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Riding the Hangzhou Express

China’s latest high speed train prepares to depart Shanghai.

by John Robinson

The three gray-suited workers hover like bees over the gracefully-shaped nose of the most beautiful train I have ever seen. OK, so I am a hillbilly at heart but still, not only is it reminiscent of a supersonic aircraft, but even more so like an intergalactic spacecraft. The men lean across the sensuous shape, their reach extended by aluminum booms, and enthusiastically remove every spec of dirt. Slack-jawed tourist that I am, I snap some photos and board the train. Next stop: Hangzhou.

There is no conductor slowly making his way down the aisle punching some antiquated data terminal; all seats are assigned automatically in the ticketing process, and access to the platform, and thence to one’s assigned carriage and seat, is totally controlled. Automatic scanners confirm and check as one makes their way to their seat. The flow of passengers is amazingly smooth and orderly. I’m soon ensconced in my comfy seat, next to a Chinese businessman who politely hides behind his newspaper, coming out to grin at me now and then.

An hour ago I arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao rail station, and was taken aback by both the scale of the place –large enough to have its own weather systems I’m sure- and its beauty; the design and its execution. Video screens six stories tall show constant footage of what I assume to be China at her best, and equally expansive timetable screens clearly display all pertinent information about the trains’ comings and goings. As a proud American I was more than a bit humbled, a feeling which continues to dog me on this trip.

I barely detect movement when the train pulls out of the station; I see the world through the windows accelerate. This is a non-stop train to Hangzhou, an ancient city known for its beautiful lake, green hills, and Buddhist temples. Since this svelt transporter moves at 345 km per hour we arrive there in less than 30 minutes. That’s 100 miles at 214 miles per hour. “Oh yeah, we do this all the time back home,” is the spirit I want to convey to my silent, grinning seatmate, but I come up short.

The entire 175km line to Hangzhou is elevated on graceful concrete piers, seventeen meters above the flat, uninspiring plains of the Yangzi river delta. On this day a thick haze blankets the region, and we fly by industrial complexes which feature dull and lifeless architecture. Farm plots nestle amid the industry, and occasional clusters of apartment towers rise abruptly in the haze. The rail line crosses and parallels stretches of multilane highway, much of it under construction. There’s plenty of traffic, its pace sedate compared to this rocket on rails.

Arriving in the ancient city I finally swim away from the frenetic scene which is the Hangzhou rail station, and armed with street map and compass I make my way to Hangzhou’s pride and joy: West Lake.

The willow trees sway in the soft breeze, and the 600-year-old Su Causeway stretches invitingly across the lake, dreamily disappearing into the fog. Walking across the lake on a path on this thin strip of land, I’m enchanted by the meditative feel of the place. Across the lake, I climb the forested hills and pause on an outcropping of rock, overlooking the Yue Fei Temple and the lake below.

Hangzhou has been here a while, at least since the Qin dynasty of 221 BC. Marco Polo passed through here in the 13th century and described it as one of the most splendid cities in the world. One thing responsible for Hangzhou’s enduring fame is its position as the southern terminus of the Grand Canal. This 7th century engineering feat links the Yangzi and the Yellow River basins via an 1800km-long canal. This astonishing feat is still unmatched in many ways, the canal still being the longest in the world. Today, Chinese tourists, and a few foreigners, come to Hangzhou in droves to stroll the causeway and shores of West Lake and to visit the city’s traditional Chinese gardens of timeless design and meticulous upkeep.

Later, I’m strolling the pleasing paths of one such garden, Yuyuan Zin. I lean over the railing of a half-moon footbridge and stare mesmerized at hundreds of lily blossoms in the water below. On each side of the bridge, Peach and Plum trees overhang the rippling pool. Their foliage sighs in the afternoon zephyr, and I feel the centuries-old, calming ambiance.

Hoofing it back to the rail station, I’m munching street food –dumplings- and it quite hits the spot. Soon I’m in my seat on the train and underway to Shanghai. As I gaze at the landscape speeding by as night falls on the Yangzi plains I think of what a brash American businessman told me a few days previous, in a conversation about the high speed rail system. “We could never do that in the United States,” he stated flatly, ”due to all the hassle with lawsuits over property rights, and our not-in-my-backyard attitudes.”  Hmmmm, I wondered. I hope he’s wrong about that. “Anyway,” he added with a hearty laugh, “When China wants to do something she just does it!”

Traveling beyond familiar surroundings always stretches one’s patterns of thinking, and for me, this foray into mainland China is no exception. It’s good for me, I know. But as I make my way through Shanghai’s French Concession, far below the bright colored lights of the skyscrapers around People’s Square, I’m feeling just a bit of something I haven’t felt in a while: homesick. As much as I love to travel, there are times when I wish there was a high-speed train heading in that direction.

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