The 2:15 to Shanghai - Episode 3


2-15 to Shangai map3

There we were, Al and I, on the 2:15 to Shanghai via Jinan, and Nanjing on the Chinese railway.  I looked at my watch to see that it was 2:15.  On time!  What a pleasant situation compared to travel on VIA trains in Canada.  Remember, this was 1989 and VIA on the prairies in Canada wasn’t known for keeping a tight schedule.

The conductor, a woman of about thirty and dressed in a uniform that she kept tidy and clean, came by and exchanged our paper tickets with aluminium tags which had our room and berth number on it.  You kept this tag with you at all times.  At the end of the trip you turned it in to the conductor who then gave you back your paper ticket.  You then showed your paper ticket as you left the station.  I thought these procedures were probably to catch freeloaders trying to travel for nothing.

Ours was the first class sleeping car.  It was the best quality offered on the railway and was a clean, well kept coach that provided comfortable travel, smooth and quiet, for our twenty hour journey.  Each of us paid about ¥250 renminbi or yuan to travel in comfort.  We had to use Foreign Exchange Current (FEC) which, regardless of terminology, converted to $65 Canadian.  (This has been simplified since 1989.)  Each room or compartment had 4 berths, 2 upper and 2 lower, a sliding, lockable door, a small desk, and a constant supply of thermoses filled with hot water for tea.  Each berth was fitted with a good mattress, two pillows, a feather-filled comforter, and a towel for washing up.  It was most civilised, except for the fact that there were no curtains for the berths.  This meant either discreetly changing attire when going to bed at night or not changing clothes at all.  Everyone in our coach chose the latter.

Allan was assigned to the first class compartment next to me and he had his own group of three other travel companions.

At one end of the coach was a bathroom with a sit down toilet seat and at the other end was a Chinese type toilet of the 'two-feeter-no-seater' variety.  My choice was the Chinese type.  Being a seasoned traveller, I had brought toilet paper with me, but not enough to clean the sit-down toilet seat every time I wanted to use it.  I was thankful that our room was near the middle of the coach so that odours from either toilet had dissipated before they reached us.

Near one end of the coach was the conductor's compartment and beside it a wash up room with three stainless steel sinks and plenty of cold water.  The only hot water available on the trip was what was in the tea thermoses.  If you wanted to have a proper wash, you took a thermos of hot water to the wash up room with you.

Nevertheless, our first class day coach was pleasant.  Comfortable seats, tea served on a regular basis and, most importantly, a chance to run into someone who could speak a little english and was interested in talking to me.

These coaches stood head and shoulders in quality above the other options for travel on the train.  The other sleeping accommodation was the second class sleeper.  Those coaches had compartments without doors and six berths to each compartment.  The berths didn’t have  mattresses, but did come with a pillow and a blanket.  I had travelled in these a few times, but found that the noise of six people in one small compartment was too much for me and I wasn’t able to sleep at night.

Day coaches cost much less than sleepers.  Again, there were first class and second class day coaches.  The second class variety were a challenge to anyone from North America.  They had uncushioned wooden seats, six people across.  Some people didn’t have luggage and carried their clothes in large bags made of what looked like a bed sheet with the four corners tied.  The amount of spitting and smoking was hard to take and going to the bathroom was a challenge to your stomach, no matter how strong you thought it might be.

In my compartment on this trip, I was surprised to find one of my companions to be a Mr. Frank Peterson*, a marketing manager from Baltimore, Maryland.  He was travelling to Jining, between Jinan and Nanjing, to visit a factory from which he was considering buying products.  This was his first visit to China.  After a few minutes of introduction and chat, he opened up one of his brief cases to exhibit a collection of small bottles of Coca-Cola and Skor chocolate bars.  It looked like he had brought with him enough 'staples' to carry him for his four day trip into the interior of the Shandong Province.

He offered me a Coke to quench my thirst.  “Thanks, Frank, but I’ll pass.  If you’re going to be here for a while you’re going to treasure every one of those treats.  You’ll be thankful for it all.  I’m headed home, so I can wait for a day.”

Frank seemed surprised when he said, “Geez, I didn’t realise it was like that over here.  That’s good of you to let me know.  I’ll keep them to myself from here on.  I could be here for two or three weeks.”

I had been advised by others who had come to China before me to “eat Chinese food when in China.”  I practiced that approach and did like the local food.  Most of the meals were tasty, even though I might not have known what was in them. 

Outside, the filth and disorganisation of the trackside industrial wasteland of Weifang gradually gave way to countryside scenes.  The twelve coach train, pulled by one Chinese‑made diesel‑electric engine, accelerated up to about sixty kilometres per hour until the rail yards of the city were cleared, then it accelerated further to its cruising speed of 100-120 kilometres per hour.  The trains in China can travel continuously at these speeds because the tracks are well maintained.  This fast pace of passenger trains there puts our old VIA Rail system to shame.

The countryside in the northern part of the Shandong province is depressing to look at.  The trackside is littered with various industries, some operational, but many derelict.  Where the industry gives way to fields there are large stretches of land that are, at some time during the year, worked for their bounty of food.  However, when we were travelling, in the middle of winter and just before Spring Festival at the beginning of February, the fields were cold and barren.

Water was scarce here, in the Shandong Province, back in 1989.  In Weifang City the residents accepted the water shortage.  What water they had came from underground wells that were insufficient for the population and were becoming polluted.  Several years previously, the city of Quingdao, on the east coast, put up the money to construct an open canal to carry water from the Huang Ho (Yellow River) to its own water treatment facility.  Ever since then the city of Weifang had been trying to tap into this canal.  When I was there no arrangement had yet been made that was satisfactory to the canal owners, so Weifang citizens continued to receive water for only an hour at night and for a short time during meals so they can cook and wash up.  For the farmers in the countryside, there are only the low producing ground wells fed by the natural precipitation.  With that, they manage to live and water their crops.  It is no wonder that, 80 kilometres to the west, near Dongying, there were no farms to be seen as the alkali from the ground leaches out on the sides of dugouts that hold what surface run off water comes from rainfall.

* I have not used people’s real names in all cases.

Episode 4 - next week