Recently I took an exciting trip to China. It was a 3-hop trip from New Delhi to Dalian via Hong Kong and Beijing. The last leg of this trip, Beijing to Dalian, was on the train. The trip took me to within miles of North Korea.
The trip was a bit perilous for an enfeebled and recuperating sick man, vegetarian and non-speaker of Chinese language, and a complete novice at using the chopsticks. After return now I face probing questions from friends – Why Dalian? I have no convincing arguments but I guess I had a few friends in that city, so I chose it. With hindsight, I feel it wasn’t a bad choice, for its weather, its resorts, its beaches, its eateries, its hotels, its skyline, and above all its people were entities of pleasure. Here is a panoramic view of the city.
Contemporary and historic
China is a mystery veiled in the hidden adventure. Even when the internet lays it bare in the rest of the world, you need a personal visit to nose around this enigma. When you’re in China, the internet is partially blocked and censored. Sites like Gmail, Google and Map are not accessible, and if they are, they only function as a Virtual Private Network (VPN). And you must pay a subscription of monthly Twenty US Dollars or so.
Tencent QQ, popularly known as QQ (cute), is a popular Chinese emailing service. Today, it has 829 Million active QQ accounts and it also provides an English translation. There is a WeChat platform that works like the Facebook. So in China, there is nothing that prevents you from communicating.
A number of Chinese travelers existed in history. Faxian (400 AD) and Xuanzang (600 AD), and 56 Monks traveled to India in the 7th century. They called us “Yindus”. For ages, the Chinese have made special efforts at learning about what existed in other countries, but have hesitated foreigners traveling to China. Even now they prefer giving visa to businessmen, with the expectation that money will ultimately flow into China.
Of late, the reverse traffic is gaining grounds. The number of Chinese travelers internationally has more than doubled to 120 million tourists over the last five years, according to data from the China National Tourist Office. That means one in every 10 international travelers now comes from China. This year more than 215 Billion dollars may be spent by them abroad. The Chinese tend to begin traveling abroad once their household earnings exceed about $35,000 per year. And this tourism boom is encouraged by the government’s bigger plan to boost consumer spending and make the economy less dependent on manufacturing.
Before commencing my visit, a lot was heard from people. For example, The Great Wall of China was a metaphor for this forbidden territory. I was a bit nervous and my nervousness ran at peak when I decided to travel all by myself. I was recuperating from two large and recent operations. Stents were put in my carotid arteries. After these two brain operations, I was vulnerable because I could not speak well, nor walk for long distances, nor carry heavy weight and generally I was in danger for the slip of the stents. To go to a country where vegetarian food was a rarity and the language formidable, was quite an adventure.
There was one respite for me though, a Russian friend who lives in Dalian and speaks both Russian and Chinese, rather fluently. Her English is very primary and I had to resort to Russian when required. Nataliya put the squeeze on and forced me to come. She has the bold spirits of the royal blood, inherited due to her being from the family (Romanova) of the Czars.
Dalian on the map
To make matters worse I decided to undertake the last leg of my travel, Beijing to Dalian on the Bullet train. “Bullet” was a hyped term in India and it captivated me to be on that train. Moreover, where else would I get that fortuitous chance to see the countryside and landscape.
I was expected to take a taxi from the airport to the Dalian railway station in Beijing. The Google maps show two railways stations in Beijing. Which of these I must choose remained ambiguous in my mind until I reached it actually. My email communications with Nataliya had failed to resolve this dubiety due to language difficulties.
On the last day before departure my daughter Tanu alarmed me about this uncertainty and was despised that I’d be struggling for information at Beijing. She forced me to speak to Nataliya on phone and we requested her to arrange an escort between Beijing Airport to Dalian Railway station at Beijing. Nataliya swung into action and lined up Maxim, a Russian car owner in Dalian. And she fixed it while sitting in Dalian. We weren’t satisfied until we spoke to Maxim on phone from Delhi.
And off I went.
Hong Kong on the map
The Grand Hong Kong
Hong Kong, a Cathy Pacific stopover, gave me two hours for the transfer. Time was short and that made me run amok, like a mad man in the airport corridors. I carried my camera, bag, medicines and ran down the unfamiliar corridors of the airport, as if being chased. I was reminded of the movie ‘Catch me if you can’. I was the only visible Indian at the airport. I wished that this airport had the luxury of deferred stopovers as on the Middle East flights. And wished they did something similar to promote and protect the duty-free sales. But amazing it was to see people shopping around in the morning time?
Luckily, everything went very well and I boarded the outbound plane at Hong Kong. How I wished that I had a window seat to view Hong Kong from the air, but the airline managed to compensate me; they placed an English-speaking co-passenger next to me. I wasted no time in pleasantries and let it go at him, “Sir, what time we will land in Beijing”?
“3 hours approximately” he seemed cool and gave me a business-like smile. I tried to match him with an equally friendly smile.
The hostesses were helping the passengers with seats, luggage, and tumblers of water. I finished the flight rituals rather quickly and I browsed the airline magazine, tightened the seat belt, and then scanned for the fellow passengers around etc. Most of them were probably corporate customers joining work after the weekend in Hong Kong.
The plane was delayed a bit. People were still moving in and out of the plane. I waited a few minutes and then impatience started taking a toll on me. Hysterically I asked my co-passenger, “This way, do you think I will have enough time at the Beijing airport?” I looked at my wrist watch with concern. “Twenty minutes already,” I mumbled.
“Oh, perhaps your destination is beyond Beijing and you need to strike it in time.”
“That’s right, to Dalian. I am catching the bullet train” as if it was the ultimate luxury I was going to indulge into – an Indian frame of mind.
“Don’t worry, you have enough time”, he said looking at his watch. “Provided this plane starts in time,” he added rather sarcastically.
“Ah yes. Of course, I have. But maybe the checked-in baggage will delay me.”
“Yes, you might be cutting it too fine. You know what, I always stick to one airline for all the legs of my journey. They will never leave you behind”.
“Yeah, but the bullet train was an attraction,” I nodded.
The plane was still standing still and this delay placed knots in my stomach. I started shuffling in my seat nervously. I saw it as a nightmare and imagined my plight in Beijing.
“What I should be doing when I land in Beijing. With only two and a half hours in Beijing. I should run to the immigration, find the taxi man, take the taxi and reach the railway station,” I mumbled these lines to myself. “And I do not know Chinese”, was the caveat that I added to my struggling brain.
It was now 30 minutes since I entered the plane. Even in normal situations, this was some exasperation but for me that day, it was no less than a catastrophe. I could probably miss the train at Beijing. My co-passenger saw my frustration, I think he heard me mumbling, “Do not worry. They are very professional at the airport. You will not be delayed,” he added.
Perhaps I must tell him the situation. Maybe he can guide me. “You know Sir, the train tickets are taken on-line and I have still to collect them, at the Dalian railway station.”
“Haven’t you bought them already? Don’t you have them with you?”
“The ticket, yeah. They have to be taken at the station. They don’t give it to anybody. They need your Chinese account for the transfer of money. And they will give it only when my passport is presented.” I seemed to have scored a winner this time hoping that he will empathize with me.
“Yeah, that is normal. You need ten minutes more for that. That cuts down your time a bit.”
I didn’t feel it necessary to tell him that the train bookings were done by Nataliya on her account on the internet. Any change in the ticket was possible only when she used her account. And she was in Dalian. Probably, I will be constrained to be lodged in a hotel for the night. I didn’t understand why this Chinese man couldn’t understand my difficulty with the language, my ill health, and the turmoil in my mind that overshadowed the vibrations in the plane.
We landed at Beijing and a surprise awaited me. The belts for the checked-in baggage and the immigration counters were missing from the sight. Everyone was rushing to what I later saw, an un-piloted train, which would take us to those facilities. Not many airports in the world make you sweat for your baggage as they do it in Beijing. And when you are in shortage of time, just as I was, this could be daunting.
The luggage was delivered about five Kilometers away from where it landed. I waited a million of years for it. I had enough time for a cuppa but no cafe was in sight. It was probably a good time to scan the passengers. To me, they looked smartly dressed up as if they would leave for office directly.
Anyway, the luggage finally arrived and miserable mine was among the last few (Murphy’s laws were in full swing). But the immigration was done in a jiffy, unlike in the western countries. And I found Maxim. He was the very first man loitering near the exit gate. He waved vigorously the placard with my name on it, rather shabbily but recognizable.
To the railway station
While I was debating in mind, which station I will go to, Maxim probably had the answer. He darted through the airport garages at a speed that could put any marathon runner to shame. And here I was, scrambling to keep pace with him. Trying to put up a show that everything was normal. As I settled in his car, the thought of my luggage flashed in my mind and I asked him with butterflies fluttering in my stomach, “Did you put the baggage in the boot Maxim?”
“Da” was his short and crisp reply.
What a relief! I was in the car, complete with all my baggage, after immigrating to China and now on way to domestic travel, Wow. “Hurrah” I expressed and continued, “Do you know which station we must go to?”
He didn’t answer but nodded. He was probably briefed by Nataliya. Knowing these Russians, they were almost perfect in their travel arrangements.
“Is this your own car or a taxi?” I knew Russians used private cars as taxis, because it was a convenient arrangement. But here I was checking if I was being waylaid. Then came the most important question, “Do you speak English?”
I knew beyond doubt that a standard answer will follow, ‘A little English’, and I knew what it meant. I had heard it amply during my trips to Russia. Simply stating it meant, “Shut up with your English.”
On the driver’s seat, he was alert. He had good reflexes and probably deserved a pat on the back. So, I took time off him and focused on my camera. I was in China for the first time and didn’t want to miss these shots. I was in motion, and perhaps a video was more appropriate here, but the jolting in the car and brakes kept me away from it.
The part of Beijing where we were moving was like any other metropolitan city; nothing astounding but nevertheless intriguing. It had a mix of high and low-rise buildings, both new and old, and almost perfect roads. The metro line running aside us at a few places.
The road was complete with signage and it did not have the familiar potholes that are common in India. The billboards were neatly organized. I noticed the advertisements were devoid of the traditional communist pictures depicting peasants or workers with large faces, or the hammer and sickle pictures. There were actually commercial ads on them.
I noticed that Maxim was following the traffic lanes almost meticulously in spite of being in hurry. Even when a side lane was available free, he did not grab it. Nor did he jump a red light. I came to know later on that Chinese were disciplined on the roads, and one did notice the absence of traffic police.
At the railway station
The very impressive Hunan Hotel was on our right when we took a U-turn and landed on the side of the Henderson Shopping Centre. The crowd here was thin and Maxim managed to find some parking place. And then, he carried my baggage and ran as if he was running for his life without bothering to wait for me. I thought this might be the time for him to escape me.
Dalian railway station at Beijing
He climbed the never-ending flight of stairs and took the overbridge to cross over to the railway station. It was bright day and the sun shone almost on our heads. He waited at least three times on the overbridge for me to catch up. By then, I had completely forgotten that the doctor had barred me from running or lifting weight. The enthusiasm of travel to China was prime on my mind.
People, a lot of them were now around. They took care of families and hurried to gather the children in their hands or backs. They were moving towards the main entrance to the railway station. Large queues were built up on the booking windows and my heart sank looking at them.
Then it all came with a bang. Maxim demanded my Passport. Apparently, he wanted to collect my ticket. In a foreign country, knowing nothing about how or where to run if passport becomes missing, handicapped by language, I was thinking why couldn’t I collect the ticket myself. But placing trust on Maxim and Nataliya combination, which had worked until now, I reached out for my well-protected passport and hesitatingly handed it over to him.
He pointed to the luggage and advised me to stay back and look after it. And then he sprinted to be lost in the mind-boggling crowds – which one of the queues he took I could never see. Soon he was part of the crowd; all the people looked similar to me in my confused state of mind. The presence of mind made me peek at my wrist watch. I compared it with the massive clock at the station – the time had not changed since I had adjusted it at Hong Kong. We still had enough time for the train.
It must have taken Maxim a while, at least I felt so before I saw him return, struggling through the crowds and making way to where he had left me. Perhaps he did not have the tickets in his possession.
“Come quickly”, he urged me in English, “my dolzhny pereyti v drugoye okno (We have to go to the other window).”
I think Nataliya had not explained to him exactly where the tickets would be found. This was the slip between her cup and my lip. Hurriedly, we made our way through security and were positioned before the window where the tickets were available. The girl gave me a pleasant smile though words were not exchanged between us. Obviously, our lack of understanding of each other’s language coupled with my anxiety was the cause of it. Also, my mind was preoccupied since I still did not know how far the platform would be.
We were now passing through the main hall of the station. It took us about five minutes to arrive at a smaller enclosure meant only for the train departures. And we didn’t run this time and we smiled at everyone who passed by our side.
This enclosure ended into a solitary gate, which was guarded by a policeman. About fifty odd people were seated on the wooden benches in the enclosure, quietly waiting for the train to arrive. More were still arriving. No commotion and not even loud noises or announcements were heard. There were no signs of porters or helpers. Everybody who came up to this point was himself a traveler.
The main platform was visible behind the policeman. People were allowed inside only about ten minutes before the train departure. Mind you the whole train was to be loaded here, and what tranquility! And the train would get loaded with all passengers in just about ten minutes. Amazing!
This is the place which changed my outlook towards China and its people. Can we have similar discipline in India, and on a railways platform at that.
Maxim then pointed to the clock on the wall and said, “Five minutes before, you must go to the entry gate.” He smilingly bid me farewell and I paid him nothing. He would not take anything. He said Nataliya had already paid him. “До стреча (till we meet again),” he uttered before parting.
I will never forget him – an honest, trustworthy man who followed his mission to the core, admirably well. The mission for catching the train for on his mind right from the word go, and he stuck to this mission.
The last bit
I must tell my worried daughter my whereabouts, now. I had not managed to send her any message for almost 12 hours, and I actually didn’t get any time for doing it. The family must have been anguished and distressed, as much as I was. Very excitingly I approached my phone and found it completely discharged. I looked around to see if any charging station was available but the crowd was obstructing my view. I started to call, expecting roaming to work, and I received a message in Chinese followed by English that the phone has been switched off from service.
It is here and now that I experienced my first of many pleasant episodes in China. Suddenly a young girl, all the girls in China look young, appeared from nowhere and occupied the seat next to me, on the bench. She gave me a customary pleasant smile and got busy with her phone. I must have sounded like an imbecile when I suggested, “May I use your phone?”
She didn’t understand English and I didn’t understand Chinese. The embarrassment was real and multiple, not only of the phone but also because I wanted to make a roaming call. And then I noted she had a battery bank in her bag, that I had peeped into. She probably understood my predicament and offered her battery bank for use. I grabbed the offered battery bank and plugged my mobile phone into it. It was the first time I ever used the battery backup. I wasn’t sure if it will work. And wow, the phone saw traces of life. I could see the available Wi-Fi sites in and around the railway station. But after struggling for some time for login in, I gave it up. I could not log in due to the password difficulties.
She asked me in almost broken and dilapidated English, “Are you Yindu”?
It sounded like “Are you from Hindu”?
“Yes yes, I am from India,” I cleared my throat before answering.
Much later, I realized in China that Indians were known as Yindus according to their literature. We were known to be civilized people with a lot of knowledge of Buddha’s teachings and we were kind of respected by a common Chinese man. She thought for some time and asked me “Are you on email”.
“Yes,” I took out a paper and wrote my Gmail address. I thought maybe we establish some communication through the mails and the translators on the internet.
“No, Gmail does not work here. Do you have QQ mail?”
I thought I did not hear the word QQ properly and I could not understand that QQ could be the name of a network. So, I returned a simple ‘No’ as my answer.
“Do you WeChat?”
I thought she was speaking incorrect English, why did she add the word ‘We’ with ‘You’? I assumed that she asked me, “Do you chat?”
“Oh yes, on Facebook.”
She smiled again, “Facebook does not work here Sir. We use WeChat.”
She was quiet for some time and kept fiddling with her phone. Suddenly I saw a glee in her eyes and she appeared on cloud nine. She had perhaps found a solution for our communication. She had logged on to ‘Baidu – an application that translated Chinese into English and vice-versa’. Now she was able to type in Chinese and make me read its translation in English. It was a major achievement but it did not last much time, because the train had arrived. Both of us were disappointed a bit.
She asked me to show my ticket to her. I was in the last compartment. She was in the third compartment, and she expressed helplessness that we will not be in the same compartment. Then she came all the way to the last compartment and pointed out my seat to me. Then she took my leave. For me, it was a tragic end to a saga of helpfulness, all the way.
For all this time, her enthusiasm for establishing communication was amazing. She displayed energy levels more than an ordinary girl, even when she was probably a rural girl. For me, it expressed that most of the Chinese people could be helpful.
Bullet passing along the side of a condominium
In the train, some waitress similarly helped me choose a vegetarian dish, by taking me to the pantry car, and showing me what all preparations they were serving. All that I could choose from the 30 odd dishes were chips and coffee. But amazing, what chips, they were roasted; and what cappuccino coffee, it was steaming.
I reached Dalian at 10 pm. It was windy, cold and raining. I had left Delhi when the temperature was forty degrees Celsius. It was freezing for me in Dalian. Nataliya had come to receive me along with her business partner Li Batao, a Chinese man. We struggled with language because all the three of us were using three different languages.
The railway station looked dazzling in spite of the rain. Large beacons of LED lights were placed strategically on the station plaza illuminating it romantically. The raindrops dispersed these rays in different directions. We, of course, did not wait to see the glamor of the lights because it was late, and drove through the incessant rain. They dropped me at the serviced apartment.
This was the end of an eventful journey. I was reminded of Confucius and TAO. How good their teachings must have been centuries back, that they left a mark on the Chinese society forever. It is no doubt that Dalian offers a variety of landscape for anybody who comes to this wonderland, with an exploratory mind. My experience has been that it was really a bombardment of the senses: new sights and sounds, a new language to process, new customs and ways of doing things, different food, and the mix of Western and Chinese culture, not to forget the pleasure of a distinct weather.