Slow train in China

Hangzhou and the West Lake

Two days ago I enjoyed a fast, luxury train ride from Nanjing to Shanghai. I was among a group of Singapore journalists visiting China with the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre still fresh in our mind. From Shanghai we travelled to Hangzhou, famous for its willow-fringed West Lake, aromatic tea leaves and poetic scholars.  – Francis Chin, April 7, 1991

Nanjing – capital of the great Taiping Revolution in the mid-19th Century – is an uncrowded city of just under 4 million people. With its sycamore-lined avenues, open parks and the sprawling mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat-sen, founding father of modern China, this gracious metropolis contrasts greatly with Shanghai of 12 million jostling people, narrow streets, chrome-and-glass towers and smoke-shrouded factories.

From Nanjing, it is a half-afternoon train ride to Shanghai Station. Arriving at the station is a physical shock for the first-timer. Suddenly you are swept by a mass of humanity. You have never seen so many people in the world. You cannot believe there are that many people. You have to climb a lamp-post just to catch air.

I am with a group of Singapore jounralists on a China junket paid for by Cathay Pacific. We stayed one night in Shanghai, then moved on to Hangzhou.

Earlier in the morning, before our departure, we managed to squeeze time to visit Lu Hsun’s tomb in the corner of a large public park. It was the Ching-Ming festival and wreaths were placed by his tomb. We then had a sumptious lunch in the White Crane Hotel, a small, clean and well-managed outlet opposite the park.

Lu Hsun is the early 20th Century writer with the greatest impact on pre-Communist China. His short story series, The True Story of Ah Q 阿Q正傳 (1921-1922), depicts a vagabond who is always being bullied and beaten up by others. Ah Q, however, was able to talk himself into believing that after each beating, he has in fact scored a moral victory over his enemies. The born-loser character was of course the then weak Chinese government, which would say it had won a moral “victory” after each successive humiliation by Western powers.

The True Story of Ah Q shocked and shamed the entire nation, so that to this day, China believes that it is only through the possession of equal or superior military force that it can prevent exploitation and further humiliation by the amoral West.

White hordes

A democratic system of government and respect for human rights in the West apply only to white men. All other races are to be colonised and exploited, whether blacks, Indians or Chinese. Ancient Athens, cradle of Westen democracy, voted in 416 BCE, after full democratic debate, to massacre the men and enslave the women of the weak island of Melos because it chose to remain neutral during the war between Athens and Sparta.

America, today, is the sole military superpower in the world. It is no different from its rapacious ancestral states, England, Spain, Holland and France of the 17th to 19th Century. The unspoken assumption among the present Chinese communist leaders is that the only thing the white man appreciates is force, and so China has to maintain a credible military force to keep the white hordes at bay.

Train ride

At the railway station we checked in through the Soft Seat Waiting Room, away from the crowd that thronged the main entrance. On the platform, tour guide Miss Fan Li Hong fussed over us for the last time. When the train came, we took a regretful goodbye to this beautiful, energetic and knowledgeable girl who represents the best in Chinese youth. I gave her a souvenir pack of Singapore stamps depicting our various national monuments.

The coach we entered was shabby and reeked of urine. The maroon-red seats, the freshly-mopped floor, the worn green curtains and the tepid air all conspired to depress the fastidious traveller.

Ignoring the discomfort, the passengers quickly settled into a half-sleep. It promised to be a drowsy five-hour ride. Outside the window we saw a continuous flat expanse of green, yellow and grey. Whitewashed farmhouses framed the skyline. A turgid creek kept pace with the train, its fetid water adding to the dreariness of the land.

The passengers were trying to sleep upright  –  a challenging proposition. A man dozed off with mouth agape. Now the train crossed a wide river. I saw a queue of barges being hauled along the placid water.

My companion and I struggled to open a window. Finally an inner pane was lifted. Next, we pushed up the outer pane. At last a cold breeze came into the coach. Black dust and mosquitoes also came with the breeze. We decided to close the window. Was it Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, who once said: “If you open the window to reform, you will also let in some dirt”?

More signs of life appeared in the landscape. At one place new rail tracks were being laid. Lines of straight, leafless trees stood at attention as the train glided past. Green rows of neatly-trimmed vegetables, square patches of padi fields. A teenage girl walked along the embankment of the padi fields. She had a pony-tail and wore black pants, and a striking navy-blue sweater with a bright diagonal white strip. An old man in Mao-gray dress and loafer cap enjoyed a cigarette on the dirt road.

The train moved slowly, stopping at every town. An old Australian couple made desultory conversation with me. They were on a leisurely tour of China and had bought a set of lacquer tea cups and pot. The man runs a factory in Melbourne. He was now in China with his wife to escape the terrible recession in Australia.

Entrepreneurs like him were continually being cursed by the indolent Australian workers and the welfare handouts that discourage people from working, he said. He was as fed-up with the Australian scheme of things as the natives in China were of the Chinese scheme of things. It just wasn't motivating to work hard and productively any more, whether in Australia or China.

Hangzhou at dusk

We arrived in Hangzhou at dusk. The station was crowded but we were not inundated by a sea of humanity as in Shanghai. It was a relief to come to a small city and not have to face the customary mob.

A male guide met us and herded us efficiently up a 12-seater van. We passed the town centre and turned into a driveway that runs parallel with the famed West Lake. This was what we had come to Hangzhou – to enjoy the West Lake 西湖. Half an hour later we came to the best hotel in the city, the Shangri-La.

I have seen many Shangri-La hotels in the world but have never been able to afford staying in one. Not in my wildest imagination would I dream that I would soon be staying in this five-star luxurious hotel overlooking the lake in the world's most beautiful city.

It is a common saying in China:
Above is Paradise, below are Suzhou and Hangzhou.

Hangzhou is replete with history and famous personalities. Both Bai Chi-yi (Tang dynasty poet and author of the Song of the Pipa) and Su Shi (Sung dynasty poet) were once governors of this city and had done much to improve the civil infrastructure. The Sung patriot, General Yue Fei, was buried here. A well-renovated temple 岳王廟 honouring him is just a minute’s walk from our hotel.

Early the next day, we went to pay our respect to the General. At the main gate, a red banner proclaimed that this year, 1991, was the 888th anniversary of his death. I was thinking how fortunate it was for me to be here on such an auspicious date.

In the main worship hall are wall murals of scenes of his life, including one of his mother tattooing the four famous words on his back: 盡忠報國 (Absolute Loyalty Serving Nation). There are also other stirring slogans in the vast hall. Occupying pride of place was a newly-cast life-sized statue of the General in magnificient armour. The Chinese visitor goes away believing he comes from a race of heroes.

There are many good restaurants near Yue Fei’s temple. Most have grandiloquent names like Louwailou (Pavilion Beyond Pavilions) and Shanwaishan (Mountain Beyond Mountains). We took our lunch at the restaurant with the most ambitious name of all, Tianwaitian (Heaven Beyond Heavens)! It is only a matter of time before some one builds another restaurant calling it Cosmo Beyond Cosmos.

Honeymooners and small groups should visit Hangzhou on short trips. It is convenient. There are many Dragon Air flights each week direct from Hong Kong. Once in Hangzhou, rent a bicycle (only C$1 an hour) and explore the willow-shaded boulevards of the West Lake.

(Our trip is paid for by Cathay, which wanted us to promote its subsidiary, Dragon Air, which operates many flights in China, hence I have to write this bit of promo.)

But don’t venture out at night where the mist glides heavy from the lake, bringing a chill and ghostly memories of the grievious massacre of the 1860s. It was then the decade of the Taiping Revolution and Hangzhou, like Nanjing, were among the great Taiping cities. Eventually the Revolution collapsed, Manchu troops re-occupied Hangzhou and 90 percent of its inhabitants were slaughtered. Many of the bones can still be found in the dungeons of the huge castle that has since been refurbished as the Shangri-La Hotel where our party passed the night.  

The foothills surrounding the West Lake are covered with tea plantations and orchards of peach and plum. There are also silk factories, a large Buddhist temple (with a splendid Boddhisattva Kuanyin statue), botanic gardens, a tea museum, a fan museum and plenty of handicraft shops offering intricate, quality works.

Because the city is small, you do not need a local guide. Cycling is fun, especially in small groups. Nearly everyone cycles in China, but only in Hangzhou do people cycle because it is a pleasure.

Fast train to Shanghai  |  Contents Page

West Lake, photo by Francis Chin, Oct 17, 2012