steam train in China

Train Journeys

We had heard about a place just south of Shanghai that we were keen to visit. Hangzhou is the capital of China’s Zhejiang province and has been celebrated by poets and artists since the 9th Century, we wanted to witness the beauty and tranquillity of the area.

To get there we had to travel by train, a twenty-four-hour journey through the east of China then out towards the coast. Because it was such a long journey, we booked a sleeper compartment and when we found our compartment we discovered we were sharing it with a group of four young Hong Kong guys making their first journey into mainland China. The compartment only had bunks for four and now there were six of us, the Hong Kong group just bribed the guard with cigarettes to turn a blind eye and everything was fine. They were a lively bunch and were curious about why we were in China. When they found out I had been working in Excelsior Hotel on Hong Kong Island one of them mentioned that he had heard about me from some family members I had entertained one time. They asked me to perform a particular trick that his family had told him about and as it was a long journey; I thought I would help pass the time.

I showed them a lot of tricks and as usual with Chinese men the subject of gambling always crops up so I did a few demonstrations of second, middle and bottom dealing. Then I demonstrated the three-card-trick or find-the-lady as we commonly call it. This was when the trouble started, a soldier walked by and thought I was gambling so he tried to arrest me. The situation got tense until the guard joined in and seemed to take offence at the soldier taking charge on his train. He was already on good terms with the Hong Kong guys (because of the cigarettes) so he asked them what was going on, when they'd explained what my job was he wanted to see some tricks and I spent the rest of the evening entertaining an ever expanding crowd of spectators.

Meal time was fun; we went to the restaurant carriage where we had to queue to get a seat. Once we sat down a crowd gathered round our table and deliberately crowded us until we left. It was nothing to do with us being non-Chinese; it was part of the ritual of eating in the restaurant car.

Anecdotes from our time in Hangzhou are in a separate article.

train on platformWhen we came to leave Anna and I went back to the railway station wondering what this journey would bring in terms of entertainment. The station was crowded, as was we expected it to be. A woman with a hand-held megaphone was trying to direct people; the megaphone appeared glued to her lips because if anyone asked her a question she answered through the megaphone nearly deafening the unfortunate person. One passenger caught our attention; he was obviously a very high ranking Party Member complete with Mao style tunic and lots of pens in his top pocket; the whole station management was there to greet him and show him to his compartment. All station staff bowed as he went past, this guy didn't carry his own luggage a small army of staff carried it and placed on the train for him.

Anna and I boarded the train and were shown into our compartment but unlike the journey to get to Hangzhou the compartment had a bunch of flowers on a small side table, which had a tablecloth on it, and there was a lace curtain at the window. Our travelling companion on this journey jumped up to shake our hands when we entered the compartment he turned out to be the VIP we'd seen on the platform.

After the reverence shown to him we were expecting him to be stuffy, this couldn't have been further from the truth and he was very willing to chat. We found out he was a surgeon specializing in bones and joints and was the head surgeon at the General Hospital at Maoming in Guangdong Province. He told us about his family who all live in Canada and as we had been to Canada, we could talk about something in common. We guessed he must be a high-ranking official in the Party because he had visited Canada quite a few times, travel was strictly limited and this man had very special privileges.

VIP with AnnaIt was a very hot and sticky night and I couldn't sleep so I sat up and had a drink of water, Anna was in the top bunk and was fast asleep. The surgeon sat up also and wanted to chat; it was so funny to see him in his vest (under shirt) instead of his Party tunic. He told me that when Mao came to power; it was a terrible time for families and a lot of them were divided in their beliefs, his own family were fairly wealthy and fled the country before someone imprisoned them for no other reason than for being educated and wealthy. When asked why he didn't flee he replied that was a junior doctor after recently graduating and although he didn't believe in Mao's ideals he could see that doctors would be needed so he stayed to help the people.

He said there were a lot of similar thinking people at that time and yes he was imprisoned along with some of his peers but eventually it got better, I didn't press him on this topic and respected his privacy.

There were a lot of torches being shone along the route and he explained it was people hunting frogs, apparently the bright lights confuse them at night and the frogs just freeze making it easy to catch them. During the night we discussed the situation in Hong Kong and whether I thought the people would be ready for when China takes control of the territory again. They had leased Hong Kong to Britain and was due to be handed back in 1997 - how can you rent/lease a country?

We discussed why American tourists are keen to see China; he seemed oblivious to the fact that China was so old and had a culture that went back centuries while the USA was only a few hundred years old. After he pondered this for a few seconds he started to laugh, he had never thought about it like that; I think he just didn't trust Americans.

When he retired, he said, he would immigrate to Canada and be with his family; presumably he knew it was on the doorstep the USA.

As a parting gift he gave Anna and me a fan he'd bought for his wife, it had a love poem by a famous Chinese poet hand written in Chinese calligraphy and he wanted to give it to us a sign of friendship. We have moved around a lot since then but have always taken the fan with us as one of our cherished possessions.

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