The first time I saw a train was in Senegal. It was around 2005. I had gone there for a summer holiday to a friend of my dad’s. It was an old train; it’s probably still there. Nothing is old in Africa. Almost every morning I’d wake up early and stroll to the railway just to see the train pass. When it horned, you’d think it was Judgement Day. It had a piercing sound. Credit to Senegal for having a train. We don’t have a train in The Gambia. We’ve never even been promised for it with all our efforts to attract foreign aid. In Senegal, I mostly focused on the train itself. I was seeing it for the first time, so other things weren’t as important. In China, since I have seen trains so many times after Senegal, I tend to focus more on what’s inside the train and the railway. It requires immaculate engineering to zigzag railways with roads like spaghetti. The roads as straight as possible; the railways as alternately veering as possible. Making both work without impeding each other even the slightest is remarkable craftsmanship.
I like trains. It’s smooth. No traffic. I was excited to take a high-speed train from Beijing to Hunan province on Wednesday. On the same belt Beijing-Shijiazhuang-Zhengzhoudong-Wuhan-Yueyangdong gives any passenger the best experience. It’s a bullet with top speed of 350km/h and nature in its purest form displaying on either side. Vast agricultural lands, beautiful flowers and stunning mountains. China has land and putting it to good use. We have land in my country but we just look at it like a family heirloom. If you want to grow or build something on it, you face almighty resistance. Then the community keeps the land undeveloped and no farming either.
A railway station—at least this one—is just like an airport without planes landing or taking off. That could be the only similarity between trains and planes or airports and railway stations. A high-speed train is a different animal though. I hopped on it feeling excited. I heard about it. I saw it in pictures and movies. It was understatedly described to me. Now it’s my turn to experience it and exaggerate it to the next person. The seats are neatly arranged. Two rows; three seats on the right, two seats on the left with the aisle in the middle. Yes, just like in a plane. The first thing I observed was no seatbelt. High-speed and no seatbelt. That didn’t sit right with me but Razeen assured me it’s safe.
A plane has 2 wings that don’t move; high-speed train just glides like anaconda above the ground atop buildings. Free food and refreshment services on the plane; food is for sale on the train or you would yawn like me. It’s orderly though. Hardly any noise. The crew instruct passengers not to disturb on the train. Well, I disturbed. I was proud to have disturbed. I asked questions….on our WeChat group.
It was a smooth ride. It took us barely 5 hours. But when you’re fasting and you sit at one place for long, hunger and thirst kick in. And the food on the train didn’t help either. I watched my colleagues stroll up and down the aisle to buy food which pricked my sensibilities. The sweet aroma wafted up and pervaded the cabin. I yawned all through the journey. It’s a good thing I had a mask on. I could have just swallowed a few people like a Komodo dragon. These things supposed to be ordinary but when ordinary things become extraordinary, you stare at them. I write about them. I wanted to tell the loco pilot to stop so I could take a selfie.
Arriving at Yueyang, we checked in at Appolo Regalia, a beautiful hotel overlooking the South Lake, Nan Hu. Yueyang is a historical and cultural city with scenic decorations and beautiful people. It is over two thousand years old where distinctive spiritual legacies in Chinese culture originated. As a guy who loves literature and words, I was pleased to find out that Yueyang is also home to immortalised poets like Qu Yuan and Du Fu who have made indelible mark on Chinese literary legacy.
From the bus, we strolled around under umbrellas as the rain drizzled and the evolution of the Yueyang Tower is explained to us; from the Song to the Tang dynasties.
A brief ceremony was held at the historic tower. Addressing the gathering to kick start a six-day stay in Hunan, Mr. Liu QiFeng, the head of publicity department of Yueyang city, introduced the gathering to the historic settlement.
“As the famous saying goes, Dongting Lake is the lake of lakes and Yueyang Tower, the tower of towers under heaven. And now we are standing right here in front of the Yueyang Tower, listed as one of the Three Great Towers to the south of the Yangtze River in China, on the shore of the mighty 800-hundred-li Dongting Lake. I have to say that, on this occasion, beholding such view, it is such a great delight to meet friends of congenial minds coming from afar.
Yueyang has a sociopolitical history of over 2, 500 years, which helps bless the city with profound cultural heritage featuring famed lakes and rivers, renowned towers and mountains and influential literary works. It has been designated as a national Historical and Cultural city, a National Civilized City, Nationally Recognized Garden City and also entitled as a Model Tourist City. As is hailed by many, what beautiful mountains and rivers in Yueyang that have attracted so many visitors and is expected to invite more visits in the future,” he said.
Mr Qiu Aihua, the deputy director general of Hunan Provincial Foreign Affairs Office, also shared a few words with the visiting journalists.
“Hunan boasts of numerous scenic spots including two World Natural Heritage sites listed by UNESCO: Zhangjiajie National Forrest Park and Mt. Lang, and one World Culture Heritage, Laoshiceng. Hunan has a long history with rich cultural heritage and talented people，which made great influence in China’s modern history.
Hunan is the hometown to Chairman Mao Zedong, the main founder of New China, Communist Party of China and People’s Liberation Army of China. A group of the founding fathers of new China were born and raised in this land.
Hunan enjoys convenient transportation and an advantageous location. It ranks in the top group of provinces in terms of high-speed railways and expressways. It will take 5 hours and 30 minutes from Changsha(the capital city of Hunan) to Beijing, 5 hours from Changsha to Shanghai, 3 hours and 30 minutes to Shenzhen and Hongkong, 2 hours and 30 minutes to Guangzhou.
Hunan is famous for its manufacturing industry, with many high-tech products that lead the world, such as the fastest calculating supercomputer, the super hybrid rice and super high speed train. Industries with an output exceeding one trillion yuan are equipment manufacturing, agri-product processing and materials. Another 16 industries hold a market value of over 100 billion yuan respectively.
During this group reporting trip, you will find out the fruitful outcomes of the Yangtze River’s protection, since President Xi Jinping has entrusted Yueyang with the task of protecting the river; you will have a glimpse of the vigor and vitality of youth in Changsha, a city full of charm; you will appreciate the gorgeous mountains of South China in Chenzhou.”
Amarachi Ubani, a colleague journalist from Nigeria, spoke on behalf of the visitors, echoing the group’s excitement to feel the Hunan experience. She noted how different China is to what it is being portrayed outside.
I love Beijing. It’s the epicenter of modern China. But there’s something unique about Hunan that draws me to it like a magnet, especially Yueyang. It has beautiful places and very accommodating people. The performances in the streets to welcome us, mainly from the young people. The turtle and live fish on display. And, above all, the food. Hunan has the best cuisine in China. I stayed in Beijing for a month but it took me just few hours to know the variety of dishes and spices have no match. I rank Yueyang top already. It is the first time I ate fish in China and couldn’t distinguish it from that of my country. The weather is good and it feels more cosmopolitan. It feels like home.
Let’s see what Changsha and Chenzhou have for us. But first, we visited the Hualong wharf of the Yangtze River which has been a habitat for the endangered finless porpoises, the Junshan park, the Dongting Lake nature reserve and Liuzhamen fishing village. Read all about these places next on China Diary.