China by Train: An Epic or Fantasy

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China is vast and that becomes most palpable when speeding through the country on a bullet train. Mega-cities and modern industrial zones flash endlessly past my window at 300kmh.
But the country’s high-speed-rail network – the world’s longest at 30,000km this year and counting – also conveys an intimate portrait of the nation. Like me, the traveler can plan forays into little water towns such as Wuzhen or the oldest existing section of the Great Wall in Jinan.
While the train network is all about on-the-dot schedules, it also empowers free spirits.
Towards the end of our week-long trip, The Straits Times’ executive multimedia videographer Ashleigh Sim and I decide to go off-plan and see how far the rail network can take us.
Rolling into the lesser-known Chinese city of Dandong to peer into North Korea turns out to be an easy day trip from Shenyang. On our 2,000km journey northwards from Shanghai to Dandong, China feels at once ancient and cool.
In Jinan, a hipster cat cafe favoured by sullen, artsy millennials sits by a spring-fed canal in Qushuiting Street, where scholar-bureaucrats once composed poetry with trays of alcohol wafting on the water. In Shenyang, a Manchu palace complex with a faded glory is streets away from sleek skyscrapers with over-the-top illumination at night. Such contrasting facets of China are heightened when superfast trains zip us from one experience to the next on a multi-city itinerary.
Like Venice, China has towns built on intricate canal systems. We spend a day in Wuzhen, one of the pretty water towns in the triangle formed by fabled cities Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. Wuzhen, at 1,300 years old, is a glimpse of Old China with its arched stone bridges and step-into-the-past experiences – a flower-drum street opera that depicts rural life and a niche Hundred-Bed Museum of antique beds, for instance. Twice a day, on a lofty, swaying bamboo pole high above the water, an acrobat rivets tourists with terrifying stunts. It is far more serene to walk under indigo banners that evoke a period-drama scene at a dye workshop.
Coolness also abounds in a wedding museum perfect for Instagram, boutique hotels and small, soulful bars by the water. Jinan, a city of natural springs, is another portrait of cool China.
We go up the Thousand Buddha Mountain by cable car, then on foot for a view of modern Jinan. Better still, we whoosh down the foliage-clad hill in a luge, a fun ride of six minutes for me but less for speedsters. The hill has Buddha statues from the Sui dynasty (581 to 618) carved into the cliffs by devotees, while newer sculptures are planted along a paved trail.
China loves its QR codes. Even at the millennia-old Black Tiger Spring – so named because the small natural spring roars out from dark rock – I scan a QR code to activate a bronze sculpture. Spring water duly pours out and I sip. Also whimsical is Kuanhouli Street, an enclave of indie shops, bars and hip hawker stalls. Mainly, it is where locals go for a walking feast under the night sky. Savour volcanic or spicy barbecued squid, mini sushi, innards in hot broth, stinky tofu doused in mala sauce, traditional donkey dumplings, Italian desserts, trendy yogurt drinks, Thai tea and more.
It is fun to observe young Chinese enjoying old-school street snacks, from grilled pig’s tail to braised trotters. Kuanhouli is playful, affordable, global, retro and local – a winsome combination for visitors. Outside Jinan, the Great Wall of Qi is the oldest remnant of the fortification. The Qi state started building this section in 685BC. What remains are piles of stones that seem unremarkable, but poignantly carry the story of China’s past. I think about its wars and nomadic invasions, and the longevity of this civilisation.
Entering Shenyang at twilight, the north-eastern city feels like a different China, with its Manchurian legacy and blend of Korean, Japanese and Russian influences. The Mukden Palace, built in the image of the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1626, is the only remaining Manchu palace complex in the world. It is like a city with smaller palaces, a multitude of pavilions and a library. There are courtyards, gardens and passageways for a bit of respite from the summer crowd at the Unesco World Heritage Site.
There is a sense of grander days. Royal concubines liked tea tasting, calligraphy and dressing up – glazed crockery, fine hair combs and gems on display allude to a languorous lifestyle. Dwelling in China’s north-east is a huge Korean diaspora. It includes the descendants of Koreans who fled to China after the 1910 Japanese Occupation. Now, North Koreans also work here. Xita Street is a fusion experience of the two Koreas, where Pyongyang pomp meets K-pop.
In Pingrang Guan (Pyongyang Restaurant), spirited North Korean waitresses in high heels speak flawless Mandarin as they serve our flavorful lunch that includes cold noodles in a sweet-sour sauce and fresh cabbage kimchi. Our server ushers us to a quieter spot, away from karaoke warblers.
My English is powerful, she decides. But it is unreal to view what is on television in the dated, chandelier-lit space. Scenes of military splendor roll repeatedly across the screen.

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