The 2:15 to Shanghai - Episode 6

2020.03.27

I awoke the next morning after a restless sleep.  Throughout the night people had been coming and going in and out of my compartment as we stopped at various cities along the line.  We were now north of Nanjing in the Jiangsu Province.  The skies were still grey, but it wasn’t raining or snowing.


The countryside seems more organised here.  There are groves of trees, rolling hills, fields set out with hedgerows.  Water is lying in holding ponds and pools alongside the tracks.  Clearly this is a more fertile part of the country.  The trees are defoliated by the winter weather, but it is obvious that this countryside is green in the summer when the leaves on the trees and hedgerows are out.

My senses turn from what is outside to what is inside as the first smell of cigarette smoke fills the air.  Almost all Chinese men smoke and the aroma in the coach in the morning leaves a lot to be desired for this non-smoker.  After the smell comes the sounds of the wheezing, hacking, and spitting as the smokers focus on getting their first nicotine shot of the day.  The thought of sitting in the dining car trying to eat a greasy breakfast and inhaling the tar from the smoke hanging in the air is too much to consider.  I’ve decided to forget about breakfast and stay in my compartment to watch the changing countryside flow by.  This is one example of why I always lose weight when I work in China.

The country’s pleasant here.  A river flows underneath a railway bridge that we pass over, shanty towns give way to a small factory beside the tracks, and then we are out in the country again.  Instead of the grey-brown houses of the north, many houses are covered with white stucco and red slate roofs.  The break from the dreariness of the north makes these homes somehow look more inhabitable.

Irrigation canals and storage ponds can be seen everywhere now.  Some of the canals are large enough to support narrow, long barges hauling goods and families around the country.  Mr. Shi tells me that this is a much more prosperous region for country folk than that of Shandong in the north.

At every town we pass, piles of coal can be seen alongside the track.  It is not just for the steam engine use—we see people loading up their carts with it.

“Here, they can only use that coal for cooking," Mr. Shi says.  "Coal can be used for both cooking and heating in the northern provinces where they need the heat and coal is plentiful."  This seems logical, but if it is as cold outside as it looks, I would stand pretty close to the cook stove.

As we get closer to Shanghai, the number of factories starts increasing.  I see 2-10-2 and 2-8-0 steam locomotives running freight on tracks in and out of the factories.  I think it’s incongruous to see these large, mainline steam engines puffing along at slow speeds, switching insignificant freight cars around the yard.  Their intended job is working at full steam on the mainline, their driving wheels pounding out the miles and their firemen wet with sweat as they keep the fire up in the boiler.  It’s clear that steam is on its way out in this part of China and these engines are reduced to only doing yard switching.  We witnessed these same scenes in Canada in the fifties when steam there was on its last legs.

The head waitress from the dining car is coming down the corridor again with the meal tickets for breakfast.  This time I pass on her offer and settle into the bananas and oranges that we bought back in Weifang prior to our panic departure.

The dining car is toward the back of the train, but it is open to everyone.  This means that anyone who wants to eat in the dining car from the second class sleepers and day coaches must walk down our corridor.  That makes for a busy thoroughfare for about an hour.

Sitting in my compartment I can hear people come and go, but the sounds of talk and yelling (I get the impression that it is difficult to speak Mandarin quietly, but I may be wrong.) are interspersed with spitting sounds and one fingered cowboy style nose blowing.  Surely, I think, they are not doing that in the hallway on the carpet, but when I open my door and look out, that is exactly what is happening—men walking to and fro, coughing and spitting as they go.  I’m not sure whether they really need to do this or they are just getting in their shot at the "upper class" travelling in the better coaches.  Whatever the reason, it’s disgusting.  I retreat to my compartment and turn up my Walkman to full volume to cut out the sounds.   What is amazing to me is that no one complains or says anything to them.  It’s as though travelling first class is still new to the general populace.  Are they taunting us into an argument?  It is as though those travelling in first class need to be careful that they don’t make too big an issue for fear of starting a conflict.

The train is slowing now as we approach Shanghai.  Outside it looks like the approach to Beijing, Weifang, or Quingdao.  A big city with the normal trackside wasteland of factories and shanties.  The station at Shanghai is newer than the station at Jinan or Weifang, and well‑designed to handle a lot of people.  We pull in at 10:45 am, a few minutes ahead of schedule, wish Mr. Shi well and thank him for his excellent company as we step onto the platform.  We then turn our attention to getting our bags carried out.

On the platform are groups of 'redcaps' with carts ready to load our luggage.  We hail one of them and receive a tag for our baggage.  We then go down into a subway and out the other side to await our 'redcap'.  When he finally appears, our luggage is on the same cart, but with many more bags stacked on top.  As we make our way to the taxi stand I notice that the redcap is heading in a different direction than we need to go.  I then realise that the people who own the other bags are speaking Mandarin to the redcap and so are getting what they want before us, which is to go to the car parking lot to unload their bags.  This is a long way from the taxi queue where we want to be, but I have no option but to follow them all the way to their car to ensure that our bags don’t disappear.

Finally both we and our bags arrive at the taxi stand.  There are no taxis.  Several individuals appear and try to work out deals to take us to the airport.  Mr. Shi had warned us about these private operators who are not allowed to park in the taxi zone, but are offering service from the main street in the front.  We are only supposed to deal with the government sponsored taxis so we wait.  In time a taxi van pulls up to the curb.  We pile inside and leave the train station on our way to the airport and our flight home to Calgary via Vancouver on Canadian Airlines.


The train trip to Shanghai was over.  We enjoyed most of it, but what we enjoyed most of all was arriving exactly where we wanted to be at the proper time and with all of our bags.  The memories of that train trip will remain for a long time and I especially will not forget my conversation with the locomotive engineer from Quingdao.


Post Script

Our trip to Shanghai took place in 1989.  My last work in China was done in 1991.  Little did I realise at the time that China was on the cusp of an incredible and visible change.  Underway, but not yet visible, was a building boom, train system modernisation, technology growth, vehicle transportation improvement, as well as growth and modernisation of factories all over China.

As good as the train system was in 1989, it has been modernised and the decreased travel times between major cities has improved to the point where the services are world class.  The image below of the Shanghai railway station is unrecognisable from the station we arrived at in 1989.

Shanghai Railway Station


As you can see from the following picture, the trains are now much like the fast trains from Japan or France.  I’m sure riding in first class on these trains is pure pleasure.  I’m sure our trip would have been on one of this style of train.

The present day ‘bullet’ trains in China


Shanghai’s financial district growth has been an incredible feat of architecture design and  construction management.  The following link gives you a good idea of what they’ve accomplished.  In the video, an overlaid image shows what they have done since 1989.  The first glimpse of old Shanghai is what we saw when we arrived that day on the train.  The new Shanghai is now a showplace for China.  I am impressed with their engineering accomplishments in such a short time.

(Make sure your speakers are turned on.)

Financial District growth in Shanghai

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Next week—back to some shorter essays.