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Romantic Train Journey in China??? (Part1)

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orientexpress1There’s a certain romance attached to train travel, an elegance associated with sleeper and dining cars. Think Some Like it Hot, or Murder on the Orient Express, or any of a dozen screwball comedies starring Cary Grant or Kathryn Hepburn. Though I’ve travelled extensively in Europe, the US and Asia, I’d never had the chance to experience it myself.

Until my trip to China. As part of the pre-arranged tour, we were to travel from Beijing to Xian on an overnight train – going ‘soft’ class all the way. I envisioned rich oriental furnishings, sumptuous delicacies served in the dining car and impeccable service from well-trained porters. I couldn’t wait!

We had a hectic final day in Beijing – the Great Wall, a rickshaw ride through a hutong (traditional high-density housing), followed by a visit to a local home and finally dinner. Our train was scheduled to leave at eight in the evening. During dinner our guide, Eric, told us there was going to be a change. As it was the start of the Golden Week (May 1st), one of two weeks a year, when most of the Chinese go on holiday. Over half a billion people on the move – and some official had forgotten to book something. Our train had been requisitioned by the government. The whole train. Eric had known this might happen the day before, but forgot to tell us since he had let the other passengers know during dinner, but we had gone out with a friend of a friend. We had packed the minimum we had previously been instructed – pyjamas and toiletries for overnight. Oh well, things happen. Our bags were already gone, so it was too late to grab a change of clothes.

After whiling the evening away in a hotel bar, the group headed for the Beijing train station. On the bus, we were each given a plastic grocery bag. Inside we found several packets of Chinese noodles, candy bars, tea bags, crackers and assorted other junk food. Eric advised that the food available on the train wasn’t very nice and probably not safe for us to eat. Uh oh.

beijingtrain-beijngstationThe bus dropped us off about a kilometre from the station. I did not take this photo, as we arrived about 11 at night. But it looked like half the city was in flight, refugees in a makeshift camp. The entire grounds were densely packed with people camping out, hoping to get a train out of town. We picked our way through thousands of families in sleeping bags, a week’s worth of travel gear stacked up around them, huddled together to keep safe and warm. We struggled to keep up, trying not to get separated from the group. Once inside, our guides navigated us through the teeming hordes (yes, hordes, and you have never seen such teeming!) With our tickets finally guaranteed, we made our way to the soft class lounge – standing room only – where we waited another hour. Our guide then informed us that the train we would be taking was not an express like the original train, so instead of a 12 hour trip, it would take 17 hours to reach Xian. Uh oh.

beijing-train-station-0As we approached the platform, my visions of rich upholstery and polished porters vanished. ‘Soft’ class meant we had inch-thick mattresses and would be joined in our compartment by only 2 other people. Fortunately, it was an Australian couple from our group. A French woman travelling solo with another group refused to bunk with three Chinese women and shrieked and wailed for what seemed like hours and finally slept on the floor in the narrow filthy corridor.

Our compartment was too small to call a cabin. The berths were barely two feet wide. The lowers were at a fine level, suitable for sitting. But the uppers were about six feet up and there was no ladder. You had to use rock-climbing techniques and scale the wall, fitting your feet into little ledges about 2 inches deep to get leverage. Since my husband has a bit of arthritis, he couldn’t climb up there, leaving it to me. I am not a small, spry woman – you would never take me for the rock climbing type. I couldn’t manage it on my own, not even with my husband pushing froxian-train-soft-classm behind. Alas, it required two men, profound humiliation and vows to never eat again to get me up there. No chance of a quick whizz in the middle of the night.

Once up I realised I had to lie flat. If I curled onto my side and the train came to a sudden stop, the tiny railing would surely break loose and I would roll off. Thank goodness I’m not taller.  At 5’6″ my head and feet touched the walls. Surely I could get to sleep. I was deeply exhausted… And tomorrow would bring more adventures – I was sure…

Stay tuned for part deux…

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

02/04/2010 at 7:41 am

Posted in Writing

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Waitakere Rainforest Express

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190709RainforestExp51Too often we overlook our local Roadside Attractions – leaving them to the tourists, school groups and… in this case our local Photographic Society to organise an expedition. For years I’ve been meaning to ride the Watercare Rainforest Express through the Waitakeres. It departs virtually on my doorstep, from Scenic Drive in Titirangi but year in and year out, we haven’t gotten to it – until today.

190709RainforestExp45No matter, soon we were lined up, given the safety lecture – keep those heads and limbs in the train and no throwing rubbish off the train. Yip, yip – got that. There was a bit about controlling children, but we didn’t bring any, so no worries there.

The Rainforest Express is a narrow gauge rail, built to help construct the Upper Nihotupu Dam, which forms the Upper Nihotupu REservoir which provides 6% of Auckland’s water. This water, propelled by gravity, flows down an iron pipeline that runs alongside the train. Built in the early 20th century, the train is still used to maintain the dam and the pipeline. It’s been making Sunday excursions with passengers since the 80’s.

The day dawned a typical winter day in the Waitakeres – blustery, cold-ish, bits of clearing, occasional sun, occasional downpour – dress for everything and hope for the best. I wore lots of layers.

190709RainforestExp04We settled into our seats, discovering our knees were in a jumble and needed to be freed – a bigger task than you would have expected, but soon, we were on our way, with the train chugging up hill, something slower than it’s maximum 17 kpm. Still, it was a bit of a blur.

We were straight into a 400 metre long tunnel. There were ten of them on the trip – all carved at at the turn of the century – with pick and ax – no drilling equipment. They are quite small, room for the train and the pipe carrying that 6% of Auckland’s water and not much more.

190709RainforestExp09Soon we were in the midst of the densest bush you could imagine. At times, most of the time even, it is very dark, little light manages to penetrate the canopy of manukas, kanukas, rimu and young kauris’. But from time to time there is a break, and you can feel the intensity with which things grow and rot and overgrow in the bush. It is always cool or cold there.

Every year foolish trampers are caught unaware and unprepared. One of those things that baffles me – the bush does not feign benign-ness.

190709RainforestExp18The vast majority of kauri trees were cut down between the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s. There are few giants left, and it is such a delight to see young ‘mature’ trees breaking free of the canopy. These were too young for those loggers to bother with, finally coming into their own.

Kauris can reach heights of 50 metres diameters of 5 metres or more – and live for over 1000 years. While there are numerous varieties of the species, the “Kauri” only grows in the northern part of the north island in New Zealand. These days they are very protected. There’s one growing perilously close to my house… I’m hoping it gives me a little space for a few more years. I am sure it will be there centuries after I am gone.

190709RainforestExp22We continued through the bush until we arrived at Quinn’s Viaduct. This was quite impressive – 18 metres above the rushing stream. It’s only rushing this time of year. In the summer, there might be a slow gurgle, or nothing at all.

I was completely fascinated by the network of ladders and walkways that seemed to vanish into the bush.

The path along the track was littered by history – a coal bin – though no coal was ever taken out of the Waitakeres, replacement parts from the odd ‘explosion’ of the waterline – and the exploded bits.

There were also numerous train tracks that disappeared into the bush, some still in use, others left to decay.

190709RainforestExp26We reached a clearing, filled with construction gear and a few picnic tables. 700 metres up a rocky road, was the Upper Nihotupu Dam.

The spill was breathtaking! And only happens during winter. In the summer there is so little rain, the reservoir levels drop – but today, it was full to overflowing.

Invigorating – the wind was fierce – and a little bit scary as you walked along the dam.

190709RainforestExp35I wished I had enough time to climb down and explore the waterfall below.

190709RainforestExp36Whilst on the other side of the dam, the reservoir is a whole different world.

190709RainforestExp41But soon it was time to go. The sun sets early in the winter – and the last shot of the day was from inside the little train – a lonely ponga against a deepening sky.

190709RainforestExp49For more information on the Waitakere Rainforest Express, or if you think you might give it a go yourself, click here, for the Watercare website on the train trip, where you can find booking information.

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

20/07/2009 at 12:56 am

All My Trains (Chinese train part 3)

with 4 comments

Previously on Trains of Our Lives, our fair heroine (me) survived a death-defying descent from the upper berth of her miniscule train compartment. She has just made it through a trip to the filthiest loo on five continents.

x-ointmentx-hemx-pads1

Today’s episode is once again brought to you by haemorrhoid cream, incontinence pads and of course, ointment – because what is life without a good, all-purpose ointment?

Back in the compartment, my cohabitants had awakened. The other couple, after hearing my tale of woe regarding the western toilet in this car, with the wailing French woman providing back-up, went in search of something possibly cleaner in another. My spouse merely went to the Chinese toilet in our car, being male and therefore able to point rather than sit.

A porter arrived with a flask of boiling hot water and we made ourselves a breakfast of ramen noodles, tea and a small Mars Bar. Sated, we dressed and set out to explored the train.

We passed through a dozen cars like ours, a very narrow corridor with a dozen or so compartments opening off it. I peered inside some of the open doors and saw as many as eight people crowded into a compartment that contained six berths – with no mattresses, just wooden berths that folded up to the wall when not in use. The Chinese have a reputation for inscrutability, but these families – parents, grandparents and one or two children were busy and excited – I felt a little ashamed for grumbling about my quarters.

We finally reached the dining car. It was crowded to capacity, standing room only with men smoking. The air reminded me of a 70’s New York nightclub. At the doorway, a vendor sold rice porridge and noodles, neither of which looked inviting. We bought a couple of Cokes.

nameless town

nameless town

The train rattled through interminable towns, wheat fields, coal mines and the occasional nuclear power plant, stopping every hour or so to exchange passengers.  Though we saw so much of China during our stay, this long train ride was an uncensored glimpse into ordinary life. But it was the Golden Week, there were virtually no workers in the fields . (Click thumbnails for larger views)

nuclear power

nuclear power

A passive-aggressive conflict arose between east and west – the Chinese do not care for open windows – drafts are not good Feng Shui. Westerners prefer open windows and those drafts dispersed the cigarette smoke produced by those (mostly Chinese men) who did not care for the dining car. A westerner would walk along the corridor opening all the windows. When they returned to their compartment, a Chinese would come out and close them all. I amused myself for 20 minutes observing this from the end of a corridor.

coal, everywhere coal!

coal, everywhere coal!

Every three hours or so, a porter came and cleaned the loos. This was the only time to go. I imagine there was one porter assigned to all the loos on the train and that is how long it took him to complete the task before starting all over.

China is so very beautiful. It possesses a strange quality of being veiled.

solar powered hot water

solar powered hot water

Up close, colours are almost unbearably vivid, but long before your eyeshave reached the horizon, the world has disappeared into the mist. So this vast country has the curious quality of seeming very small.

Having cultivated the land for 6000 years, every hill is a sculpture, no spot of land goes to waste. They are the most efficient people I have encountered.

mines, crops, cemetery

mines, crops, cemetery

And going back to that inscrutability – also the happiest. Nowhere else on earth are people so inclined to break into song or laugh so freely. They can find the humour in almost anything. And despite some of the hardships, are truly appreciative of what they have. I spoke with a few people old enough to remember the days of the Cultural Revolution, though not many of my generation speak English, but those I talked to wanted to tell me about it, and that things are so much better now.

sculptured mountain

sculptured mountain

At 4.30, Eric our guide told us we would be arriving in Xian in half and hour, so we should pack up and be ready to disembark. We would go directly to our hotel, where we would have an hour to shower and change before our dumpling dinner and Tang Dynasty show. We packed up and once again Mother Nature called. I debated whether I could hold it for another hour – no, I couldn’t.

Xian train station - at last!

Xian train station - at last!

The loo was nearly as bad as my morning nightmare. I pulled down my pants and positioned myself again so no part of my body came into contact with the toilet. When I stood up, I realised something was terribly wrong – my pants were soaking wet. In my attempt to avoid the seat, I had leaned too far forward and missed it completely. I did not have a change of clothes with me. Using all my entire roll of toilet paper, I sopped up as much as I could and returned to the compartment just as we pulled into Xian. One long, hot, stinky, soggy-bottomed trip to our hotel – and this nightmare was over.

For me – the romance of overnight train travel is ended for life. Strictly day trips from here on out!

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

08/03/2009 at 2:15 pm

Trains of our Lives (Chinese train part 2)

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It occurs to me the saga of the train ride to Xian was so full of melodrama, angst, chance encounters, intrigues and things that weren’t what they seemed to be – it qualifies as a full-blown soap opera. Today’s episode, is therefore brought to you by your favourite haemorrhoid cream, the latest improvement in incontinence maintenance and ointment you can use on blisters, boils and baby’s bottoms.x-ointment

x-hemx-pads1

As you recall, your raconteur found herself stranded on the top bunk of a miniscule train compartment. Below her the spouse lay in the dark attempting sleep. Across the narrowest of aisles, lay two travel acquaintances, a man and woman of unusual height, who struggled to rest, folded into yoga-like contortions entirely inappropriate for sleep. I assume their breathing patterns were appropriate to get them through the night as both survived. (Unfortunately, later in the trip, the man took seriously ill and found himself in a Chinese ICU. He recovered.)

I lay there, willing myself to sleep, terrified of needing a wee (Damn! Where ARE the sponsor’s incontinence products when you need them most?) Through the flimsy compartment door, a French woman wailed and cried as she tossed and turned and was unwittingly stumbled over by night whizzers en route to the loo. The man across snored soberly. I frowned, but smiled a silent grin, knowing that when I finally wended my way to slumber, he would pay. I can outsnore a chainsaw on a good night.

Though I could swear I hadn’t slept a wink, suddenly I found myself awake. I cracked the window shade and yes, dawn was eking its way across a shimmering green landscape. My bladder notified my brain it was time to be emptied. I sat up, bumping my head on the ceiling and realised there was no way to get down. That woman who required assistance from two men to hoist herself onto that upper berth was not prepared to jump six feet to the floor, especially not on a moving train. But I probably could manage to get my feet on the table…

I flipped over and eased myself down. My feet reached the table, and as my weight came to rest, it tilted just enough to send me zooming, feet first into the lower bunk, bouncing back as I landed to catch the table’s edge square in the back, my head flopping. I  suppressed a scream and settled for a gasp. No, I was pretty sure I didn’t have whiplash. I slipped into the disposable slippers that Eric our guide had included with our food packets and entered the corridor.The French woman had passed out sometime during the night. She lay sprawled out, uncovered in her jammies. I resisted the urge to fix her blanket and made my way to the loo.

After a major clean-up!!!

After a major clean-up!!!

Jesus, Mary and all the saints preserve us! Nothing prepares you for the sight and smell of a toilet that has been used by fifty men in the middle of the night, men whose aim is undoubtedly poor in the comfort of their facilities at home. Add the rocking of the train and the disorientation of travel and it looked as if there had been some kind of contest going on all night. Who could reach highest, farthest, coat the seat, piss in the sink, on the sink? Even the mirror??? The male of the species has a lot to answer for. But there I was, with a full bladder and nowhere else to go. I’ll spare you the details for now, but squatting in such a way as to prevent any part of my body to come into contact with any surface was a yogic miracle.

Using a wad of toilet paper to open the door, I found a queue had formed, fronted by the French woman. I scurried down the corridor to my compartment as her piercing shriek bolted through the air…

Join us tomorrow, friends, for the next episode of All My Trains

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

06/03/2009 at 12:19 am

Romantic train journey in China??? (pt 1)

with 5 comments

orientexpress1There’s a certain romance attached to train travel, an elegance associated with sleeper and dining cars. Think Some Like it Hot, or Murder on the Orient Express, or any of a dozen screwball comedies starring Cary Grant or Kathryn Hepburn. Though I’ve travelled extensively in Europe, the US and Asia, I’d never had the chance to experience it myself.

Until my trip to China. As part of the pre-arranged tour, we were to travel from Beijing to Xian on an overnight train – going ‘soft’ class all the way. I envisioned rich oriental furnishings, sumptuous delicacies served in the dining car and impeccable service from well-trained porters. I couldn’t wait!

We had a hectic final day in Beijing – the Great Wall, a rickshaw ride through a hutong (traditional high-density housing), followed by a visit to a local home and finally dinner. Our train was scheduled to leave at eight in the evening. During dinner our guide, Eric, told us there was going to be a change. As it was the start of the Golden Week (May 1st), one of two weeks a year, when most of the Chinese go on holiday. Over half a billion people on the move – and some official had forgotten to book something. Our train had been requisitioned by the government. The whole train. Eric had known this might happen the day before, but forgot to tell us since he had let the other passengers know during dinner, but we had gone out with a friend of a friend. We had packed the minimum we had previously been instructed – pyjamas and toiletries for overnight. Oh well, things happen. Our bags were already gone, so it was too late to grab a change of clothes.

After whiling the evening away in a hotel bar, the group headed for the Beijing train station. On the bus, we were each given a plastic grocery bag. Inside we found several packets of Chinese noodles, candy bars, tea bags, crackers and assorted other junk food. Eric advised that the food available on the train wasn’t very nice and probably not safe for us to eat. Uh oh.

beijingtrain-beijngstationThe bus dropped us off about a kilometre from the station. I did not take this photo, as we arrived about 11 at night. But it looked like half the city was in flight, refugees in a makeshift camp. The entire grounds were densely packed with people camping out, hoping to get a train out of town. We picked our way through thousands of families in sleeping bags, a week’s worth of travel gear stacked up around them, huddled together to keep safe and warm. We struggled to keep up, trying not to get separated from the group. Once inside, our guides navigated us through the teeming hordes (yes, hordes, and you have never seen such teeming!) With our tickets finally guaranteed, we made our way to the soft class lounge – standing room only – where we waited another hour. Our guide then informed us that the train we would be taking was not an express like the original train, so instead of a 12 hour trip, it would take 17 hours to reach Xian. Uh oh.

beijing-train-station-0As we approached the platform, my visions of rich upholstery and polished porters vanished. ‘Soft’ class meant we had inch-thick mattresses and would be joined in our compartment by only 2 other people. Fortunately, it was an Australian couple from our group. A French woman travelling solo with another group refused to bunk with three Chinese women and shrieked and wailed for what seemed like hours and finally slept on the floor in the narrow filthy corridor.

Our compartment was too small to call a cabin. The berths were barely two feet wide. The lowers were at a fine level, suitable for sitting. But the uppers were about six feet up and there was no ladder. You had to use rock-climbing techniques and scale the wall, fitting your feet into little ledges about 2 inches deep to get leverage. Since my husband has a bit of arthritis, he couldn’t climb up there, leaving it to me. I am not a small, spry woman – you would never take me for the rock climbing type. I couldn’t manage it on my own, not even with my husband pushing froxian-train-soft-classm behind. Alas, it required two men, profound humiliation and vows to never eat again to get me up there. No chance of a quick whizz in the middle of the night.

Once up I realised I had to lie flat. If I curled onto my side and the train came to a sudden stop, the tiny railing would surely break loose and I would roll off. Thank goodness I’m not taller.  At 5’6″ my head and feet touched the walls. Surely I could get to sleep. I was deeply exhausted… And tomorrow would bring more adventures – I was sure…

Stay tuned for part deux…

Written by Titirangi Storyteller

04/03/2009 at 11:14 pm

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