Travel: the curse of the travelling classes

I always recall Tim Beckingsale explaining why, having got to London and secured work as a courier driver in the 1980s, he had opted not to travel anywhere much further. “Travel,” he sighed, “is such a chore.”

IMG_6244Though maybe if he’d tried going by camel? This chap in the Shanghai Museum seems to be finding it anything but a chore

And he’s sort of right. Being somewhere new is great. Getting there is largely aggravation. For me, planes are a special hell. Too little space, windows that won’t open and doors that you get scolded for trying to, only intermittent plying with alcohol, and surly blond Aussies with their hair pulled into facelift pony tails and make up designed to mask all emotion so they can stare down your requests with pointed indifference. Ah Qantas!

And all those deadlines. Nothing feels less holiday-like than having to be somewhere at a very specific time or face family-wrecking disaster. Or maybe it does. Maybe that’s exactly what real holidays feel like, as distinct from those TV-fuelled fantasies (#travellikedickieroper).

Why can’t it be like this…
TLDRIs a decent bit of legroom and some complimentary popcorn really too much to ask?

Rather than this?


Now add in the total language barrier. Having assumed a kind of citrus equivalence, we’d boned up on a bit of Pomello, a reasonable amount of Tangelo but neglected Mandarin entirely.



So if (just hypothetically), in the midst of some mega-human dumping station that is a “tourist transfer station,” one was to climb into a taxi and say “Tunxi” (one of the “towns” we were staying in; popn. 1.5 million) you might, just might, get taken into a general, undifferentiated built up area about the size of Auckland, assuming you managed to get the pronunciation just right (Tuhn She). If, though, you only know your address as “No. 5 Old Street”, and can’t translate that into Mandarin (including numbers) your driver is just going to shrug and smile and keep driving until you tell him to let you off. Basically, the only reliable strategy is to get the exact address on your phone and show it to the driver. Since Google is banned here, even this is not as simple as it sounds = get VPN on the computer, find your destination in English, find a representation of same address in Chinese characters, email self (all before travelling) then pick up email on phone and show driver. Then watch driver shrug and drive off in what you know to be the wrong direction.

We’re currently on a fast train travelling from Tunxi to Hangzhou which is in an extensive wetland area (like, about the size of the South Island) inland from Shanghai. Tunxi is, home of the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) scenic area, of which, more later.

IMG_7238Though here’s a wee preview, just to whet your appetite

The train track itself is a miracle of modern engineering, as smooth as New Zealand rail isn’t (both literally and figuratively) and the train glides along at about 350kph. Even at this speed some of the tunnels can take up to 10 minutes to go through, suggesting that the Chinese attitude to mountains is as disdainful as Qantas onboard crew to their passengers.

IMG_7508Chinese disdain for mountain, as seen from speeding bullet train

The train is nice and new, wide and pretty generous with its legroom. No WiFi (always a challenge on long distance rail). Although it speeds along at a pretty decent clip, the trip is only about an hour quicker than a bus (and about 10 times as expensive) as we take an easy arc in order to stop in at numerous towns along the way.

In Shanghai and the various tourist areas there’s a huge amount of signage exhorting people to act in a “civilised” fashion – you get the sense that they’re after the kind of politeness reforms that Lee Kwan Yu managed to embed in Singapore in the ‘70s.

IMG_7239Typical example of the civilising message from Yellow Mountain: “Each flower or leaf is of the view, and your remark or behaviour of the civilization.” Quite so.

IMG_7208My personal favourite: “Leave the scenery in your memory and your virtue in the area.” I really did try to leave my virtue in the area but Tanea was having none of it.

If by civilised they mean queue like a brittle Englishman, preserving a small empire of personal space around oneself (the way I like to queue) then they’ve got a wee way to go. And the further into the countryside, the more rustic are the manners of the locals. Huangshan North railway station is a vast edifice that looks as though it was opened yesterday: absolute acres of polished granite floors and spotless industrial concrete concourses and platforms.

IMG_7472You know you’re paying above the odds for your train fare when only about 22 of China’s 1.4 billion people are in the train station along with a couple of dozen honkies.

IMG_7481So sleek and clean: civilisation expressed in concrete and steel

Settling into the aircon carriage of the sleek-fuselaged ubertrain certainly felt like an advanced form of civility to this unreconstructed modernist. One stop in though and the rabblement overran us. The local youfs got busy jamming their oversized hardshell suitcases into the too-small luggage racks in complete disregard for the stooped crone who was trying to stick her rusty wheelchair up there as well, then turning on loud Chinese movies on their oversized iPhones (haven’t they heard of headphones? They’re only two bucks at Miniso for god’s sake!). Then the old chap who couldn’t find his seat set to yelling randomly at everyone. They were certainly the noisiest of times and quite restored my faith in The People to subvert any over-swift efforts at re-education.

IMG_7570Maybe I exaggerate? Once they were all sitting down and the wheelchair was taken off to a luggage area it all looks fine. And what a difference a wider gauge track makes to seating space.

There is a code of courtesy that governs road use, it just doesn’t seem so obvious at first to those of us bred to think of manners as a form of strict regulation. Of particular interest, and instructive in terms of the criticism of Chinese tourist drivers, is the fluid interpretation of the centre line. Chinese drivers will overtake anyone just about anywhere. Their expectation is simply that the oncoming car (RIGHT THERE! And closing fast!) will scooch over to make room for everyone.

IMG_7309Astoundingly, all of these vehicles, all travelling at about 80 kmh, will manage to avoid each other at the last second. Which is good given my rudimentary knowledge of first aid.

Scooters and bikes generally commandeer the right-most section of each lane and are happy to mix it up, either going with or against the specified traffic flow as they wish. Within this microcosm they don’t even strictly observe a keep right or keep left policy, just an “avoid the oncoming person in a way that seems most sensible at the time” tactic. Everyone toots frequently but only to say “I’m here”, and I’ve yet to see anyone express annoyance or even surprise at the most outrageous of u-turns. Nor have we seen any accidents or evidence of them. In a city like Shanghai where 25 million odd people need to rub along together this seems remarkable.

IMG_6132Take this chap with his grandson on the back doing the school run; he’s just narrowly avoided being run down by a bus and is now ploughing through pedestrians on a green crossing light. Happy times indeed.

Even pedestrians seem to do ok, despite the fact that bikes and scooters (and quite a few cars) don’t hesitate to run through pedestrian crossings, even when the crossing light is green and they’re on a red light. Apparently we’re in the midst of a traffic crackdown, and every now and then a bunch of police will swoop on some corner and pull over those not observing the rules (= pretty much everyone). Much banter, hilarity (on both sides) and passing of money goes on, then everyone goes back to doing exactly as they were before. Hilarious!

Speaking of congestion, it seems one holiday laptop is not enough for the modern family. Betty’s friends are online so Skyping’s afoot, so the next enthralling installment on transport in China is going to have to wait and this blog is…

to be continued…


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