Posts Tagged With: train travel

First Impressions Of China

Park in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, China. (I took the photo with my iPod Touch, no filters)

Park in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, China. (I took the photo with my iPod Touch, no filters)

It’s been more than six whole months since I’ve been in China, and as long since I’ve said anything here about all that has happened – all that is happening – in my new life in this ancient land of so many wonders.

Confession: I haven’t exactly completely been absent. I have been posting about my time in China on other social media platforms where I maintain a strong loyal following, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the latest hottest app around, Periscope, where I live stream. You can see my live broadcasts from China and the rest of Asia if you follow me on Periscope @mtendstotravel (same user name as on Twitter).

Neglecting this blog, and neglecting you all, here, not cool. I know. But here I am with tons more insight about China, a very complex, very contradictory, at once peaceful and chaotic, amazing and vexing, puzzling and endearing, open and closed.

Night falls on Hong Kong Harbor

Night falls on Hong Kong Harbor

To be sure, the Middle Kingdom is centuries of history and culture now undergoing another revolution – an economic revolution that once it fully awakes will turn the world upside down. China, the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.5 billion people, breaks records on an almost weekly basis for its sheer size. In Beijing alone, the capital, there are 21 million people, with a massive newly emerged middle class with a spending power unheard of anywhere else in the world. Where as recently as the 1990s millions of bicycles dominated the streets, now luxury cars rule, to the detriment of the air we breathe. Factories operating pretty much around the clock belch thick smoke. People in Beijing and other cities in China are forced to wear masks to protect their lungs and keep from getting cancer.

Chinese food at its very best

Chinese food at its very best

But already the negative effects have hit China, in the air pollution and growing number of people stricken with pulmonary ailments. Yet, thanks to the proximity of the Gobi Desert which kicks up strong winds, and government intervention, there are days when the sky is blue and the air is clean and China is pure beauty.

I came to China to work as a “foreign expert” at an English-language newspaper. I edit stories largely written by a Chinese staff. English is of course not their first language and it is my job to “polish” those stories and make them sound like they were written by a native speaker. I enjoy the work. And in the course of doing it, I enjoy learning about China and Chinese culture. I don’t get mixed up in Chinese politics, though I observe and learn and marvel at it all. This, after all, is still a country hanging on to its communist roots but make no mistake capitalism is present in all its forms. The Chinese live to buy and sell.

There is much to love about China. I’ve stood on remote stretches of the Great Wall, with no tourists, just locals around, looking at the undulating structure wend across mountains, looking like a giant brown serpent. What an amazing fete. I’ve walked – twice – from one end of the Forbidden City to the next, through gardens and palaces from which emperors ruled this land for centuries. I’ve stood in Tiananmen Square, which gained worldwide notoriety for the democracy protests and violent crackdown. And I live day in and day out what the Chinese experience day in and day out: crowded subways with thousands of humans pressed against each other like sardines; the constant spitting;

Reunion with friends in Hong Kong

Reunion with friends in Hong Kong

the rudeness and generally uncivil behavior and the “me first” selfishness that happens wherever there’s a crowd. But I’ve also experienced friendly faces and wide smiles and people so welcoming and helpful beyond anything. I’m often asked if the people are friendly in China and to that I say yes, but of course there are bad apples all over the world. More often than not, I enjoy China. There are days I just wish I would have stayed in bed. And there are days when I’m grinning from ear to ear because I am so happy to be living in China, experiencing what relatively few in the world will ever experience, such as my recent trip from Beijing to Hong Kong by high-speed train. China has built itself an amazing network of high-speed rails, which has cut travel from one city to the next. A trip that may have taken several days now takes relatively few hours. And the scenery, wow, the scenery.

I will be in China at least until October. I will bring you here more about my experiences and more often. For now, I say, if you can swing it and travel to China, do it. Your biggest expense will likely be the flight. You can score reasonably priced hotels and food is cheap if you know where to look. China is open to the world as it hasn’t been before. Now is the time to see it, live it, be a part of it.

 

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Friends And Strangers On A Train

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

ON A TRAIN FROM TLEN TO GDANSK, SOME THOUGHTS: Travel to places where people don’t speak your language of course creates challenges. The language barrier traps you in a maze of confusion and constant struggle to understand what’s going on around you. It isn’t something that can’t be overcome, but if you let it, it will do a job on the good energy you need to continue on your merry way. I was waiting for a train – this train that I am now on – that was more than 15 minutes late. Then came an announcement over the loudspeakers affixed above the station platform. It was a woman’s voice – a soothing voice – albeit going on for an eternity about something of some urgency. I don’t speak Polish, but based on the reactions of the people around me, I instantly knew something was up that had to do with my train. In the land of language barriers, where ears are rendered useless, eyes do the listening. I was at the train stop that serves the tiny village of  Tleń – population 260 – on my way back to Gdansk.

With Michal at the “gate to Hell” in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The large boulder was dragged to the area by advancing glacier during the Ice Age. And yes, my layers of clothing was not working for him so he gave me the winter coat off his back!

With Michal of Tlen, Poland, in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The  guy gave me the coat off his back . What, my layered look wasn’t working for you all? 🙂

It was a very cold Saturday morning, and everything coming from that woman’s mouth would determine if I would spend another night in Tleń or be on my way. Soothing as her voice sounded, it was hardly soothing enough to ease my growing anxiety sparked by the people on the station platform appearing to go into mild panic. As I stood there in the freezing cold, I watched some of them swarm around a weather-beaten train schedule that had clearly seen better days on the support beam from which it hanged. Others nervously checked the time on their watches or cell phones, frantically sent text messages, or made phone calls.  I scanned the people in sight for a  friendly face, one not so apparently consumed with worry, in a quick search for someone who seemed likely to speak English – usually someone in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s or early 40’s. I approached a young couple and half-apologetically asked if they spoke English. In a unison that couples and twins often muster, they said “A little.” Poles are kind of funny when it comes to the question “Do you speak English?” In the relatively short time I’ve been in the country, I’ve noticed that regardless of the person’s ability to speak English, most will say  “a little”, perhaps to save face should their command of English falter. In the case of the young couple, “a little” could not have been a more on target self-assessment. They struggled with every word and in very broken English they managed to say the train was late, a  “duh!” fact I and everybody standing on the station platform already knew. My rephrased question was whether there would be a train at all and if so, when?.  “It’s late,” the young woman sheepishly said. Double duh! Aha! Okay. But do you know when it will come? The two turned to each other and in Polish began to confer as if world peace was at stake. I stood and watched as they tried to come up with the right English words to explain the situation to the American who speaks no Polish. She then said “wait” as he made a phone call. He spoke a few words in Polish to the person on the other end of the line and handed me his sleek new iPhone. On the other end, a woman with a much better command of English explained that the train was delayed by mechanical trouble and that there would be another update as to its arrival. She said it would likely be along in approximately 20 minutes, but an announcement would be made to update us. Sweet. A language hurdle cleared by Apple Inc. Steve Jobs – rest his soul – again saves the journey. I thanked the woman on the phone and the couple for going the extra mile. In Polish I said “Thanks”, which made them smile. Thirty-minutes later, here comes the train, even if there was no heads up announcement. Did I mention that Poland has the most painfully slow and worst train systems of all the places I’ve seen in Europe? In places like Tleń,well outside of big cities, the difficulty to find someone who speaks English increases. So your eyes take over where your ears are of no use. When the train is not doing what the posted schedule says it’s going to do, watch how others react to any official announcements made entirely in Polish – or any other foreign language you don’t speak, for that matter – and you quickly realize you don’t need to know the language to know you better act and fast.

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Main train station, getting to know you.

I am leaving Tlen, the village in north Poland where 260 people live. To say Tlen is a small town is the ultimate understatement. It’s the smallest town I’ve ever visited in Europe. I am on my way back to Gdansk, just over an hour away. I am sharing the compartment with a young Polish woman who has been really helpful with the “a little” English she speaks. At the train station the ticket office was closed and so I had to buy a ticket on the train. The conductor spoke no English, and I of course can only say “good afternoon” and “Thank you” and “yes” and “no” and the “F word” in Polish. Yes, I need to add a few more words to my vocabulary. So the young, blond woman has so far acted as my interpreter and my bodyguard. She helped me buy my train ticket, interpreting for me and the conductor. Then when some guy opened the compartment to our cabin and asked “Are you English?” and “Do you have some money for me?”, the young woman said a few choice words to him that included the “F word” and “Thank you.” That much I understood. The guy shut the door and left. And my defender returned to reading her book. That’s the one thing about traveling in some places. People come to your help and sometimes when necessary, to your defense. They see it as their duty to help. The good in people comes through. For instance, I am now the proud owner of a winter coat. I didn’t pack one because I thought I could just wear layers of clothing and be warm enough. But all along the way in Poland, friends and strangers kept offering to get me a coat, even as I stated and restated that I was plenty warm with what I was wearing, and even as the temperatures dipped way below freezing. My layered look apparently didn’t look warm enough for winter, and so the offers for a winter coat. And so now I have one, thanks to Michal and Ana. Ana, who drove me to the train station, brought it to me as a gift. “If you’re going to stay in Poland you need a winter coat” she said. Cool. People can be generous and so cool and come to your aid even if you don’t think you need it. I had the situation under control – I think – with the train panhandler, but the young woman had the language knowledge and finesse to tell that guy to piss off. He got the message quick. As I am now in Gdansk, where I will be spending the  month of January and part of February working at the Mamas & Papas Hostel, I left Tlen content to have so many friends across Poland: Michal, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Kamila, Karolina, Kamil, Kasia, Ada, Mama, Papa, Mateusz, Martyna, Allan, Kasper, Monika, and the feisty young blond woman on the train. Her name is…Mystery.

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

 

 

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