Thursday, 6 November 2014

on the rails

We have found sleeper berths on a train to Nanjing, much to our relief.  The train is 'slow' so the tickets are not too expensive.  Our bikes have gone on ahead of us.  We dropped them off in the consignment building a few days earlier to send them on their way.  It's slightly disconcerting handing them over, but the staff look efficient and the process is painless.  What does cause us pain is lugging our stuff to the station on the metro.  We don't have far to walk but by the time we arrive our shoulders and hands are in agony.  How can we have so much stuff?  Train journeys in China are all part of the fun of being in a massively over-crowded country.  Everything is organised to process thousands of people.  The security searches at the entrance are pretty meaningless - knives are not allowed, but we have three stashed away in our panniers.  There is an armed police presence outside the station - a new phenomenon.  It's all down to the attacks at Urumqi and Kunming stations this year.  Once inside we find our waiting hall and then join the crush when our train is called.  It feels slightly chaotic and could get nasty but everyone knows the procedure and shuffles patiently through two gates before rushing onwards to the platform to find their carriage.  We find our berths and stow all our luggage before anyone else can stop us.  Luckily the other passengers who share our section are travelling light.  Sensible people.  It's nearly midnight when the train rolls out of the capital - we are already asleep.

It's nice to have a lie-in.  Once you get up you have to join in the seat shuffle game as people take it in turns to eat and get hot water for tea.  We, like almost everyone else, have pot noodles.  By early afternoon we have arrived and pile off onto the platform.  Now, somewhere, we have to find our bikes.  At the consignment desk they shake their heads.  "Mei you."  No. Don't have.  There isn't any.  I hate these two words in China.  Someone points at a telephone number on my receipt.  It's my turn to shake my head.  "Mei you." No. Don't have.  Happily one of the staff speaks enough English to explain that our bikes are in Nanjing but not at this station.  I look bemused.  I had to show my train ticket when I consigned the bikes - they knew which station we were arriving at.  A phone call is made on our behalf and we are told to wait - the bikes will be brought to the station.  Relief.

Riding through Nanjing on a sunny Sunday afternoon we get a sense of a green leafy city full of trees.  These bring shade to the pavements and hide some of the more ugly buildings that crowd in close to the road.  There are plenty of shiny new buildings, but also a fair number of older shabby ones in the downtown area.  The city is clean.  Like every city in China.  Like almost everywhere.  The Chinese throw all their litter in the street but there's an army of road sweepers to clean up after them.  It looks like a work-fare scheme to keep older people in work.  

We spend a night in a hostel near the university.  The neighbourhood is quiet in the evening when we go to search for food.  We find a little place serving noodles in a tasty broth - we later learn that it's duck's blood soup.  On our walk back we come across a bookshop - the 'Librairie Avant-Garde'.  It's in the basement of a big office tower.  It looks like a simple little place when we walk in but the shop turns a corner, up a ramp, and into a huge cavernous, low-ceilinged place.  There are yellow lines and arrows painted on the concrete floor.  It's an underground car-park.  It's about 9pm and the place is busy with shoppers and an awful lot of people sat around reading in comfy chairs.  Who'd have thought?  The state bookstores you find in every city are miserably drab and utilitarian places that look more like stationery shops.  This is a cave full of treasure in comparison.

The next day we head over to Beppie and Gert's house.   They have kindly accepted our couch-surfing request.  South Africans living on a new estate with their two children, Aletta and (not so) Little Gert, they have been here for seven years.  Gert works for Continental, in another city an hour and a half away by car.  Beppie admits they are living in a bubble here - they are perhaps weary and leery of Chinese food ("we don't eat pork or chicken" - presumably because they know how the meat is produced here) and their favourite restaurant is Pakistani.  Mind you, they delight in telling us about a local hot-pot restaurant too.  Aletta and Little Gert are both very sociable and chatty.  While Little Gert is at the International British school, Aletta has started studying Chinese at one of the local universities.  "There are seventy-two in Nanjing!" Gert tells us, still astonished himself at the number.
They're a lovely family and we enjoy family dinners with them in the evening followed by a stroll around the estate.  The houses are quite grand and the grounds are landscaped really well.  It feels like living in a big overgrown park and the amount of plantlife is overwhelming, even in such a green city as this.  Sleek black cars swish past us on our promenade one evening and Beppie makes a reference to party members.  Now in China when someone says "party" they're not talking about bringing a six-pack or a bottle of plonk and grooving away until the small hours in someone's lounge.  Here the Party means Power.  Bigwigs.  It's another world.

another fabulous dinner with Gert, Beppie, Aletta and Little Gert

Nanjing has been China's capital on several occasions and has suffered for it.  It is infamous for the massacre carried out by Japanese troops in 1937 when they invaded from Shanghai and drove the Kuomintang into retreat.  There's a memorial hall for the estimated 300,000 victims, soldiers who were captured and summarily executed, and civilians who were raped, assaulted and robbed before being killed.  I don't think Japan has ever apologised for this crime, although some generals were tried after the war for their war crimes.  The memorial hall is too much for Gayle.  I am interested because on TV here they still show dramas set during this period when the Kuomintang and the Communists ostensibly took a break from fighting each other to try and defeat the Japanese.  On these shows the Communist guys are all rugged good-looking types, the Kuomintang are the baddies, but with some redeeming features whilst the Japanese are undoubtedly the baddest of the bad.  In these times, with tensions in the South China Sea rising, the narrative looks rather alarming.  The memorial exhibition is disturbing and moving, but it's hard to take in all the information as there are busloads of tourists pushing through with me.  There's a little feature on the westerners who stayed and set up a neutral 'safety zone' in the city, all to no avail.  There's no mention of why Chiang Kai-shek ran off to Chongqing with half his army instead of standing and fighting. Like the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I emerge feeling numb and uncomprehending about the nature of humanity.  At the exit is a plea in Chinese which declares all war abhorrent and exorts the people to respond responsibly, whilst declaring that the government shall continue to work peacefully to reunify the motherland.  If I was from Mongolia or Taiwan I'd probably shudder.

In a previous episode of China's varied and torrid history is the Taiping Rebellion which began in the south of China in the 1850s.  The origin was a man who gained a cult-following believing he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  They made Nanjing their capital and took control of a large area of the country, demanding social reforms and shared ownership of property.  The Qing dunasty was in decline at this point and got support from the British and French to suppress the rebellion after 14 years of fighting.  The conflict and the ensuing mass executions led to a death toll in the millions - a scale hard to imagine before the First World War. 

After all this grim history we are in need of relief and find it in the Nanjing Museum, which has just been renovated and houses an incredible collection of artefacts.  We haven't been in a good museum probably since Athens, and some of the exhibits are wonderful.  Our favourite might be the two great suits made of jade pieces and stitched together with gold thread - burial suits for wealthy lords from the Han dynasty. Although I am torn with the discovery that jazz began in China during the Song dynasty from the unearthing of the oldest known atonal vibraphone.

saying Goodbye with Aletta

We have had a great time with Beppie and her family.  We are interested to understand what life as ex-pats might be like here and it is clearly not straightforward.  The family have had to make many sacrifices leaving their home in South Africa.  It's a great opportunity for us to talk about life here and our journey and Gert tells us that they are used to Couch Surfers arriving here, talking non-stop and enjoying Beppie's great home-cooking.  So maybe we don't feel too bad after all for stuffing our faces every evening and chattering on.  Sadly, it's time for us to move on and say goodbye to our lovely host family.  We have felt so relaxed with them and it feels hard to leave such good people.

No comments:

Post a Comment