Thursday, October 16, 2014

On the Rail Road Again

On the way to the Hangzhou East Railway railway station the security check in the Hangzhou Metro finally found my Swiss Army knife. Bags and luggage all get x-rayed and and sometimes inspected at Chinese subway stations but my knife had so far avoided detection on the Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing and Nanjing metros. Often the cops are bored and one behind the screen in Nanjing was sound asleep but an on the ball policewoman in Hangzhou saw my knife on the x-ray scanner and wanted to see it. She asked me something politely several times in Mandarin until I finally pointed to Eleanor. “She wants to see your knife”, Eleanor said. I dug the knife out of my suitcase and presented the contraband to the police woman. She looked at it briefly, smiled and returned it to me. Uighur terrorists bent on butchering Chinese railroad passengers are known for packing bigger blades and don't look anything like Fat White Uncle. A similar security check at the Hangzhou East Railway station either failed to detect my knife or they racially profile and just didn't care about Fat White Uncle and his puny multipurpose blades. I got a quick wanding and was turned loose to get my bags and wait for our train to Xiamen.

We took a few 2nd class high speed rail trips from Nanjing but this time we were headed south from Hangzhou to Xiamen. It's a nearly 7 hour and 540 mile journey so we sprung for an extra $16 US for 1st class tickets. Now that I've seen 2nd class and first class I know that in China 2nd class is the way to go, at least on a CRH train. The seats in 1st class are a bit wider and there's more legroom but our fellow passengers in 1st class seemed a bit more arrogant. They hogged all of the overhead luggage space above our seats leaving none for us which meant that our extra 1st class legroom had to used for some of our bags until the owner of the suitcase over my head relented 2 hours into the trip. If anything they were yelling at each other and bellowing into their cell phones even louder than their comrades in 2nd class. All of their phones were ringing, for awhile it sounded like a telemarketer office. Wall mounted screens were playing a loop of car commercials, an ad for a seafood supply company with a toll free number, shorts extolling the virtues of taking the high speed train; all with a loud soundtrack. My idea of 1st class is leans more to having my pillow plumped and clinking champagne glasses, not that I would know from actual experience.

But this time I had a clear window and could see China whiz by. What I saw were tired looking factories, cranes building gigantic apartment complexes often in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere and a forest of belching smokestacks. All of those smokestacks explain the thick smog that I've seen everywhere in our China travels that cuts visibility and most likely also cuts years off of the lives of the average Chinese citizen.

Any train trip or freeway cruise in the US would reveal that much of the housing stock in the US outside of dense cities consists of single family homes. As China has whizzed by on the high speed train during our trips I'm seeing few single family homes. There must be more single family homes somewhere, I'm seeing plenty of big Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Land Rovers, Porsches and Cadillacs in the cities so there's plenty of money sloshing around in China for nice homes. What I saw are large clusters of apartment buildings with their windows and decks encased in steel mesh that make them resemble a sad vertical prison. Older apartment blocks often have cracked, moldy and fading facades and look like they're falling apart.  From the outside looking in at night the apartments seem dimly lit.

So China is a country of contradictions. One hand there's the new gleaming modern infrastructure. High speed trains, new bridges, subways are furiously being dug in many large Chinese cities. The stores are full of domestic and foreign food and the streets are choked with cars, trucks and electric scooters. On the other hand many of the houses and factories are falling apart, some goods are hauled with overloaded and beaten up 3 wheeled trucks. I'm surprised at all the sharply dressed women on one hand and the legions of beggars displaying their open sores, burn scars, amputations and pathetic and grotesque infirmities on the other. I'm more accustomed to American women who all too often dress like lumberjacks and American beggars; either sad drunks or able bodied young men panhandling for drug money.  Chinese beggars are hard core but supposedly often members of begging gangs.

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