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I forgot how utterly shit train travel in China is. Actually, I didn't forget, and it's why I tend to favor greyhounds when I can get them.
Everyone raves about the great convenience of the Chinese high speed rail network, but they forget to mention that as a foreigner you have to wait in line anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to pick up your ticket, even if you ordered it online. The ticket counters are outside the station and thanks to "cleaning out low class elements" there are no food vendors to help you multitask by eating breakfast while you wait. Coffee to go? This is China, don't make me laugh. Then you need to go through airport style security to get into the station, at which point you can enjoy food that is much worse than an airport, but the same price as an airport. (This is also where you can visit McDonalds, Starbucks or KFC for a passable coffee.) Finally you need to line up and go through security again to get on the train.
If you don't arrive at the station 1.5 hours before your departure, you run a good chance of missing the train. And if you arrive at the station without a ticket, good luck getting a seat on any train leaving same day. If you arrive in the morning, you might get one for the afternoon. If you spring for first class, you may even get one leaving within the next few hours.
This is not, at all, a convenient way to travel.
One thing trains do have going for them is toilets on the vehicle, so you won't get stuck waiting for a grody rest stop loo in the middle of nowhere. A significant plus when you are still suffering from a UTI. I suspect the (relative) cleanliness of the toilet is only a feature of bullet trains, though.
I mean, bullet trains are also fast. And you can stand up. So that's a couple more plus points that make up for the hours spent waiting at the station, if you are traveling a long way.
I am not traveling a long way. I am going to Shaoguan. Why? Just seemed like a decent stop on the map. Last city before Hunan province. According to wiki it's a Hakka city and there is a pagoda. Eating antibiotics means I probably shouldn't drink, but it might be nice to try find an outdoor dining place to ring in the new year.
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Okay I just discovered in first class they give you free water and snacks. Fish tofu (made from fish, not tofu), soy nuts, dried peach, Marie biscuits. How civilized.
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I don't think many people are heading out of the PRD for New Year's. The first class carriage emptied out after Guangzhou.
I am sure the parties in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong will beat the pants off whatever is happening in Changsha or Wuhan, from the point of view of the sorts of people who travel for NYE.
When I was an active raver we used to call the NYE crowd amateurs. Coming out to the big smoke for their one big party of the year, not able to hold their liquor, obviously out of their element around minorities, generally making the city a shitshow. Worst party night of the year. New Year's Day was when the real jams happened.
Now I am old and I'm living in a country whose clubbing scene is basically rich kids and expats or nothing, so why not head out to the country for the break?
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The scenery is my favorite. Steep, bumpy hills and the quarries cut out next to them. Eucalyptus plantations, same ones I saw in Guangxi. Not sure what they are for, perhaps paper or timber? Aquaculture pools. Here and there some postcard looking Guangdong seeps out. Bamboo. Banana tree. Cane. It's midwinter here so most of the fields have been burned or thrashed. It looks a bit grim, but there's a bit more sun peeking through here than down in the PRD.
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You walk around a city like this, you can smell stuff happening. You can smell people cooking rice and char siu. You can smell joss sticks burning. You can smell open fires.
I spoke to a stranger overlooking the pagoda. He talked to me about how English is very difficult to learn because foreigners talk too fast. Apparently I should stay here and teach him English. He said there are no foreigners in Shaoguan, so there is no opportunity to learn.
Some passing locals laughed when I said Canada in correctly accented Standard Chinese (aka Mandarin). They repeated it back and nattered on between themselves in a southern language i don't understand. Canada is annoyingly pronounced "jah-nada" in Mandarin. It's "ga-nada" in Cantonese and "ka-nada" in Hakka and Hokkien. This is one of many instances of a Chinese word that made sense when southerners created it, but when a northern language was chosen as the lingua franca, they never bothered to change the characters to suit, so now the word is no longer a phonetic representation of the foreign language it came from. I am sure i have mentioned the most egregious of these, which is taxi: "dik-see" in Cantonese, "tek-see" in Hokkien and "dee-shuh" (!) in Mandarin.
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Anyway, it's 9pm and i am about to turn into a pumpkin. My back hurts. I have been a bag of decreptitude this holiday.
I walked up and down the peninsula-like thing between the two rivers. The highlight was some back alleys filled with little shops selling mystery herbs and dried goods. There were butchers with half pigs hanging up on the street. Fruit vendors with all the usual goodies. It's citrus season at the moment, which is sad because of my peeing problem. I bought some spring onion pancake and way the fuck too much taro cake. Every time i buy pastries at a market i get way too much, because they sell per jin, which is about 500g. People had meat hanging off their balconies, drying into sausage or jerky.
There were also monks.
Dinner was a challenge. There are a spectacular amount of 甜品 tián pǐn (tongsui/dessert) shops, a few places selling meatballs and offal and char siu, and that's all she wrote. Of course there is also the usual assortment of middle class restaurants and fast food places, but the local food is very Cantonese. I ended up at a mediocre Hunan place to get home-style tofu.
There are less migrant workers here. Less young people. I mean. There are a fuckload of old people. It's really noticeable. I wonder what will happen to these cities when the old people die? Will the young people move back from the bigger cities to retire, or will these places just become ghost towns? I guess there are still a lot of peasants to urbanize.
The urbanization process is so different in these low tier towns. Out by the high speed railway station (30+ minutes from the old town, as usual) there is a bunch of new development going up. Dozens of skyscrapers in the middle of nowhere, and they're all empty. Now that i can read Chinese fairly well, it was a bit terrifying to see the propaganda out there. The party billboards are far more aggressive than in Shenzhen.
In Shenzhen, you get this bizarre Orwellian propaganda highlighting fluff terms like "patriotism" (okay), "harmony" (sure), "civility" (whatever), "freedom" (um...), "democracy" (wait, what?)
Shaoguan new town got giant red letters saying "WITHOUT THE COMMUNIST PARTY, THERE WOULD BE NO CHINA!" and "FOLLOW THE ORDERS OF THE PARTY, FOR GREAT PROSPERITY!" and "ONE PERSON WINNING IS NOT WINNING, COLLECTIVELY WINNING IS WINNING!" I know Chinese doesn't have capital letters, but if it did, trust me, these signs would be all caps.
Shaoguan old town, all that signage disappears. Odd.
The city has potential. The buildings are run down, but it's right on the fork of two solid rivers. No epic mountains close by, but some decent hills peeking through. Pagodas. Temples. Markets. I think there are some gorges and canyons further out, but without a car my chances of visiting are low. I'll see how i feel tomorrow. There is a forest park close to town where i can hike.
After that i might go to Chenzhou, which is the first city after the Nanling mountains, border of Guangdong and Hunan. It'd be cool to get a bus there, since i imagine the drive is much more picturesque than the train.
We'll see. It's nearly 2020, y'all.