The ‘East is Red Square’ Nanjiecun

The East is Red Square, Nanjiecun

The East is Red Square, Nanjiecun

Nanjiecun (South Street Village) is in Linying County, Henan Province in the central part of the People’s Republic of China. What makes this place special (with a population of no more than 13,000 people) is the fame it has achieved as being ‘the last Maoist Commune in China.’ 

Whether it’s really possible for such a small place to maintain a Socialist Revolution is more than questionable, having to depend upon both loans from the Chinese capitalist banks as well as external, Japanese, investment. It can really be no more than a tolerated anomaly, a curiosity or a tourist theme park. If it ever posed a threat to the present day ‘capitalist roaders’ in Beijing then Nanjiecun would be crushed, both literally and figuratively, out of existence. 

The fact that Nanjiecun exists (as does the politics and the actions of its people in the village of Marinaleda, in southern Spain) only goes to show the limitations of a small group of people attempting to build something better in a huge ocean of exploitation and oppression. Their efforts may be applauded and, at times, admired but we should never forget that to extend such ‘experiments’ demands the destruction of the present capitalist structure and until that is achieved (on a long-term, multi-generational basis) all is but chimera.

However, the merits or otherwise of Nanjiecun are not the subject of this post. A proper analysis of what has happened there – and why only there – since the destruction of Socialism in China would need a thorough study to understand why the Chinese people, in general, have rejected a past where the potential for the betterment of all has been rejected for the benefit and advancement of a relatively few corrupt thieves who are now some of the richest people int he world. It would also require a proper analysis of how we actually measure ‘poverty’. Capitalist standards are only concerned with ‘things’ and not the, sometimes, financially unquantifiable social capital that Socialism brings – the ‘iron rice bowl’ in the Chinese context.

No, this post is concerned with a single area of this present day commune – The East is Red Square.

In the Socialist societies in Europe (including the Soviet Union) the Communist Parties sought to commemorate the revolutionary past (and present) with statues. (One of the fallen statues, of Frederick Engels, from the Ukraine has even been recently installed anew in Manchester.) This preponderance of statues was not the case – at least to the same extent – in China. Yes, there were innumerable posters of Chairman Mao and his image was everywhere, on posters, in paintings and on the badges worn by most of the population. However, statues as such were relatively few. This means that when a statue has been installed – at the same time as the renegades within the Communist Party of China are going further and further away from Chairman Mao’s ideas – there’s always a story behind the decision, although sometimes that story might be difficult to find.

The large statue of Chairman Mao in front of the railway station in Dandong (the principal border crossing point between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a case in point. So far I have failed to find out any information of why or when.

The situation is clearer in Nanjiecun.

The people in the village decided to reject and roll back the ‘de-collectivisation’ and privatisation that was becoming the norm in China with Deng Xiaoping’s claim that ‘to get rich is glorious’. Selfishness, that had been challenged in the years following Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949, was turned into a virtue and the predominantly peasant population of the country fell back into the insularity and individuality of their backward, pre-revolutionary, rural culture. 

Nanjiecun’s ‘experiment’ must have been relatively successful in the 1980s as there was enough surplus for them to pay for the installation of a large statue of Chairman Mao in what is now known as ‘The East is Red Square’. The statue was erected in 1993 and I assume it was inaugurated on the 26th December – the centenary of Chairman Mao’s birth.

At some time in the next decade the four large portraits of the ‘greats’ of Marxism-Leninism – Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin – were added to the monumentality of the square. (I, personally, would have added a fifth – Enver Hoxha of Albania – but I know a number of Maoists would not agree.)

There’s always a potential problem when it comes to Socialist art – nuance can be everything. To give an idea of how this is an issue I’ll refer to capitalist commentators who can ‘see’ subversion in a painting or a musical score produced in the Soviet Union that went unnoticed by the authorities (i.e., the ‘intellectuals’ were too clever for the ‘stupid’ Communists) only seconds after arguing that art is ‘apolitical’ and that capitalist art doesn’t aim to perpetuate the system. It’s not their analysis I dislike and detest – it’s their crass hypocrisy

I’ve always argued that art IS political and so it’s valid to critically evaluate any new monuments or ‘celebrations’ of the past (in whatever form they might take place) that might be appearing in China. As the present leader, Deng IV, seems to be attempting to take on some of the trappings of Mao – stripped of any revolutionary, Communist ideology – this might become an issue in the not too distant future.

It’s possible to attack Mao by praising Mao – this was something that took place during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. After attacking the so-called ‘personality cult’ of Mao from the late 1970s those enemies of Maoism could well create a new ‘personality cult’ of Mao based solely on the person.

Chairman Mao in Dandong

Chairman Mao in Dandong

The Chinese Revisionists and Counter-revolutionaries have been unable to achieve the same rejection of Mao as happened in the Soviet Union with Lenin and Stalin or in Albania with Hoxha. Mao is still seen in China, by the overwhelming majority of the population, as a great Chinese leader – millions still queue every year to visit the Mao Mausoleum in Tienanmen Square in Beijing. It’s possible, therefore, that those who seek to establish greater legitimacy and maintain their hold on power will try to play the nationalist card and turn Mao into a purely ‘Chinese’ personality – the antithesis of how Mao would have seen his achievements – thus turning the country inward. This is not that far-fetched as it might seem as the level of nationalistic fervour has been stoked up in recent years to justify China’s imperialistic ambitions.

All this doesn’t accept what made Mao great in the first place – that was the taking of Marxism-Leninism, applying it in the Chinese context and by learning from both the success and mistakes of the past Socialist revolutions developing the theory of the Cultural Revolution and taking Marxism to a new level, (although becoming a bit of a mouthful) to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

The statue of Mao in Dandong is one such example of this new, depoliticised, depiction of the great Chinese leader. There’s nothing on, or around, the statue which refers to what made him such a great leader in the first place, his uniqueness as a leader of the world proletariat and peasantry – his being a revolutionary Communist. It’s a great statue but you get the impression that, like the statues of the Roman Emperors, you could just replace the head with whoever was in power at the time and there would be no real difference. As it stands at the moment it’s just a statue of a 60 year old wearing a big overcoat who, for some unknown reason, has his right hand raised and pointing to some unknown location in front of him.

The statue of Mao in Nanjiecun doesn’t suffer from that defect. Coming from those who knew the importance of the politics, of the necessity of a Communist Party, of the necessity of a revolutionary ideology, all these attributes are represented in the statue itself in a very simple and almost unobtrusive manner, but there nonetheless, – and that’s the star on the cap he holds in his hand.

The Red Star

The Red Star

As I’ve written in a number of posts about the Albanian lapidars (such as the mosaic on the Historical Museum, the mosaic of Bestrove, the Durres monument to the anti-Fascist struggle, amongst others) where the star has often been the target of the fascists and reactionaries – eradicate that and they think they can eradicate Communist politics. So including it in a ‘new’ monument the people of Nanjiecun made their own political statement.

That political statement was made even stronger with the addition of the four portraits of the Marxist ‘Greats’. Whether whoever designed the layout of the square considered how it would look when completed what we have now is a history of the development of Marxism thought through; successes and failures; revolutions and counter-revolutions; twists and turns; suffering and sacrifice; elation and despair, to arrive at where we are now with Maoism being the pinnacle of the development of the revolutionary theory of the working class. We are not in a situation that we would have wished just over a hundred years after the October Revolution of 1917 but we are where we are. At least the revolutionary theory has moved forward. Whether we make the most use of all that history is another matter.

In a sense the statue and portraits in The East is Red Square are in a bit of a time warp – that of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao’s image is of what he would have looked like in the mid 1960s and the paintings of the four Marxists are almost exact copies of the coloured posters that were available throughout the world from the late 1960s until the counter-revolutionary coup of Deng and his goons after the death of the Chairman in September 1976.

JV Stalin

JV Stalin

The portraits are behind Mao as he looks to the east. In front of him, on either side, are two large billboards with a lot of text in Chinese characters. (In fact for a Socialist political monument there’s a lot of text full stop – including on the plinth upon which Mao stands. Although unusual it shows the level of literacy that the Socialist state had achieved during the time of Communism. The people can actually understand what is written – unlike most religious locations throughout the world where emphasis is upon image due to the high level so of illiteracy.) 

The one on Mao’s right also carries an image which looks very much like the photo of him making the declaration of the People’s Republic in Tienanmen Square in October 1949. Unfortunately I’m not able to understand Chinese characters but would surmise that the text is that very declaration.

Declaration of the People's Republic of China 1949

Declaration of the People’s Republic of China 1949

On his left the image is of an older Mao, probably from the 1960s, so I would hazard a guess that the text is from one of the exhortations he made from the podium over the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the massed Red Guards in Tienanmen Square.

The area has changed over the years. I’ve seen photos where there were trees behind the statue. They might have been OK as bushes but started to become a bit much after a few years and they have been removed so the immediate area around the statue is now clean and clear. I’ve also read that there was a permanent ‘guard’ at the site but there was no evidence of that during the (regrettably short) time I was there. Also there was no music playing (as is often reported) so don’t know if this is the now permanent situation.

I made a number of mistakes and got to the village quite late in the afternoon and many of the places immediately next to the square were closed so I wasn’t able to get a feeling of how the area had been developed for the growing number of tourists that visit Nanjiecun. 

Getting there

It’s possible to stay in the Commune’s own hotel, which is located right next to the square. The problem is one of communication as the staff only speak Mandarin.

If a day trip is all that is looked for then getting to Linying railway station is the best bet and then walking a kilometre or so or getting a taxi to the village. There are also regular buses from Zhengzhou (the nearest big tourist destination) to Linying.

GPS:

33.80611111

113.95416667

DMS:

33º48’21.9”

113º57’15.2”

 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Part 1 – Arriving by land from China

Chairman Mao - Dandong

Chairman Mao – Dandong

Towards the end of 2017 I had the opportunity to make a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the DPRK (more normally referred to as ‘North Korea’ in the capitalist countries). As many people will be aware travel in that country is not as easy as it is in other parts of the world so I was on a pre-planned, organised tour. To that tour I added a three day, private, individual tour where I was able to negotiate my own itinerary – within limits.

So I was there for a total of twelve days as a tourist. There was no official, governmental involvement and the impressions and observations (with a little bit of up to date practical information) are made based on my experience of travelling quite extensively in other parts of the world and with a world view that tries to understand those societies and cultures I have had the privilege to encounter.

In my visits to other countries – especially, but not exclusively, in Africa, Asia and Latin America – I have tried to understand how those societies work (or don’t) and how I see the people within those societies. On previous occasions I have spent many months in some countries so a period of less that two weeks is not enough time to get to know a place. However, as ignorance about the DPRK is rife throughout the western world I consider these observations and comments to be part of a debate – a debate that should be happening (but isn’t) when the drums of war are resounding around the world.

Those drums are drowning out any real discussion, any attempt to get to know anything about the country or its people.

Dandong Railway Station – Sinuiju Railway Station

Hopefully some useful information for people planning to make the overland journey to Pyongyang from Dandong in China. (The increasing acceptance by the ‘international community’, i.e., the most powerful and selfish capitalist nations on the Earth, of sanctions against the DPRK might make some of this information redundant but it is hoped that common sense, and not the fake news that pervades most public discourse, will prevail and normal communications between China and the DPRK will prevail.)

Before entering the station spend some time to have a look at the magnificent, red stone statue of Chairman Mao which stands in the square in front of the main entrance to the building. With his right arm raised in a salute he seems to be greeting the rest of the country from one of China’s most north-westerly cities. I have no information about this statue. It looks in a very good condition so I assume it is relatively new, or at least one that has been erected after the nationwide victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’, led by the renegade Deng Xioaping. Some cities and locations throughout China are starting to restore monuments that used to exist to Chairman Mao, or even installing them in places where they didn’t exist before. One such notable place is Nanjiecun in Linying County, Henan province.

Nanjiecun Square

Nanjiecun Square

The ‘international’ trains depart from the first floor (English, that is, i.e., upstairs) on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 09.30. (The overnight train from Beijing is due to arrive at 07.22. Information I’ve seen indicates that there’s a through train but this is not the case. It’s a completely different train that crosses over the Yalu River on the ‘Friendship Bridge’. ) The train leaves from the same platform as the waiting room (which has a small duty free) and normally consists of three, ‘hard sleeper’ carriages – that is carriages with compartments that are designed for up to six people. There’s also a baggage compartment and a travelling generator that sits behind the engine.

Friendship Bridge - Yalu River

Friendship Bridge – Yalu River

For reasons I don’t understand almost everyone gets to the station hours before the train is due to depart, end up shoving and pushing to go through immigration and customs only to then wait around for the train to leave. Probably one of the reasons for the scrum is that some people travel with a vast amount of luggage which gets wrapped up in plastic sheeting and placed in the luggage van. At least the luggage is not too much of a problem in the passenger section of the train.

Tour companies will tell you to get there an hour before departure but don’t do so any earlier, you’ll just have more time sitting around. After the initial crush the whole area becomes very quiet and you can just sail through immigration. Perhaps arrive at the station, relax and just monitor the situation.

Most of the passengers will be returning Koreans or visiting Chinese tourists – a four day tour of the DPRK has become quite popular with Beijing based Chinese people (but, again, that might change with the demand from the US that China does its bidding and cut ties with the DPRK).

If you don’t already have (or have lost) a Departure Card they are available on a desk, on the left hand side, after passing through the metal detector and X-ray machine for luggage but before the passport control booths. If all paperwork is in order it’s a relatively painless process.

Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Even though I reject all the hype and the scaremongering that is associated with travel to the DPRK it still gets through to you and there’s an element of apprehension as you prepare for a visit to the country. Choosing to arrive by train means leaving from the Chinese border town of Dandong, crossing the Yalu River and after a very short, but very slow journey, arriving in the Korean border town of Sinuiju.

However, the heightening of tensions internationally at the moment, and especially as the Chinese are now weighing in on the side of the Americans, it pays to be circumspect when the train arrives at the Sinuiju border post. The ubiquity of smart phones and their ability to take video means that people can be tempted to film the crossing of the river and the arrival at the station. Even though on the Chinese side of the river there are, at least, three separate monuments that commemorate the friendship between the Chinese and Korean Peoples during the War of 1950-53 that relationship is becoming strained now and it’s not wise to put local patience to the test.

Monument to Volunteers of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea

Monument to Volunteers of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea

My approach to why the people and government of the DPRK take the stance that they do I will come back to later. My point here is that anyone who visits the country without at least a basic understanding of the present international situation and how sensitive that makes people in the DPRK – especially government officials – feel are being, at best foolish, at worst reckless. What maybe seen as a mere schoolboy’s prank in the US can take on a greater significance in the heightened atmosphere of the DPRK threatened with imminent destruction – as an American tourist found to his cost in 2017.

Customs and Immigration

If the journey across the river is short the stop at the station of Sinuiju would be long, two hours being allowed on the timetable (as well as the clocks going forward a half an hour). Once the train arrived a swarm of officials left the station building who divided themselves up between the three passenger carriages. Apart from these officials the military presence was minimal, a young soldier, not seriously armed, standing at either end of the platform to monitor that no one left the station. In a country where we are led to believe the army are everywhere the first impression was that things are much more threatening on passing through a major airport in the UK than entering the DPRK by land.

Although there were a couple of small groups of Chinese tourists the rest of the passengers were Koreans returning home – and us two Europeans. I don’t know how many Europeans/Westerners might choose this route but I wouldn’t have thought many but there was no real impression of surprise when the customs or immigration came to visit. What many people who have not crossed borders by rail won’t understand is that in these circumstances people don’t have to get off the train and parade in a room to get their passports/visas checked and stamped. An immigration official comes along the carriage, compares your face with the photo in the passport, piles them up and takes the whole lot to an office. I assume that if there’s a problem that person might be asked to leave the train but otherwise the next time you see your passport is when it is handed back to everyone, normally just a matter of minutes before the train leaves.

The curtness of the customs officer was down, I believe, more to lack of common language than anything else. With the Koreans or Chinese he could communicate in a meaningful manner, with us it was just one word communication – and he seemed more concerned about a mobile phone than anything else.

Here it might be useful to mention those things that are, and aren’t, permitted when entering the DPRK. Computers and cameras are no problem whatsoever – he barely looked at mine when I opened my bag. Make sure there’s nothing compromising on your computer hard drive, just in case one of the customs officials is feeling inquisitive the day you arrive. There’s no chance of a wifi connection in the country but, at a price, it is possible to send emails from the communication/business centre that you will find in all foreign tourist hotels.

Mobile phones are also not a problem they now being as ubiquitous in the DPRK as they are in most other countries in the world – all parts of the country and not just the major cities from what I saw. However, for visitors so-called ‘Smart Phones’ will function more as a recording device than anything else as roaming doesn’t exist. This ability to surreptitiously film anything might be what is in the back of the minds of the customs people (all men, I didn’t see one female customs or immigration person at the border) but if people want to do so then it’s almost impossible to stop them and the only way would be to check everyone on leaving – and that would be totally impractical, although random checks are made (as I discovered when I left by train to cross over to Russia at the end of my visit to the country. In many ways I understand their thinking but as technology races on it would be like Canute attempting to stop the tide from coming in so a more relaxed recognition of this would make life easier for all. Most regular tourists are there to try to get an understanding of the country – few would be there looking for opportunities to return home to denigrate the country and its people – journalists, on the other hand, are a different matter.

I understand it is possible to buy a local sim card but then the question would be why? I think the emphasis on the mobile was to do with making sure people were open about what they were carrying. No point in lying if at any time they can turn out all your belongings – the same as at any other country’s customs.

It’s also unwise to take in any religious books or any which criticise the country in any way – that includes guide books which seem to think they have the right (if not the obligation) to churn out the same propaganda that comes from their respective governments and media.

As an aside it’s always amused me that there are certain countries in the world where guide book compilers seem to think they should make some sort of comment on the society – normally the same propaganda churned out by their respective country’s governmental departments or the ‘facts’ reproduced in the biased media. This is especially the case in those countries that have attempted to build socialism – even in countries like China and Vietnam where socialism was ditched in favour of capitalism decades ago.

However, you don’t get the same ‘analysis’ of the political situation in countries such as the UK. When reading about Coventry where does it say in the tourist brochures that the city is the home to the biggest and busiest food bank in the country? Where does it say in guide books about the UK that it is the aim of the Tressel Trust (the biggest food bank charity in the country) is to establish a food bank ‘in every town in the country’? They want to perpetuate poverty not eliminate it. Where does it say in guide books to the UK that virtually all major cities, the length and breath of the country, have seen an exponential growth in the number of people who are sleeping rough on the street and the problem of homelessness is becoming a national disgrace? I could go on. This is just another example of the chauvinistic, parochial and xenophobic attitude that is characteristic of arrogant capitalist hypocrisy. More on that later.

Returning to the customs check. If anyone was getting any extra attention it was the Koreans who were returning to their own country – the tourists and their luggage just going through the formalities. And that makes sense. Those people more likely to be bringing in contraband of any sort would be those who knew what to do with it once in the country. But even here there was a relaxed atmosphere as it looked like some of the passengers on the train knew the officials as many of them made regular journeys, on business of some kind, to China on a regular basis, as was the case with the two Koreans in our compartment.

One thing I did learn, or more exactly had reconfirmed, is that customs officials worldwide don’t like rummaging through rucksacks. Even though they can make you turn out everything if they so wish from my experience they only peek into the top and then give it all up as a bad job.

Once the customs had left the carriages and the passports were in the hands of the immigration people everyone relaxed. People started to leave the train and stretch their legs on the platform. When I went to look at the engine (not having had the opportunity in Dandong) it was indicated that I was straying into a place I shouldn’t be going, that is too close to the end of the platform, but there was no hostility involved – the young guard just doing his job.

A matter of minutes before the train was due to leave the different piles of passports were carried from the station building and everyone returned to their space on the train – more likely to get their passport back with no problems as they are handed out in the order they were collected. A foreign passport is something of a novelty in a number of places where I’ve travelled and it’s not uncommon for there to be a slight delay in getting yours back as people on the way flick through the pages, both for the document itself, which is often different from their own and also to have a look at any stamps and visas. Some more confident will often come up and ask to have a look and within the confines of a bus or a train that is moving that’s not a possible scam but a genuine curiosity about other people and their travels.

Everyone with their passports and no one – to the best of my knowledge – left on the platform the train pulled away from the station, leaving China behind and headed, at a gentle but not too slow a pace, towards Pyongyang, about 5 hours away.

Train Travel in China – things you need to know

Nanning East Railway Station

Nanning East Railway Station

As I’ve recently made a number of long train journeys on the Chinese Railway system I thought it might be useful to record some information that might make it easier for others to do so in the future. At times doing anything independently in China can be daunting but perhaps up-to-date information, without (hopefully, too much) negativity will help ease the pain. What makes China difficult is the language, the lack of signage that helps when you really need it and the seeming impossibility (at the times you most need it) to find out where to go for the information you are after.

Perhaps the first thing to mention about train travel in China is the fact that the railway stations are becoming vast, huge structures that make European main line railway stations look like small town stops in comparison. Although older stations were big those that are being built now dwarf those of the past and can become a problem for unwary travellers. Added to this is the increase in the number of indigenous travellers (the reason for the huge stations) and a perceived security threat which means that both persons and luggage undergo a check before anyone can enter the main building concourse. (Similar, but not as vigorous, security checks also take place on all the stations of the Beijing Metro system.) This can lead to long queues to even enter the station before you have to look for, and get to, the relevant waiting area/platform.

Nanning East Railway Station - What you can and cannot have in luggage

Nanning East Railway Station – What you can and cannot have in luggage

Buying tickets

The process of buying tickets has improved vastly in the last few years – thanks to the internet. The queues in railway stations used to be interminable – and can still be long – and the system was very confusing (and lack of anything other than Chinese characters over the windows didn’t help). Now you can find out timetables, book and buy tickets on your own computer/smart phone. One site I’ve used with no problems whatsoever is Ctrip. You pay a percentage commission on the ticket price but it saves a lot of problems and the commission is not that great – Chinese railways being relatively cheap compared to those in western Europe.

There is, however, the matter of picking up the actual ticket itself which can be very dependent on the location of the station – some seem to be better organised than others. If you are faced with a seeming infinite number of ticket windows and you haven’t encountered a friendly and helpful staff member then look for a sign in one of the windows that says ‘The dining time is 12.30 – 13.10’ – in English. The actual time might differ slightly but this is the window to which foreigners were directed in the past, before the advent of internet booking. (In Guangzhou Station, for example, this is window 82 in Ticket Office No 3.) Present the printed out voucher (or whatever is on your phone via the app) – a 9 digit number preceded by an E – plus your identification, normally a passport, – a photocopy will do – which has the same information that you filled in at the time of booking.

This process shouldn’t really take that long, it all depends on the queue so it makes sense to arrive at the station in enough time to take account of contingencies.

As even the locals are using the internet for booking tickets there are more and more automatic machines being installed in the major stations. Unfortunately all the instructions are in Chinese and you have to present your ID to an electronic reader. I doubt whether it would accept a foreign document. The installation of these machines is the main reason that queues for tickets no longer go around the block.

The ticket office is sometimes outside of the actual area identified as secure – it seems to very much depend upon local preferences – but be prepared to show ID to enter to get your ticket (and depart if on another day). At some time before getting on to the actual concourse you will have to go through a security scan – of both yourself and your luggage. This might also be before or after your ticket has been checked, either manually or by a machine. I’ve not come across any standardisation in the process. However, it doesn’t normally take too long as there are enough people to process the crowds that go through major Chinese Railway Stations. You will all have read or heard about the ‘greatest migration in human history outside of war’ that takes place every year during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) but that movement goes on every day in numbers which are unimaginable in Europe.

Guangzhou Railway Concourse

Guangzhou Railway Concourse

At the station

Once on the concourse you can normally forget any helpful signs in English and you have to depend upon your own wits and common sense. It seems as if all the signage up to now has been designed with the distinct aim of trapping you into a sense of complacency. Apart from anything else watch what others do – and on your first time through a station arrive in plenty of time so you can learn enough of the basics without getting into a panic as the clock ticks.

Use the combination of the train number and the time to identify your particular train and to learn the number of the platform. The barrier in the waiting room won’t be opened much more than about 20 minutes or so before the train’s scheduled departure time. Once it does there will normally be a stampede but as seats are allocated you don’t have to join the rush – as with the rush to get on planes this panic is so that people can store their luggage in the limited space.

Depending upon the age of the station there will possibly be two gates, one with a blue notice and one with a red one above them. These refer to the colour of your ticket. Blue is for the vast majority of travellers. The red is for those who have requested some sort of special assistance or who fall into the category of being accorded a privileged status. This includes the elderly and the disabled. As a foreigner it would not be considered amiss if you counted yourself in this category and would normally pass through the red channel without difficulty. In China foreigners are considered to be not quite complete people and together with the idea that you are a guest in their country this situation creates a strange relationship. The red tickets are checked manually and the blue (normally) go through the automatic gates. The gates are likely to close 5 minutes before the train’s scheduled departure time.

Although, from my experience, the trains in China are quite reliable I did encounter a couple of cancellations. That would have been less of a problem if I had been able to understand the signs. If you see something similar to that in the picture below, or a board with a paper sign appears the other side of the barrier where you expected to leave, then head straight to the booking office to exchange your ticket for the next available train. Any delay might mean you will find that seats are limited or non-existent on the next train to your destination. Although the railway company must know of these cancellations long before the train is due they tend to leave any notification of this to the very last minute.

Cancelled Train Notice

Cancelled Train Notice

Once through those gates the ticket will not be checked as you get on the train UNLESS you have a sleeping berth. That ticket will be checked by the attendant standing smartly to attention at the door of the carriage. In the sleeping carriages, soon after departure, you will hand your ticket to the attendant and you will be given another card in its place. This is so the attendants know exactly where you are getting off. This can be very handy if you are due to arrive at your station at three o’clock in the morning. You effectively get a knock up call just in case you oversleep. The returned ticket will then allow you to exit the station.

At intermediate stations the passengers who are leaving the train will get off before the new passengers are allowed on the platform – at least at the larger stations and cities. This avoids any mad crush as people rush for all available space.

It might be worthwhile here emphasising that there’s no real notice given about when the train will depart – for example there are no announcements made on the platform or in the train itself. Yes an announcement will be made (although only in Chinese) about where the train is bound, where it has come from and on which platform it can be found but not its imminent departure. This means that if you are one of those who likes to get off at stations don’t stray too far way from your train so you can keep an eye on departure preparation activity.

Sleeping and overnight trains

As we’re on the sleepers some more information. The sleeping compartments are basically of two kinds, called soft and hard sleepers. It doesn’t mean that in the hard sleeper you are sleeping on hard wooden boards, the difference between the two is the soft has four berths and the hard six to each compartment. In the ‘hard’ carriage this makes for a tight squeeze (66 people in total in 11 bays) and seating space is at a premium once everyone wakes up. In the ‘soft’ the space is useable during the day as well as the night without anyone really being put out as the compartments are those that used to exist on virtually all railway systems before the introduction of open carriages. The ‘soft’ compartments have doors whilst the ‘hard’ open directly out into the corridor – so the level of privacy is very different.

Soft Sleeper Compartment

Soft Sleeper Compartment

The difference in price between the two is, very roughly, about 30%. On the other hand a simple seat would cost half the price of a hard sleeper and a third of that of the soft sleeper.

The beds will be partially made up when you board. The pillow and duvet piled up at one end – that’s for you to sort out how and when you wish. The temperature is normally quite well controlled in these carriages but you will probably welcome the warmth that the duvet provides in the early hours of the morning, if not before.

In each compartment of the soft beds there will be a water flask in a container on the floor and beside that a small rubbish bin. There will also be one power socket which accepts the two small round pin plug and the two or three flat pin plug. You are amongst the privileged in this day and age. Power is at a premium for charging mobile phones and there are no sockets in the seating carriages of the train (apart from the High Speed Trains). That means that after someone has been on the train for any length of time they will be searching for a power socket with the same intensity as a junkie looking for his/her fix. As a foreigner, especially if you are in a carriage by yourself/selves, and the door is open during the day you are quite likely to get asked for access to this source of such importance.

There are also a couple of sockets in the corridor of the carriage and these also get visits from the hoi poloi. However to get power from these sockets you are very much out in the open and are more likely to be chased by the attendants if seen. In the compartments they are more likely to get away with being in a part of the train where they are not technically supposed to be. Whether they get chased very much depends upon the attendants. Travel ‘soft sleeper’ and you are travelling in the small, First Class section of the particular train. Why, when everyone knows that the demand for power is so great that sockets aren’t available in all parts of the train is a question I’m not even going to bother to ask.

Soft Sleeper Corridor

Soft Sleeper Corridor

At the head of each berth there is a reading light so you can continue to read or whatever once the main light has been switched off. From my experience Chinese travellers are early to bed once the train gets moving (the same happens on long distance buses as well) and there won’t be a great deal of movement after 22.00.

Each compartment door can be locked from the inside. If you do so you can expect to be awoken in the middle of the night if someone has a berth booked in your compartment. They can always get in quietly by getting the attendant to open the door with their key but someone might be impatient to get to bed themselves. However, the lock does provide a greater security and peace of mind.

In the corridor there are fold down seats between the windows. These are useful places if you find the compartment a little claustrophobic and it offers an opportunity to look out the window and contemplate the problems of the world – although this is one of the reasons for undertaking such long distance train journeys in the first place, isn’t it?

At one end of the carriage there will be a constant supply of hot drinking water from a boiler. This causes a constant stream of visitors either to make tea or to rehydrate the box of E number chemicals that pose as food under the name ‘instant noodles’.

Most such carriages also have a toilet at either end. It’s likely that one of them will be the squat version. Bring your own toilet paper – you should be doing that as you travel anyway. At one end there will be the carriage attendant’s room and next to that will be a wash room with three wash basins and cold water taps.

Smoking is not permitted at the seats or in the sleeping compartments on these types of trains (the more ‘traditional’ type compared with the high speed versions now more common on the Chinese railway where smoking if forbidden throughout) but is permitted in the area between carriages so don’t be surprised to get a whiff of the acrid smell of burnt tobacco from time to time.

Eating

There will be a restaurant car, very likely next to the carriage/s with the soft sleeper berths which are normally in the middle of the train. This was problematic a few years ago as the staff would be reluctant to approach a foreigner if they couldn’t speak any English. To avoid a problem of communication you could be ignored. That has changed now and menus will in English as well as Mandarin and the staff might also be more competent in English. Travellers have to be reasonable in these situations – how many workers on European railways are multilingual, especially in the UK? A simple dish, which includes rice, will cost (in 2017) about 30 RMB – about £3.00.

However, if you choose not to go to the restaurant car trolleys constantly ply along the corridor during the whole of the journey selling the sort of cold convenience foods that are found in supermarkets, the likes of crisps and Chinese speciality snacks as well as the ubiquitous ‘instant noodles’. Fruit wrapped in cling film will also make a showing. At recognise meal times (around 06.00, 12.00 and 18.00) one or two hot meal options will be available, freshly made in the restaurant kitchen, for example, hot porridge and noodles for breakfast. If you are keen on alcohol then you have to bring it yourself – it’s not sold from the trolleys that ply the corridors and neither is it available at station stops when there might be more than a few minutes before departure.

From my experience they can move through the soft sleeper carriages quite quickly as often many of the doors will be closed so you either have to listen out for them and move quite fast or hang around the entrance of the compartment at meal times. As an example of price, in 2017, a bowl of breakfast noodles, which I thought were tasty enough, was 10 RMB, about a pound sterling.

Eating is different on the High Speed Trains. There’s no restaurant as such, the journeys being of a much shorter duration, and meals and drinks will be brought to your seat once it has been ordered from the staff who pass along the carriages. A basic meal and a drink will cost about 25 RMB, about £2.50. There are also power points at each seat – although their location makes using them with an adapter impossible.

Staying connected

Free WiFi is also on offer in the soft sleeper area. I found this a bit hit and miss. You connect to the provider on the list that looks like a list of symbols and shows ‘excellent’ as the level of reception. A screen will come up with all the instructions in Chinese but below them is a large green button. I found I had to click on that to get any further. On my journeys the reception was erratic. It will also send alarm signals to your email server who will send security messages to the allocated email address.

Beijing Railway Station Platform

Beijing Railway Station Platform

‘Essentials’ for long distance, over-night travel

Virtually all passengers who will be travelling overnight in a sleeping compartment will change into the sort of clothing that they would have if they were in their own homes – in Asia there’s a distinct demarcation line between the ‘street’ and the home. And if only for one or two nights the train becomes the home. So after arriving in smart outdoor clothing most of the passengers will be seen dressed in the likes of track suits – both the men and the women. A pair of slippers or flip flops would also be useful.

It’s unlikely that anyone would really have trouble sleeping in the soft sleeper. Apart from the creaks and groans, squeaks and moans from the train carriages themselves you are, more or less, insulated from the rest of the world. That might not be the same in the hard sleeper carriages where there is a higher concentration of people, together with their snores and nightmares. At least there it is dark when people go to sleep, that is not necessarily the case in the seating parts of the train.

Wherever you might find yourself there’s a local solution to sleeplessness which also includes an element of local culture. That is to drink the Chinese liquor baijiu. This is, normally, made from grain and is a clear liquid. Normally around 52% proof a couple of these will knock out most people if they have had a long day travelling.

There are a couple of hurdles, nonetheless. Some of the cheaper options can smell similar to paint stripper so it’s not a drink to appreciate in the same way as you might a half decent wine. Next is overcoming the first mouthful. You know how strong it is as the lips become slightly numb on first contact. As the liquid passes down the throat the burning sensation lasts only a short time as it takes a small piece of the lining with it. After that it’s plain sailing. A few of these and you will be the one keeping everyone else awake. And it won’t, unless you really want to, break the bank. A bottle of 500ml in a local supermarket cost 10.80 RMB – that’s equivalent to just over a pound sterling.

Another ‘essential’ is a box of tea bags. I’m old enough to remember Lipton’s tea in the UK. You don’t see it there at all now but whoever owns Lipton’s doesn’t care as it has an intro in some of the most populous countries on the planet. Why worry about the demise of the corner shop in England when they can sell their products in hundreds of thousands of locations in China with a population of 1.5 billion and climbing. Such goods are ‘aspirational’ for those who want to consider themselves internationalists in the new capitalist China and although the tea might not be as good as that produced for the tea ceremonies it is more than adequate for a lengthy train journey. As stated before hot water is permanently available in the public areas of the train.

Another travelling essential is an unbreakable drinking container. I favour the stainless steel cups that are used for water in Indian vegetarian restaurants. Cheap and virtually indestructible when travelling.

High Speed Trains

The network of High Speed Trains is expanding so rapidly in China that the slower way of travelling might be under threat in the near future. But it comes, at a price, literally. For example, on a High Speed Train, the journey from Nanning (in Guangxi) to Beijing will take just under 14 hours and will cost: 914 RMB 2nd Class, 1,379 RMB 1st Class and 2,853 RMB Business Class. On the other hand the slower, overnight train will take 23½ hours and will cost: 751 RMB Soft Sleeper and 487 RMB Hard Sleeper. It all depends upon whether you are time or money poor.

The fast rains have their charm, reaching speeds of 310 Km per hour, but like all high speed trains around the world the experience is sterile and you feel separate from the environment through which you are travelling.