March 29 to 30, 2004
I traveled on a Chinese train from Ghuangzhou to Kunming...
Monday morning in Hong Kong I packed up and walked over to the international bus station and bought a ticket to Ghuangzhou in the People's Republic of China. We had to get off and re-board the bus twice at the border, once to check out of Hong Kong and then again to enter China (What jurisdiction were we in on the intervening busride between the two stops? Don't ask those kinds of questions in China!!)
First stop was the industrial border town of Shenzhen, a collection of drab apartment buildings and factories bathed in a dense fog resulting from coal-burning. It's a big export-processing zone, and ten minutes passing through on the bus was enough.
The bus ride terminated at Ghuangzhou (Canton), a huge bustling city and one of the "economic miracles" of modern China. I visited Ghuangzhou in 1999, and this time again found it to be a big, drab, polluted beehive. One night was plenty; I went to the big main train station and bought a ticket for the next day. Next morning I boarded the clean, modern Ghuangzhou-Kunming train.
I was lucky enough to get a 'hard sleeper', a soft bunk in a compartment with five Chinese. I was a minor celebrity onboard, apparently the only foreigner on the train. Several people came and sat with me just to practice their English. My compartment mates were friendly and adopted me, sharing their food, posing for pictures and providing my first elementary Chinese lessons. I'd been a little skeptical about the train ride after reading Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux's ode to Chinese train travel. He describes train carriages full of choking smoke and spittle from chain-smoking, chain-spitting Chinese passengers. I was happily surprised to find neither smoking nor spitting in the carriages (but smoking is allowed in the small passageways between cars.)
The train crosses the Pearl River Delta, a famously rich agricultural area. I was disappointed to see masses of construction cranes and earthmovers; rice fields and vegetable fields are being filled in at a furious rate to put up factories and apartment blocks. As one of my fellow train riders explained, you can make more money from a factory than a farm. Yes, but if China paves over it's richest agricultural regions, how will her billion and a half people eat?
I also observed many toxic waste pits visible from the train, vividly colorful. Wow, more signs of progress! Many had crops planted right on the banks (sorry, no photos of toxic waste pits.)
Crossing into Guanxi Province, the terrain gets hilly and is covered with scrub and small trees. Small farms are scraped into hillsides, but it looks arid and probably not very productive. We passed many drab-looking towns, the train stations full of expressionless people sitting beside big piles of produce and baggage.
I slept well on the train, and early next morning we entered Yunnan Province. In the early afternoon, after a 30-hour ride, we arrived at Kunming Station. I felt pretty refreshed.
Next: Arrival in Kunming
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