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The tracks of China

14th January 2011

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Thinking about a trip to China? It doesn’t matter what food you eat or which festivals you attend. If you really want to experience Chinese culture you need to meet its people. The best, if unconventional way, to do this is on its trains.

Do yourself a favour and pick both a northern and southern province to visit; the differences between the two Chinese hemispheres makes the notion of a north-south divide in England laughable, and then get a train between the two.

The Chinese are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet, despite some cultural differences that might just shock you into open-mouthed astonishment until you become accustomed to them; they think it is acceptable to litter... well, everywhere, they side-step any form of queuing preferring to simply shove everyone in their immediate vicinity, and consider a vacuum packed chicken’s foot a tasty snack. However, they are motivated by the genuine desire to be helpful and no where does this become more apparent than in a cramped train carriage.

Whether you book a sleeper, which basically means you get your very own bed on the train for the duration of your journey (trust me you will measure a good night’s sleep differently after you have been rocked into your dreams with the starlit Chinese countryside trundling past outside your window) or you opt for a seat, you will be surrounded by dozens of eager tour guides just waiting for their chance.

In my experience listening to people’s stories and looking through the travel pictures fresh off their cameras is better than planning a trip by any travel guide. The most wonderful places in China I have found by following the extended finger of a neighbour met on the train. One such location was West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

 Its beauty has even been immortalised on the back of the 1 Yuan note. There are a number of boat trips that will take you around the lake; however you will not truly be able to appreciate its beauty as the Chinese do until you have heard their folklore. Every inch of Westlake has a story. So before you hop aboard coerce a native speaker to tell you the tale of Phoenix and Dragon who battled the Empress of Heaven for the Pearl which became the Lake, or of Lady White Snake, whose heart was broken on the broken bridge and for whose sake the famous pagoda was ripped down.    

Of course, everyone recommends the Great Wall and I am going to join ranks with everyone. The feeling you get when standing between the strategically spaced guards towers just cannot be communicated by type.  I chose to go very early one spring morning, just after watching the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square, perfect timing because it corresponds with the sun rise. Going so early means you beat all the other tourists, who are waiting around to enjoy the complimentary hotel breakfast, and instead get to see the stall vendors and their laden donkeys winding their way up the side of the mountain to set up shop on the Wall itself. There is also the chance to indulge your inner child by taking the big slide down instead of the steps, a great photo opportunity if nothing else.

Image by Caitlin Mogridge

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