The Rain In Spain

I’m writing this while I’m sitting on a train. I don’t take the train as much as I used to, time constraints generally force me to fly, that and the fact it’s still a hassle getting a train ticket. Granted, picking up the ticket for the outward journey is straightforward, but most of the time you can’t buy the return ticket. Beijing is the exception, but even then it used to be necessary to go to the train station and join a line that you would more likely associate with diehard fans trying to get a ticket for a one off reunion concert of some ageing supergroup; on holidays it would be worse. Then there is the additional restriction that you can only buy a ticket 10 days in advance, so if you happen to be heading abroad for an extended trip, you have to try and buy your ticket forthe day of travel when you arrive back; the likelihood of a positive outcome is generally minimal.

All that changed recently. Well, some of it. In Wuhan, it is now possible to buy return tickets to ‘select’ destinations, but there is still the 10 day rule; although this sometimes changes to 7 days, or 4 days and if the armed forces happen to want to turn the 7.30 to Shenzhen into a troop train then it can be 24 hours (if at all).

I think the change came about because last year Wuhan got themselves a spanking new train station. It was part of the overhaul of the national network. Wuhan is pretty much recapturing it’s former position as the centre of railway network; it’s no surprise that the first leg of the high speed network runs from here to Guangzhou, but at 700RMB for one way, it’s not for the average person. Given that a sleeper over the same distance only costs 260RMB, it’s not for me either. The closest I’ve come to riding one is when I was walking down the track and one of them rolled by. It was gliding into the station, not honking along at full tilt so I wasn’t sucked up and unceremoniously blown back out the end, but it was still impressive how it rolled past almost silently, quite unlike the more down market trains i’ve become accustomed to.

Three and a half hours is all it takes, compared to the twelve and a little bit more that my choo choo will take. The trouble with high speed trains is that they are so boring. With comfy seats, good soundproofing and excellent suspension it’s hard to remember you are moving. The windows are often tinted too so it’s hard to see out. I’ve always thought it’s a bit like getting behind the wheel of a flash motor and then tooling up the M1 at 3 in the morning; you can go really really fast, but you only get to appreciate the ability of the car when you start accelerating into tight corners or drop it down a couple of gears to overtake a line of cars on a single lane road.

Of course, you can’t do that with a train, and I don’t think i’d really want the driver to try. One of the most exhilarating train rides i’ve taken was on the MAGLEV that runs from Shanghai PuDong International Airport to nowhere in particular on the outskirts of the city, at which point it is necessary to change to the subway to get anywhere useful. Still, it’s quite a rush when it ramps up to 430km/h on the raised track, and your brain registers the fact that the lampposts are flashing by faster than you’ve ever seen.

But, if you aren’t in any particular hurry, rattling along in dated rolling stock on an old piece of track can be just as entertaining but in a different way. There are sections of the Wuhan-Shenzhen where the driver tries to show the old girl still has got what it takes and opens up the throttle, sending shudders down the coaches as they do their old bump and grind routine. There are also places where the track disappears deep into the mountains ( I say mountains because the tunnels are so long, but since I can’t see anything beyond the rock walls, that is purely speculative.)

When I got on this evening, I was greeted with the usual wall of cold hard stares, which can always be softened into smiles and friendly greetings with a simple hello,and before you know it, fellow travelers are offering you cigarettes and glasses of strong alcohol. Mind you, most people still won’t sit on a foreigner’s bunk, preferring to cram themselves in on the one opposite.

You never know what’s going to happen on these long haul trips. Sometimes a policeman comes by and checks Ids, inevitably he warns me the train is full of thieving bastards and to watch my stuff. The carriage attendant comes by next and we have to exchange our paper ticket for a something that looks like a credit card. In the morning we change them back again. Five years back they used to give us this chunk of metal that was far more stylish; I always wanted to nick one, but was too afraid of the possible complications that might result.

For the next couple of hours there are different trolleys running up and down the corridors, selling magazines, drinks, snacks and full dinner. A more recent addition has been the introduction of men and women who work their way down the train selling tat. It’s always really weird stuff. One time a guy tried to sell me socks that, if I had understood correctly, wouldn’t get wet. Another one was selling 3D puzzles for kids which, if you possessed outstanding spatial perception, could be formed into a series of amusing shapes. Unfortunately, the kid in my rack demonstrated a complete absence of any such abilities and instead got progressively more pissed off until he started hitting his mother on the leg with it; finally, to the relief of me and my fellow travelers, she finally struck out at him and confiscated it. My favorite was a knife that didn’t need sharpening – i’m still not convinced about the wisdom of arming the passengers with budget weapons that never get blunt, nor of the safety aspects of demonstrating the abilities of a sharp object while standing on a fast moving platform that is taking unexpected lurches in any direction every minute or so. “the wonder knife – it cuts smoothly, it slices easily– oh – and it effortlessly stabs people people in the eye”

I woke in the middle of the night and so sat for a while at one of the fold down seats in the corridor and looked out the window, trying to make out the passing scenery. On a moonlit night, you can often make out hills and villages with a light or two in some of the windows. On the stopping trains, we sometimes pull into large stations that appear to be in the middle of nowhere where one or two descending passengers are replaced by a couple laden with baggage the size of a pony. A few people peer out the windows and watch this struggle between man and luggage. The train always stays for a few minutes so they have enough time to wedge it all in through the door before ti before slowly pulls out again.

I finally went back to my bunk and the intermittent shudders of the train gradually lulled me back to dreams of the Titchfield Thunderbolt and the Flying Scotsmans.

Sometime later someone blocked the toilet and it overflowed. The smell was terrible.


4 Responses to “The Rain In Spain”

  1. Pseu Says:

    I really enjoys your writing…thank you

  2. Pseu Says:


  3. cyanide bunny Says:

    i think i like the original sentence better, it has a victorian ring to it. thanks!

  4. sungypsy Says:

    Great piece of writing, easy to feel that we are on the train with you, anyone who has taken long journeys like that will get the feeling. Thanks for your comment by the way, I can see you are a true traveller. This described trip most reminded me of a long trip I did from Budapest to Krakow. than my own japanese marathon however. Japan is sometimes too efficient and too neat. There is not quite enough colour in such a journey here but I get all that from your writing, especially the comfortable voyeurism of those midnight observances when you are alone for the first time in ages.

    Will be popping back when I can.

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