The 2:15 to Shanghai - Episode 4

Looking out the window of my compartment, I see rural people in threes and fours, silhouetted by the setting sun, travelling down empty lanes on a bald land.  Their frozen breath is the thermometer and there is no obvious place that they have come from or are going to.  They are like astronauts on an unliveable planet.  How tough they must be, both physically and mentally, to live and work in such an area of the country day after day.

Every once in a while a forest of red brick chimneys appears along the side of the track.  Each chimney appears to grow out of a mound of earth placed there to support the chimney.  One of the people in our compartment explains that they were brick kilns used for firing bricks made from local clay.  They were located by the railway so the bricks could be shipped to cities where they were used in building construction.  None of the kilns are emitting smoke, so I assume they are all shut down.  My source of information in the compartment says that bricks were made somewhere else now, but he doesn’t know where or why.

It seems to me that this farmland of Shandong Province is kind of a visible hopelessness.  It is full of uninteresting, tired landscapes with tired, seemingly bored people, and little water to support life.  I am reminded of the hopelessness felt by the early settlers in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, where abandoned farmhouses dot the landscape.

The landscape became more urban as we approached Jinan.  Two storey, old row housing amongst newer apartment buildings, factory chimneys sprouting up everywhere, and the typical big city filth and dilapidation alongside the railway was visible in every direction.  When the sun finally submitted to a blanket of cold darkness outside, we turned to the hospitable comfort of the train coach with the hope of meeting more of the people that we were travelling with.

In addition to the American marketing manager in my compartment there were Mr. Wang and
Mr. Zheng.  They were both accompanying Frank on the trip to Jining to tour the factory.  They could both speak English to some degree, so we were able to carry on a conversation.  They spoke English with different accents.  The older man, Mr. Zheng, had learned his English at university in the 1960’s.  During that time there were no 'western' teachers, so his English was learned from other Chinese.  On the other hand, Mr. Wang had recently graduated university in 1987 and his teacher had been a woman from England.  Mr. Wang's speech was much clearer and he had trained his tongue to accommodate the differences between spoken Mandarin and spoken English.  Both were very nice people and they made an extra effort to point out the things that we could have seen along the way, if it had been during daylight hours.

All unique features in China are referred to by the locals as "very famous”.  Mr. Zheng noted that there was a "very famous mountain called Thousand-Buddha Mountain“ that we will pass just south of Jinan.  Thousands go to it every year to climb to the top.  He also told us that, further south, near Jining, where they were going, was the town where Confucius, or 'Confusion', as he said, was born.  He told Frank that they were definitely going to take a side trip to see the village, and Confucius' birth place.  I didn't detect any enthusiasm in Frank's response.

We arrived in Jinan on time and the train pulled to a long, slow stop at the station.

Jinan is the capital city of Shandong Province.  It is yet another big industrial city of China and has all the common features of such places: pollution, streets packed with people and bicycles, but it also has many factories, businesses, free markets, a large railway station, and a university.

A group of young and boisterous university students from Holland got on the train and I was able to learn a bit about the city from them.  It was strange to hear a European language in the middle of China.  They not only spoke in their native tongue, but also English and some acceptable Mandarin.  They had been studying Mandarin in the university at Jinan and were able to carry on a bit of a conversation with the locals.  That ability allowed them to socialise and learn about the culture in a way that I could only imagine.

In order to get a better sense of the place while we waited, I stepped out of our compartment into the corridor, pulled down the window, stuck my head out, and looked up and down the tracks between our train and the station platform on the other side.  On the far side of the island platform were vendors walking with their carts alongside the coaches of another stopped train, selling food.  A short while later our train was moved alongside a platform and we were treated to their goods.  They had fresh oranges, delicious Chinese pears, fragrant Chinese bananas (smaller than ours but very tasty), breads, cookies and other edibles that I could not identify.  With such service it was clear that the dining car was not the only option for a meal.  As I stood with my head out the window, I heard a familiar sound in the distance.

I listened carefully and it came again—a loud steam engine whistle.  I craned my neck out as far as possible to avoid the noise inside the coach.  Again the whistle came, but louder this time.  Then, the station master's whistle blew.  Oh, no.  I don't want to leave just yet.  I want to see the source of that whistle.  It turned out that the station master was only blowing a warning and immediately after, around the end of our train on a long, banking corner puffed a Mikado steam engine.  At first I thought it was just another short length of cars being switched by an old steamer, but as it came closer I could see by the rocking motion of the engine that it was moving a great deal faster than yard switching speed.  As it closed on me I felt a tingle of excitement.  That sound of a charging, fully steaming locomotive pulling at its top speed, was a sound I had not heard for more than thirty-five years.  The steam engine roared past my window with the sound of steam rushing from the cylinders, the clatter of pistons, and the pounding of driving wheels on the rails, that caused our coach to shudder.  Seconds later all that was left was the steam dissipating in the air above the station and coal ash covering my face.

I reflected on the difference in the sound between that engine and the ones that I had heard in England many years before.  It was different.  The sound of that Mikado took me back even further, to my childhood in Canada, to that of the Canadian Pacific Mikados.  I cannot describe the difference when compared to British steam engines, but it was there, notwithstanding.  As I reflected on what had just happened, memories popped into my head.  Memories of a six year old standing with Dad by the tracks, waving to the train engineers in the cab of a steam engine leaving Regina.  It might have been heading west to Calgary and then through the mountains to the west coast.  That memory was consoling for this prairie boy, feeling isolated in this strange land in Asia.


A Canadian Pacific P2 Mikado.  This is the Canadian Pacific verson of the
Chinese Mikado steam engine that steamed past our stopped train in Jinan.