Some women, when pregnant are extra careful about what they eat, where they go and every step they take. Others might choose to make a long train journey despite their bump. I am of the latter category.
Last week, V and I took the train from Hong Kong to Shanghai, a 16-18 hour ride. Granted, I didn’t embark on the journey easily. V has been wanting to do this trip for a while but I had my reservations even when I wasn’t pregnant. Like him, I used to love train travel as a kid but the two years I spent in Hyderabad and the frequent travel I did by rail as a single woman cured me of that. I had some weird experiences that robbed train travel of its charm for me.
However, the idea of travelling by train across China was tempting and having denied V last year in favour of Italy, I was loathe to do it again. In the first months of my pregnancy, it seemed impossible but as I got better, I began to give the idea more thought. I figured it was now-or-never because if travelling while pregnant was hard, it would be harder with a baby in tow. And it was clear that V really wanted to do this.
I did a fair bit of googling to ascertain other people’s experience of the train. Mainly I was concerned about the cleanliness of the loo (which I need to use more frequently these days) and the availability of food (a biggie for me!)
We bought the most expensive ticket – an AC two sleeper cabin. Much to my delight, it turned out to have its own toilet, which was clean and looked exactly like an airplane toilet (with that vacuum kind of flush). In addition to sleeper beds, the cabin also had plug points so we could connect a laptop or charge our mobiles, a safe and small TV screen (though they didn’t show anything on it).
It was really a very comfortable way to travel. I could pee as often as I wished and probably got more rest than if I had stayed put in HK. The rocking of the train lulled me to sleep easily. I was glad I had brought along plenty of food though – a huge pizza, sandwiches and fruit – because the dining car got super crowded and people were smoking there. A man came around selling meals but they didn’t look very appetizing, though V ate one. We had breakfast in the dining car the next morning though – bread, egg and coffee and it was decent. The only drawback was that the air-con stopped working properly but they fixed it somewhat after we alerted them. This is not the most scenic train route but it was still interesting to watch the villages and towns go by until darkness fell.
The stations on both sides were like airports, the HK one more than the Shanghai one. We knew we were in China proper when people started pushing their way ahead in the queue. Such is life when you’re one among a billion!
Hong Kong people tend to turn their noses up at the alleged crudeness of Mainlanders – that they push and shove, that they squat wherever they feel like sitting, that they talk loudly. These are traits that are common to Indians too, so I am more forgiving of them. I think they are a result of living in a populous country where if you don’t push to get ahead, you don’t get anywhere.
Despite the similarities in the people, in terms of development India and China are poles apart. Although the media often tends to mention them in the same breath these days, China is at least 10 years ahead of India.
Take the train we travelled in. Granted, we were in the highest class but the train itself was well maintained and clean. It left exactly on time and arrived on time. The processes at each end, which included immigration, were efficient.
Exiting the station, we joined the queue for taxis without incident. There was a uniformed guy with a whistle shouting “oi” at people or taxis that tried to cut the line who reminded me of India. But the taxi itself didn’t. It was clean and comfortable with a well-functioning meter and no grumbling or haggling on being told our destination.
The roads in Chinese cities are broad and bump-free. I thought only Beijing had broad roads but it turns out Shenzhen and Shanghai do too – generally four or five-lane roads. There are flyovers everywhere. The drivers are not as disciplined – they are happy to do abrupt u-turns – but traffic is less chaotic than in India. Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have mass transit railways that are well planned, clean and efficient although they are crowded in peak hours.
Unlike Hong Kong and India, there are plenty of places for people to sit and stare on the streets. Maybe that’s why Mainlanders in Hong Kong find themselves squatting in the streets. There are public loos all over the place and I have used them in Beijing and they are better than Indian loos.
Unlike in India, even in the most crowded areas, a woman doesn’t have to worry every moment about being felt up. I have no doubt it happens, but just not in the ubiquitous way that women in India are accustomed to.
One of the things I was warned about the Mainland is that the air-con often doesn’t work as well as one is accustomed to in HK. Granted, they really blast the air-con here but the one in our hotel room was practically non-existent. The hotel itself was a bit of a downer… apart from the air-con problem which we really had to nag them to get sorted, the room wasn’t perfectly clean when we checked in. On a positive note, the complimentary breakfast was good – a proper one with egg, sausages, Chinese options and lots of fruit.
Anyway, I landed up doing a lot more roaming around than I had thought I would be up to so we were out of the room a lot. The first day we went to Xintiandi which is this very touristy area, of boutiques and restaurants in these old buildings. There is a traditional old house called a shikumen which I wanted to see but ended up seeing an exhibition of the founding of the CNPC. I expected it to be very governmenty but it turned out to be well curated and quite interesting. I find it fascinating how countries construct their own histories though it might have helped to know who some of the figures mentioned in this case were (I was only familiar with Mao Zedong and Sun Yatsen).
We had a fabulous lunch at a place called Ye Shanghai. They have an all-you-can eat menu for a fixed price. Turns out there are branches in HK too… hehe. But the meal was reasonably priced for the quality of food and the ambience. Not sure if that will be the case in Hong Kong.
I had also read about two spas in Shanghai that came well recommended with reasonable rates. Unfortunately, the one we tried – Green Massage – was on the expensive side and no walk-in appointments were available. However, I ended up having a blissful facial at another expensive spa next door called Lotospa.
In the evening, we headed to the Bund which is the riverside of the Huangpu river. It is famous for it’s row of historic buildings in different styles. I loved it! It’s like an architecture lesson, with buildings ranging from the gothic to art deco.
V and I decided to do the cheap version of the riverside cruise and caught a ferry across the river to Pudong. The ferry ride was hardly pleasant – hot and the seats were sweat-stained – but I was entertained by the frenzy when the gates opened and we were let into the ferry. For a good five minutes, people rushed around screaming as they tried to locate the best possible seats. I wish I had a video of it.
For dinner, we went to Yunnan Street where we sampled Muslim-Chinese cuisine. Some of the yummiest skewered kebabs ever and a delicious lamb leg but the worst spinach I had ever tasted. Corners in Shanghai are dotted with kebab shops selling skewers of meat… why don’t they have this in HK?
The next day we headed down early to the Fuyuan Antique Market. Unfortunately, the shops weren’t open yet… though in retrospect we saved ourselves from accumulating more trinkets. The area has shops housed in a faux-traditional Chinese structure and the highlight is the bridge of nine turnings (said to ward of evil spirits, as they cannot negotiate the corners) leading to a tea-house in the middle of a lake.
Our next stop was Tianzifang, another trendy area but more authentic than Xintiandi because although the shop fronts are upmarket boutiques and galleries, many local people still live there. I expected more art galleries and missed out on buying some cheap but really nice home décor stuff.
I also dragged V to the art district on Moganshan Road. Unfortunately, it turned out to be rather disappointing. Instead of a vibrant art district, there were a lot of sleepy looking, albeit huge, galleries. Many of them were closed. The quality of work also varied a lot – I felt there was more generic stuff being touted as fine art. From these two districts, I feel that Beijing definitely has more of an art scene.
We ended the day with stroll down Nanjing Road which is like Shanghai’s Causeway Bay. Much of the road has been blocked off as a pedestrian area and is thronged by tourists and shoppers. By then I was rather cross and keen on dinner. Luckily we chanced upon a great restaurant on the third floor of a mall where we had cheap but delicious meal of Sichuan-style mandarin fish.
Our final day in Shanghai was spent at the Shanghai Expo. More on that in the next post.
We headed to the airport on the fastest train in the world – the Maglev line. It goes at 430 km/hr. Again one of V’s ideas… it was pretty cool, and a little scary.