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A short hop to Shanghai

CHINA | Friday, 5 September 2014 | Views [649]

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then perhaps a seven thousand mile train journey should start with a metaphorical one hour hop from Hangzhou to Shanghai.


It was arguably a Chinese train that brought me to Singapore, or at least stories of train travel around China, written in Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster”, that inspired me to learn Mandarin.  It was learning Mandarin which then – partly, somehow – brought me to Singapore under the impression that the largely Chinese populated island would be an ideal environment to immerse myself in the language.  There were other factors of course, but a thread of influence does connect my time in Singapore with that book, and there is some symmetry in my now taking a Chinese train to start my overland trip home.  If all goes according to plan, this will be the first of eight trains that I will take.  One out of one hundred and eighty four hours of train travel.  Zero out of seven borders will be crossed.  Less than two hundred out of more than ten thousand kilometers travelled.


Left behind in Hangzhou is the legendary “West Lake”, known to all Chinese and definitely one of the most famous sights in China for local tourists, although it is almost completely unknown in the west.  The huge lake defines the city, and is surrounded with numerous sights of historical significance.  From ponds and streams to pagodas and peaks, everything is here, and the Chinese usually have a story or poem to go alongside.  Such is the beauty of Hangzhou that is not unusual at all to see a parade of half a dozen or more brides in their white, western wedding dresses (with grooms in tow), lined up strategically along the banks of the West Lake for wedding photos.


In contrast to the natural beauty left behind in Hangzhou, waiting for us in Shanghai is modernity, commerce and the drive for personal enrichment that defines China's economic rise in recent years.  To get to Shanghai, our newly built high speed train runs on freshly laid tracks, cut through verdant fields, over canals and rivers, as well as past modern apartment blocks.  For much of the route the train follows the path of an also newly built highway, over the length of which drivers – and ourselves, while we share the same route – have our vision dominated by endless and uncountable reminders of the extent to which China has broken with its socialist past and embraced a western style consumerist society.  At no point along this highway is it possible for one to avoid the sight of a dozen or more huge advertisement boards, probably twenty feet high, and perched another thirty feet up for good measure on giant pillars.  These advertisement boards appear to have been thrown up completely arbitrarily, one sprouting up from a paddy field here, another couple alongside a pond and a canal there.  I even saw at least one that had been plonked down in the middle of a rubbish dump.


"It does not matter if it is a black cat or a white cat, if it can catch a mouse, it is a good cat."  It was with these curious words, known to probably all educated Chinese, that Deng Xiao Ping triggered modern China's embrace of free market principles.  Less mystically, these days the Chinese describe their model for economic development as "Socialism with Chinese characteristics".  Many in the west would simply describe it as making money.  And while many people in China are making a lot of money, it is not obvious that the visual pollution of hundreds or thousands of gigantic advertising boards along the road from Hangzhou to Shanghai makes money for anyone except the companies constructing them.  I can only imagine that most drivers tune them out and ignore the seventy third advert for a mobile phone or matress.  Regardless, ignored or not - visual pollution or not - endless and uncountable reminders of the extent to which China has embraced consumerism they definitely are.

Tags: china, hangzhou, shanghai, train

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