At the Station

Apart from the trains, the other part of the Chinese railway experience that has changed recently is the stations. When I first got to China, the Beijing mainline stations were already quite natty, entrances embellished with vast architectural creations of sloping pillars and roofs. Inside, there were polished stone floors and high ceilings, electronic announcement boards announcing trains arriving and heading out to places all over the country, and gated departure halls which could only be entered by showing your ticket.

Wuchang railway station (as opposed to the one in Hankou which is also in Wuhan but on the other side of the Jiangchang river) lacked any such splendour. There was no towering gate to mark the entrance to the station; in fact, if you didn’t read Chinese, it was quite difficult to figure out where you were supposed to go. There was a single sign about a foot high attached to a lamppost which directed passengers down a small side street that turned to the left and ended in a shabby archway which was where your ticket would be inspected.

Inside it was less of polished stone and more of pitted concrete that was slightly slanted so the water that was coming down the walls could run off into the open drains. The departure boards were plastic numbers and letters that were hung from nails hammered into a chipped and well worn board; any problems or delays were written on a shabby whiteboard that stood at the entrance. There were no restaurants, but snacks could be purchased from a few small shops that had been hewed out of the walls.

The departure areas were cramped affairs, too many people and not enough hard backed plastic seats; no one considered trying to segregate people according to destination, there simply wasn’t enough space. Even standing up, there wasn’t enough room for everyone and when the gates opened for boarding it was a crazy free for all, with the little old ladies shoving with an energy that belied their size. It was never a straightforward to the platform either, it seemed to change each time I took a train, sometimes taking us up a temporary staircase that trembled and creaked under the combined weight of the luggage laden passengers. Other times we were led back down into the dark recesses of the station and into low ceilinged tunnels periodically lit by naked bulbs hanging from frayed wires. It wasn’t so much the dangling cables that would sometimes catch me in the face but the fact I was splashing through pools of water that could complete the circuit at any moment.

Once it was decided to build a new train station that all changed. There was the further complication that they had to keep the trains running in the old station while they erected the new one. This was achieved by transmitting some of the chaos that existed in the station to the streets that ran around the outside of the station.

One of the most confusing features was that the location of the station entrance began changing every week. Sometimes it was to the south of the old entrance, the next week it was to the north. The ticket office moved about randomly too. Then they knocked down the old highway bridge than ran past the station so they began rerouting the road. This was probably a good thing since I had often ridden over the bridge on my moped and every time I did, there was another chunk of the roadway missing and a little bit more of underlying metal infrastructure was exposed to the elements.

Dump trucks began to queue up outside the works entrance (which was generally within a few yards of the passenger entrance) to take away the first 80ft of topsoil. These would compete with articulated lorries with more wheels than I could count who would add to the confusion by bringing in large slabs of masonry or long pieces of the supporting structure for the new station. In the ensuing gridlock passengers would have to complete the remainder of the journey by foot, walking through clouds of choking dust kicked up by the construction and the exhaust from the idling trucks. Visibility was so bad it was difficult to figure out where exactly you were and you became resigned to following the shadowy outline of the person in front, edging sideways through the small gaps between dump trucks, hoping that they in turn had someone to guide them to the final destination.

The interior of the station took a turn for the worse too. The shabby departure area was demolished and passengers were directed to whatever happened to be standing that week. I once spent a long 60 minutes on a winter evening sitting in a basement construction consisting of bare concrete walls, the same naked bulbs and pools of water; the hard plastic chairs from the old waiting area lent the place an air of familiarity. But the way the construction overhead caused the ceiling to rumble and the bulbs to swing was a little unsettling. All it needed was an occasional cloud of dust to fall from the ceiling and the illusion of sitting out a bombing raid in the height of the Blitz would have been complete.

The new station was worth the wait. There was the same polished stones and elegantly curved roof, the sumptuous waste of space, ceilings so high that, if there had been somewhere for it to land, they could have wheeled in a 747 for its routine inspection. The problem was the place was soulless, there must have been thousands of seats in the place and nothing to look at except the lights in the ceilings 60ft above my head.

At least it was easy to find the place; everything in a one mile radius had been demolished so it was the only building left standing. It reminded more of a presidential palace in a dodgy regime in a Graham Greene novel rather than a functional train station, and you still had to get off on the wrong side of a six lane main road. To be fair, they had taken the trouble to build an underpass that led through a vast deserted shopping complex with nothing but a knock off 7-eleven store to give the place any sense of life.

When I went back this time the place had undergone another transformation. For one thing, the bus dropped me inside the station. Secondly, the shops were all occupied, there were restaurants, supermarkets, clothes shops and coffee shops; there were even souvenir shops, although I’m still not clear what you can buy as a memento of a trip to Wuhan. You could get a foot massage, acupuncture, dentistry and a beauty makeover. They even had a McDonalds and a KFC.

Inside, the station was bustling with activity; large family groups were sitting around on the floor with their luggage laid out in a circle to form a makeshift fort for protection against an attack from injuns. Couples were either locked in a tight embrace as they counted down the minutes to their separation or fighting it out for the entertainment of fellow travelers. Even above the general din (polished stone walls are never a good idea in a public place) I could hear raised voices from warring family factions, queue jumpers and passengers who had consumed a few too many passing the time waiting for their 3am departure.

And above all of this, they were trying to announce the departures and arrivals. It was a miracle I got on the right train.

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One Response to “At the Station”

  1. janh1 Says:

    Souvenirs? Bet you can get a stick of rock at the National Stone Museum.

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