Report: the past two weeks

As posted before, from Xi’an, we took a sleeper train to Chengdu. We got tickets for the L21. I once read that Chinese trains have no first class, because the idea of a first class / second class distinction was contrary to communist thought. Instead, the Chinese had a second and third class (and a fourth class, for those really unfortunate comrades). Nowadays, they have hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers and soft sleepers — a convenient way around the first / second / third class distinctions. All comrades are equal, some are just more equal than others. The same goes for trains in general. What we didn’t know when we received our tickets was that the ‘L’ in L21 meant this was a temporary train. A train dragged from the scrapheap to take some pressure off the regular scheduled trains. Soft sleepers are a luxury invented long after this train was built. The hard sleeper carriage consisted of triple bunk beds, the lowest bunk serving as a communal bench during the day, the top bunk without much headroom. Twenty of these bunk beds were perpendicular to one side of each carriage, with a narrow aisle on the other side. There is no air-conditioning (outside temperatures were 35C when we boarded the train). Large fans blow hot air around; the heat lingers. Through the open windows, the deafening rattle of the train. Squat loos – that can’t be flushed – in every second carriage. The horror. The horror.

In Chengdu, we board the D5104 fast train to Chongching. Seemingly without effort, the train speeds up to 200km/h. In this train, everything was modern; the squat loos the only strange anachronism that reminded us that this was a Chinese train — apart from the fact that in every compartment, everybody was Chinese.

From Chengdu, an even faster train (D3016), this one to Chongqing, were we boarded a shabby-looking cruise ship for a three-night voyage on the Yang Tze. The story that broke the other day, about a cruise ship sinking on the Wolga, was fresh on my mind. But this was not the Wolga and the battered old ship pulled through. Not without wrecking us, though: we would be woken every morning at 6am by Chinese music blaring over the stereo so loud that you could here the speakers crack. Loud is something the Chinse love. Whether on a boat or on a bus, Chinese tour guides talk so long, so loud, in such shrill, high-pitched voices that splitting headaches and earpain are inevitable. Even through my earplugs it hurts. That’s how loud it is.

The Yang Tze deposited us at Yichang, where we took a bus to Wuhan and then a train to Shanghai. Wuhan is an awful city. It really isn’t a city at all. It is three cities grown together, growing ever larger, spreading like a malignant mass, already now housing 10 million and covering 100 square kilometers. Yet everywhere are wrecking balls bringing down shabby one-storey brick houses and cranes creating skyscraper skeletons. Within a year, on a square plot not more than 200m across, 16 identical tenement buildings will rise, each 30 stories high, 10 apartments on each floor, each apartment housing maybe 3, maybe 6 people. A square plot of land no more than 200m across, now barren, will within a year house 20.000 people. This plot of land is not unique, it is everywhere. I knew China was building, but seeing it in action, it becomes… Eerie.

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