more modern surroundings, and the world seemed somehow much more hopeful. China is a country that cares about heritage, as witnessed by the huge crowds of tourists queuing up at the Forbidden City and thronging Tiananmen Square. Indeed, the only place I found to be utterly deserted was Mao’s mausoleum – an indication, perhaps, of the People’s true feelings for their Republic’s founder.
It was a fond farewell that I bade that evening to the ancient splendour at the heart of the world’s upcoming capital. A small group of passengers congregated at the permitted waiting point in Beijing station – woe betide one who tries to descend to a Chinese platform before the train is called – for the 23:00 Moscow departure, boarding the characteristic red-and-silver Russian tin-can carriages of the Trans-Siberian Express. So began a six-day journey across as many time-zones, through the baking heat of the south Siberian summer, at the end of which we arrived only two minutes late. The line didn’t quite have the romance with which it’s sometimes portrayed. The grumpy stewardesses that shouted angrily if one hadn’t returned to the train within five minutes of departure at the scheduled stops; the rustic Russian stations where one could wander unimpeded across the tracks and vendors greeted the train with supermarket trolleys full of produce for sale; the deserted restaurant car that offered little else than boiled potatoes and mushrooms, until they also ran out of those; all these added to the charm.
Pulling out of a run-down, dusty town just over the Russian border that was perhaps the poorest I’d seen on all my Asian travels, they played the National Anthem through the station loudspeakers while a few migrating Russian families were waved off into the west. We’d waited for four hours while the train’s wheels were changed from Chinese to Russian gauge and the fierce Russian border police had boarded the train with dogs. The length of my hair wasn’t consistent with my passport photograph it seemed, and the officer took all of ten minutes to decide it was really me – not a problem, oddly, at the previous thirteen border checkpoints. One sensed something of a nervousness about the Russian border in this sparsely populated region worried about potential overspill from its rapidly growing neighbour in the south.
The heavy rain had followed me to Moscow, as I made my trek across a capital that seemed, by comparison, poorer and shabbier than its Eastern counterparts, helped again by happy chance to find my place of rest. From Red Square, it was onwards to Belarus, Berlin, Brussels, and home: two weeks by train from Singapore, almost entirely on time. I knew I was back in Britain when an ‘earlier signal fault’ held up my train at Paddington for an hour, which gave me time to muse. It had been a journey to remember, and I resolved to return.