By train to Euston

The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.

Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.

China by train

From Guangxhou to Guilin by bullet train

Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place.  It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations.  It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport.  It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.

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This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts.  The  floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere.  There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.

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It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.

All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict.  Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were.  Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage.  Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names.  But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID.  Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here.  We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure,  The train had already swept in.

The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945.  A similar thing is happening in China.  Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”

Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About 1,000 miles a day?

It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding.  How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time.  And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China.  The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms.  The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.

Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin.  Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph.  The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.

We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.

We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon.  We  got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.

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To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie

Onwards: another city, another railway station.  This one is different; older, more prosaic.  The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous.  This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.

In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes.  I say “enjoying”.  My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each.  I found the massage a bit heavy handed.

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By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of.  Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes.  That said, the train did arrive early.  As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…

Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China.  Here is the railway station:

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We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop.  We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi.  The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off.  The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment.  More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room.  Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat.  Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.

The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late.  “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down.  Our  tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed.  The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.

 

From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey

Day 1 – 13/8

An OK flight across the pond with friendly stewardesses, though I was a little put out to find ourselves on such a long-haul journey in a distinctly elderly 757 with little in the way of amenities. We got through NWC easily enough, picked up our luggage, and went outside. We found that a cab into town was the best and easiest bet, and were soon our way. The start of our American journey, from the airport to downtown New York, was marked by a transit of the Lincoln Tunnel.

We settled into our hotel, which was nice but not spacious, and then, tired, we went for a walk in Central Park and on to the Guggenheim. Then, back round the lake to Columbus Avenue, where we found ourselves a Tex-Mex restaurant for our evening meal. We retired tired and happy.

Day 2 – 14/8

Breakfast at a nice little diner – “Jackson Hole” – on Columbus Avenue. Weather fair but a little hazy. Then by Subway down to the Battery Park. Getting subway tickets was moderately stressful. In hot, hot weather, out by boat to the island on which the Statue of Liberty stands. We cannot go up it – one has to book months in advance for that privilege. Some pleasant moments sat in the shade on nice garden chairs, then a hot boat ride back to the city. Then we walked through streets to the Southport Museum, an entire historical area, and had a late lunch there. After that more walking, up to Chinatown. At this point we can see a storm developing.

We did some shopping in Chinatown as the storm brewed, and at last it broke. We hid from the pouring rain of late afternoon in an ice-cream parlour-cum-Tea shop in Chinattown. A local lady recommended a nearby restaurant but it was too early for dinner. After the rain we walked our legs to stumps round the Italian quarter, before retreating by subway to 34th Street – where as evening wore on, we found the rain returning,. We considered going up the Empire State Building, but the deck was closed owing to lightning.

Tired, very tired now, and not a little jet-lagged, we retreated to 81st and Broadway to go back to the hotel. Following the subway ride the rain returned with a vengeance, and we walked the blocks back to the hotel getting very wet. Later we went out briefly for pizza, but it tasted like cardboard, at that late stage – a long first day.

Day 3 – 15/8

Breakfast at the same nice little diner on Columbus Avenue. Thence to the Empire State Building, and up to the top. We noted that military personnel in uniform get a 100% discount – and rightly so. There were long hidden queues amidst the Art Deco architecture. At the top it was gloomy and there was not great visibility.

My wife went down again first and we could not find her. After some effort we found her  Then there was  Shopping in Macy’s, and a quick lunch of pretzels. Back to the hotel, we got our luggage and order ed another cab, which came late. We took this cab to Penn Station, and jumped on the LIRR out to Northport – a big double-decker diesel train with a guard who had a nice line in pleasant wit.

At Northport my wife’s close friend D was waiting for us. Once we were eatablished at their place with food and beer, we could relax, for we were tired. Later, to the motel for bed.

Day 4 – Saturday 16/8

J, D’s husband, picked us up from the motel and on the way to  their place bought a massive bag of bagels for breakfast. Then we relaxed, and after some while, myself and the male children went to the “private beach”, a mile or so from their house, on the North, Long Island Sound coast of the island. We combed and explored for a while. We walked through, over very hot sand, to the public part of the beach, and from there were picked up by J who by this time was out looking for us. We had some lunch, and then to Northport for a little shopping. It was very hot. Later we went for a pleasant two-families walk in the woods.  And later on the evening, good food, drink and chat. Can one ask for more of a holiday than good food, drink and chat?

Day 5 – Sunday 17/8

After another bagel breakfast we set off in two cars to “the ocean”, this time on the south (Atlantic) coast of Long Island. We went to Robert Moses State Park. There was very heavy traffic on the causeway owing to an accident; we arrived at the beach a good 45 minutes ahead of the females in the other car. We sunbathed and swam; it was a steeply shelving beach. However, there were jellyfish stings which kept us out of the water too much. We had a nice lunch of sandwiches and beer and crisps, and retreated mid-afternoon back to Northport. Supper at home was a huge buffet of everything. After supper, to Huntington in the cool of the evening for ice-cream and we all looked in a huge bookshop, and I bought a history book – “The Great West”.

Day 6 – 18/8

All our luggage back into the car and back to the station for our long train journey. It was a promising morning. At Penn we bought sandwiches for our lunch, and my son and I nearly caused us to miss the train as the deli stand took their time preparing ours – they were serious American sandwiches!

Once ensconced in first class we enjoyed our ride up the Hudson Valley, watching the glorious scenery slide by. As the journey progressed, we played cards, read and so forth, but a ten hour train journey will be subject to creeping boredom. A younger family should not contemplate such a train journey.

The train was running late, as was to be expected – on this railway the passenger trains are subordinate to the freight trains, and the whole affair feels rather like British Rail in the mid-70’s. The train reversed into Niagara, which was odd, as we became the front coach as it edged down the single track with the guard and driver standing in the end of the coach as the train backed down.

By cab to our B+B, which was lovely, although it was very late and mine hostess, a lady called Louise, was very talkative indeed.

Day 7 – 19/8

Today we did the tourist thing and visited Niagara, went on the Maid of the Mists, went to the Cave of the Winds. I have to say I was impressed with the power and grandeur of Niagara and would recommend it to anyone with 24 hours to spare on the East coast.

 Day 8 – 20/8

To the airport by cab. We accidently left a small knife in hand luggage; this was detected by the officials who took us to one side. My son – whose knife it was – was distraught. I filled in forms and made my apologies – it was a narrow escape. We’d not have got off so lightly at a big city airport.  I checked the bag in., and the flight was delayed; as a result we missed the connection to Phoenix by five minutes. We were all very cross. We got the Continental people to put us on another fight, after long delay, down to Charlotte. Then on with US Airways to Phoenix, whence we arrived 10pm, very tired and worn. Our luggage was ostensibly lost – but in fact it was “in another terminal” so that was a good aspect to a long and wearing day. Domestic aviation in the USA a -nightmare.

We obtained a rental vehicle – after a few changes, as the first one was not big enough – and set off on our long drive in the dark up to Flagstaff. We stayed at the Inn at 410, which was recommended by my boss  who had stayed there previously It was a wonderful place,  but it was very late – long after 1a.m – so we did the place no justice.

Day 9 – 21/8

A pleasant start with a nice breakfast and conversation with the owner of the Inn at 410 – an Englishman. Then a slightly more relaxing drive through some volcano country and on into the Grand Canyon national park to the South Rim. On the way we stopped at some Indian ruins, which  my oldest daughter thought were “uber cool”. All day, it was hot, damn hot, and it was an intensely dry heat that catches the nostrils.

At the canyon we found our hotel and went for a walk down into the canyon a little ways. A pleasant end to the day.

Day 10  – 22/8

Our trip to the Grand Canyon over, we checked out and started out on our long drive through to Moab, Utah, for which I had allowed two full days. We started with a  leisured drive back along the South Rim with frequent photo stops, before turning north through Tuba City into the lands of the Navajo nation. Interesting driving, but with some very tedious sections. Our day came to a fine climax with a visit to Monument Valley, which was glorious in late afternoon. Shame there was not time for a drive round the valley itself. Thence, onwards through remarkable scenery to a little village called Bluff, Utah. We stayed at the Decker House Inn, which was excellent and very cheap. Steak at a nice steakhouse on the main road. The steak, surprisingly enough, was indifferent.

Day 11  – Saturday 23/8

An excellent breakfast taken outside was followed by a leisurely onward drive through more astonishing scenery, and then gravel plains and tedium, to the area around Moab, Utah. We stopped at the Newspaper Rock, which was interesting enough, and a lady told us that there were “Bandidos” in Moab.

After lunch at a place called the “Hole in the Rock”, we rolled into Moab late afternoon, and sure enough the place was full of motorcycle gangsters. Also it was full of City, County and State police, even the FBI were there, all in heavy presence.

We checked in at the hotel, and with Tag-a-long tours, and then went to do some laundry, which was well overdue. We had some pleasant chats with various folk, including an amateur racing driver. We swung past at outdoor shop at my wife’s suggestion on the way back, and this proved to be the most remarkable place – we bought a brushed steel cafetiere for the Scout Group. Later we went for an Italian meal which was nice.

Day 12  – Sunday 24/8

After our concerns during the night about Bandidos (the internal phone system in the hotel was not working – the kids were effectively on their own – two teenage white girls at that!) we readied ourselves for setting off for the raft trip – an early start at 7a.m  from the offices of Tag-a-long which were next to the hotel.

We took an old school bus, painted white, down the river some miles, past a mine of some kind connected to the wider world by a railway line, and stopped at a wide beach, where it was announced that this was our last chance for a wee in a toilet.

Then we slid down the river pleasantly.

Day 13  – Monday 25/8

Rafting

Day 14  – 26/8

Rafting, with rapids from mid-afternoon.

My son, after my wife had got herself bounced around the raft in one of the early rapids, did not take well to the rapids and became completely hysterical, concerned primarily that his mum would be thrown from the raft to her premature and untimely doom. Our attempts to mollify his concern were not in any way successful, and I had to be quite hard on him to get him to calm down.

Day 15  – 27/8

More rapids, and then the cruise out into Lake Powell.

We left the rafts around 3pm, and set off in the heat for a monumental drive of hundreds of miles east to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We arrived at Glenwood Springs around 10pm, and only with some difficulty did we find the Red Rooster Inn, which was up in the hills some way up the Aspen valley. But what a place!

I found out the hard way (the experiment had to be done) what my dear wife thinks of five days growth of beard. It came off the following morning.

Day 16  – 28/8

What a view from the head of the bed – startling and beautiful. We had a relaxing day at the Red Rooster Inn and later in Glenwood Springs, and spent time in the hot springs swimming pool, which was rather expensive. Then, a scratch supper bought from a supermarket, and so to bed. My plan that we would need a relaxing day at the end of our busy holiday came to full fruition, and it was good.

Day 17  – 29/8

A pleasant drive up the valley, with a stop at expensive Aspen, and then up over Independence Pass. Some wonderful scenery as we motored through the Rocky Mountains and on down onto towards Denver. Here there was a tunnel that marked the end of our holiday, even as the start of the holiday was marked by the Lincoln Tunnel. We made our descent east to Denver through the Eisenhower Tunnel (strictly speaking the eastbound bore on I-70 is the Johnson Tunnel – but Eisenhower sounds better, because then the story of our American holiday can be said to be “From Lincoln to Eisenhower – an American journey”.)

Day 18 – 30/8

We stopped that night at a Hyatt Place near the airport, and flew off to Houston and thence Gatwick the following day. I found myself reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand in the front seat of a 737, even as Democrat after Democrat walked past me boarding the plane (the Democrat annual conference finished the day before in Denver.) Personally I found that juxtaposition interesting, but no Democrats noticed my choice of reading material.