The long bridge across the Yangtze River at Nanjing, an engineering feat in the early years of the People's Republic when the masses were encouraged by Chairman Mao Zedong to thrive on plain living and high thinking.  –  Picture by Francis Chin

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Travelling in the soft seat coach

by Francis Chin

April 5, 1991: WHERE do you find first-class travel in a classless society? If you are travelling in Chinese trains, the answer is simple – the soft seat coaches.

Yes, it's true, trains in China have no first- or second-class compartments; instead, passengers are offered either the cheap hard-seat coaches where they are packed tight as sardine; or they can choose the luxurious soft-seat coaches with carpeted floor, flower pots on tabletops beside padded seats and green-yellow tea served from Camel-brand thermos.

Decadent foreigners of course are considered not physically fit to endure the rigours of hard-seat coaches. They cannot mingle with the Chinese masses with their honest, simple ways and unpleasant smells. The foreigners must travel only in the soft-seat compartments.

Early this month I had an opportunity to do some soft-seat travelling from Nanjing to Shanghai. It was eight o'clock on a cold spring morning.

The train itself was unusual: a double-decker that was probably the only one of its kind in the world. The interior was clean and roomy. At the start of the journey, a woman's soliticious and ernest voice came on the intercom: "Dear passengers," she said in melodious Mandarin, "I am broadcaster no.40, your unseen friend in the train. I warmly welcome you on board as we journey from the glorious historic city of Nanjing to the ultra-modern industrial metropolis of Shanghai.

"To make the 380-km ride enjoyable, you must first observe a number of points. First, stow your baggage carefully in the overhead shelf, making sure it is not in any danger of falling and hitting some innocent fellow traveller. Second, if you are carrying firearms or explosives, you must surrender them to the manager immediately. Third, you must not spit or foul up the coach. Remember, this is not your own backyard. Fourth, you must sit back and enjoy the scenery flashing by outside your window."

In the next three hours the pedantic monologue from our unseen friend flowed tirelessly, discoursing on the history and development of the railway in China, edifying accounts of horrid train accidents, reminders of personal hygiene and exhortations on watching the glorious countryside and quaint towns we were passing, and monumentally unimportant facts and figures. It was enough to make a talking macaw weep for the sound of silence.

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The long bridge at Nanjing spanning the Yangtze River