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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 45: 8 November

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysUp at 6.15. Misty half-light over the Pearl River. To Guangzhou station for the 8.30 train to Shanghai. Through the cycle rush-hour. Only older men still favour Mao jackets. Otherwise it's Western 1950s or, amongst the young, American casual. A Turnerish sunrise spreads over the city, silhouetting the forest of TV aerials turned, despite official discouragement, in the direction of Hong Kong.

The long, elevated motorway to the station is a Western commuter's dream; almost empty at peak travel time. At the station an immense characterless building in a side square crowned with neon signs advertising Sanyo, Seiko and State Express 555s, there are few vehicles but a huge swell of people. Many are squatting in groups on the main concourse, their baggage consisting of two plastic or string bags, looped around a bamboo pole, and carried on their shoulders. They scan a state of the art dot matrix indicator for news of their train.

Ours is already at the platform, which is clean and well-swept. The eighteen coaches are green and cream painted, of chunky old-fashioned design, ridged along the outside with air vents on top. A stocky girl with a pretty face and pigtails stands, in the uniform of the railways, at the entrance to our 'Soft Class' coach. Attendants in peaked caps abound (there are fifty to serve this train). One feels that part of China's achievement has been to put as many people as possible into uniform - of any kind.

The 'Hard Class' coaches are already full, their occupants leaning from open windows to buy sandwiches, orange juice and cola, or drinking their tea from big enamel mugs. The 'Intermediate Class' have bunks, but in an open-plan arrangement, and without the homely touches of 'Soft Class' compartments, which include four berths, complete with duvets and fluffy pink cushions, a small table with an embroidered red cloth on which is set a reproduction oil lamp with cut-glass shade, and, of course, a pot plant. Lace curtains are drawn back at the window. It's very cosy, an odd mixture between a bordello and my grandmother's.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 45
  • Date: 8 November
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Guangzhou
  • Book page no: 148

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