>A Train Across China

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Dan Holtrop, Calvin Alum who works for U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, with Stanley.


Guangzhou from our hotel

Guangzhou from our hotel






The four of us–mothers and daughters took a train from Shanghai to Guangzhou–an 18-22 hour trip. In Guangzhou we were going to give lectures arranged by a Calvin College alum who worked for the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou.

The first challenge to doing this is buying the tickets. In China you can only buy tickets at the origin location of your trip and only shortly before you go. But we all had flown to Shanghai so we could not get the tickets before we arrived! Ruth’s niece managed to get the tickets for us while Ruth was off lecturing in China, but found that the train we wanted was sold out before the tickets went on sale. Yes, I know, that doesn’t sound possible! She got us tickets for another train that left and arrived at different stations.

Always get a soft sleeper–a compartment for four with beds with mattress, pillow and comforter and a door that closed and locked! Since there were four of us, that worked well so we didn’t have to share with anyone.

The Shanghai station was new and modern so it was easy to navigate and find our train.

We left on time around 11:30 a.m.. Soon after leaving the station, someone came and took our tickets (which were also our receipts!) and gave us little plastic tickets with our berth number on it. We tried to figure out what they were for. Ruth tried to see if they were to be used to let us in and out of our compartment if we locked it. We looked for places to post the tickets without success. In the end, we put them away in hopes that at some point their use would become evident to us.

Each compartment had a stainless steel thermos for hot water which you could get at the end of each car, and a stainless tray. Ruth and I decided to try to get tea or coffee in the dining car for an outing. After some attempts at discussion, it became clear that this was not what the dining car was for–you had to bring your own drinks. We went back to our compartment, got hot meals, fruit, and cold drinks when the vendors came down the hall selling their wares, and resorted to getting our newly acquired tea out of our bags to make our own hot drinks. Luckily we had had tea lessons in Shanghai. I think the stainless tray was for used tea leaves.

We kept ourselves quite amused by the double takes of people as they went past our compartment, especially when they saw Karis’s red hair. We were THE only westerners on the train.

It got dark around 7 pm so we went to sleep and slept relatively well. We awoke around 5:00 since the train was supposed to arrive at 5:30. However, nothing happened. We did got through some much poorer areas than around Shanghai and of course, rice fields and mountainous and very rugged areas.

At about 7 a.m. someone came buy and gave us back our tickets and took our plastic replacements. Mmmmm. Maybe this was the system they used to make sure we got off at the right station. We arrived about 30 minutes later.

The Guangzhou station that we arrived at was very old. We walked out with all our luggage into a sea of humanity, thousands of people exiting the train and moving through a cement tunnel with puddles and water on the floor–Annemaria thought it looked like a sewer. I had clear visions of the holocaust. All we could do was move with the crowd which eventually moved up a long cement ramp to a huge plaza. There far in the distance we saw one westerner with a sign with our names on it. We were easy to spot. And right there, parked illegally on the plaza, was a van with consulate license plates. From this sea of humanity, our luggage was taken from us, loaded into the van, and we were taken to a very upscale hotel.

I highly recommend the trains!

>Personal space, authoritarianism, and non-compliance

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One of the differences between China and Hong Kong is the sense of personal space. In Hong Kong, as a friend told me, people are unaware of what it going on around them–it as if they deal with the crowds by living within the shell of their small personal space. Americans, my friend told me, are more aware of what is going on around them. If Americans are aware of what is going on around them, then the Chinese in the People’s Republic have very little sense of personal space–they are not only aware, but get involved! We experiences several incidents which illustrated this.

When on our food tour of Shanghai, we visited a park where a retired doctor does calligraphy with water on the pavement. He decided to read Ruth’s palm and within seconds (and I mean seconds), a huge crowd gathered around and pushed in to hear and see what was going on. This is quite typical but is in huge contrast to Hong Kong where nobody would notice or the U.S. where it might be considered impolite. It is an interesting contrast which makes me wonder if the terribly intrusive culture of communism in China is part of this lack of sense of personal space.

Another interesting incident occurred at a street crossing. It was at rush hour so a crossing guard was present. The light turned green, but the guard did not want someone to cross over toward us. She did anyway, arguing with the guard. Pretty soon the entire crowd, of which we were in the middle, started to comment, cross the street against the guard’s desires, and continue to fuss and complain and yell at the guard for some time. Everyone got involved! And of course it was interesting to see where a crowd was going against authority, refusing to comply and yelling back.

>Markets in Shanghai

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We visited the “antiques” market, the Jiangyin Lu Bird and Flower market, the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, and a wet market (fish, vegetables, etc.), in Shanghai. The Chinese are attached to both birds and crickets as pets. Men own crickets that fight each other. Ruth ended up going home with two VERY heavy ceramic ducks for her garden that we then dragged across China and back to Hong Kong–these were the ducksters. We practices our negotiating skills.

>The Bund and other street life

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Always a reminder here and there of the status of governance in China.


Coal barge–a reminder of China’s dependence on coal-burning plants.



We arrived on the Bund about 8:30 a.m. and soon more and more people arrived just to walk along the river.






Older, classical buildings line the Bund and remain major financial corporation buildings.


Karis and Annemaria


Exercising in the parks in the morning, typical all over China and Hong Kong. We went through one park and there were many different groups–ti chi, swing dancing, fan dancing, jazz, etc. You have to walk through and around all the different collections of people.



The Pearl Tower is a symbol of Pudong–the east side of the river which was all fields until not too long ago, and Shanghai’s renaissance.



One of the most beautiful places in Shanghai is along what is called the Bund. Originally this was a towpath to pull barges of rice and it gets its name from the hindi work “band” which means an embankment. This is now a newly renovated two kilometer walkway along the Huangpu River. This river, which goes through the center of the city, empties into the Yangzi just to the north of the city. The Bund and many parks are all being spruced up and redone to make the city more livable, but also because it is the site of the World Expo which opens in May. The controversy is that the US did not have a good pavilion planned until very recently, so it was becoming quite an embarrassment.

>Edible Shanghai

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Cooking class. Karis refused to de-bone her chicken.


This is for roasting the tea at a very low temperature.


Our tea merchant and instructor on teas. After we tried a tea, the rest of the tea was pored over a three legged pottery frog on the tea table for good luck. The tea table drains to a bucket
underneath the table so water and tea can be pored right onto the frog and then in drains away.

The stems are being separated from the dried tea leaves.

One of the highlights of the tour, for me, was the visit to a tea wholesaler mall. We spent quite a bit of time in one of the stores where we were treated to a variety of teas and told about them, how to make them, and introduced to the proper way to make tea. Almost all of them were good for dieting 😉 We left with some very good tea of the varieties that we liked.


At this street vendor, you pick out the vegetables and then they cook up a soup for you.

OK–so Kentucky Fried Chicken was not on our tour, but we did see the bike delivery packs.

These were really good!


This man is making noodles. He has a thick piece of dough and all of a sudden he spins it and twists it and it turns into thin noodles. You see some of the cooked noodles we then ate.




These are a typical breakfast–think dough with egg and sauce.
Looks like dumplings, but we ate so many places, I can’t remember!

These are called Beijing pizzas.



We went on an “edible Shanghai” tour which involved trying the food of local street vendors all day long! And we finished with a cooking class. This was a great way to get a feel for the city and local hangouts.

>Shanghai

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House in the French Concession are of Shanghai


Japanese style housing






Traditional Chinese housing is constructed in blocks where stores are located on the outside of the city block and then alleys lead into the center with apartments off the alley. Often shared kitchens and washing areas are in the alley.



This is older housing that has been renovated and turned into upscale commercial use–especially western restaurants.


Traditional, lower density buildings in the midst of the newer high rises.

Here are older buildings being torn down–hopefully enough of them will be maintained to keep the historic flavor of the central city.












Individual bricks wrapped to be carried by workers.

We recently spent 3 days in Shanghai. It was an interesting contrast after being in Hong Kong for 3 months, since Shanghai is considered a very westernized Chinese city, like Hong Kong.

One of the most striking differences is that Shanghai has maintained more of its colonial/western buildings as well as more of the traditional Chinese housing. This means that its central area has regions of much lower density than Hong Kong. However, as you leave the central, older city, the newer built-up sections are all high rise buildings. Shanghai is also built on a river delta so that it is possible that high rise buildings can’t be build just anywhere because of the loose sediments that under lie much of the area.