Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Soft Seater.

In China there is a check-in for trains as well as flights. The luggage goes through an X-ray machine and then it and the passenger goes through the gate to the waiting room. In some places the waiting rooms are segregated, and there are four grades: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seater and hard seater. However, neither the hard sleeper nor the hard seater are particularly hard - they just pack their passengers more tightly.

At the appointed hour, about 15 minutes before the train is due to leave, the door to the platform is opened and everyone is allowed out. It all seemed very civilised and, until I saw the flight of steps leading down to the platform, felt quite confident. Although there was a slope at the sides of the steps for me to wheel my case it seemed so precipitously steep I didn't dare risk it. I glanced around but there didn't seem to be any lifts or escalators, so regretting (again) the 20kg in my case and the 12kg on my back, I moved slowly downwards, a few steps at a time, and eventually made it to the bottom.

Just as in England there were guards helping people onto the trains - however in China there were more of them and tended to be female and were called stewardesses. When I showed one stewardess my ticket she indicated with a small nod of her head that I should continue to the last carriage. This was clean, air-conditioned and modern and there was room for my case and bag at the entrance. The train would stop only once - at Shanghai. So I settled back to enjoy the ride.

Outside the countryside of one of the most affluent regions of China passed by. It was flat and intensely farmed - the crops yellowing in the heat of the start of the Chinese Autumn. The villages were frequent and the buildings small and rendered, with tiled roofs and balconies. For a time I tried to think how they differed from villages I'd see in England, and then I realised: in England each collection of houses is usually surrounding a steepled church which generally occupies high land and is therefore obvious. In China the only focus seemed to be new factory blocks with signs had not yet acquired a look of permanence.