We left Shenyang in north east China in -10ºC early today travelling for five hours in comparative comfort, comparable to EuroStar. Speeding through endless maize fields where the stalks were still being harvested by hand for animal fodder and fuel, and the cobs were piled in golden yellow mounds on flat-roofed dwellings, the vista could have been any century. Travelling at very high speeds, up to 300 kilometres an hour, is now a regular occurrence when we are in China. Covering such long distances 780 kilometres Shenyang to Beijing, 1,318 kilometres Beijing to Shanghai, through every conceivable weather pattern; sunshine, wind, rain, hail, snow, sand storm and sometimes all at the same time, I still find slightly disconcerting because I am reminded that the wrong sort of snow and leaves on the line can bring British Rail to a shuddering halt.
We were not the only none Chinese on the train, a handful, and all in the same carriage it’s easier to keep an eye on us that way. In order to buy a ticket we have to submit our passports, which are scanned into a computer. In major Chinese cities the stations are vast and make St Pancras and even Grand Central station in New York seem like Hornby models though the Victorian grandeur far outweighs the monolithic enormity of these polished, cavernous halls, they are none the less impressive. The Chinese are past masters at transporting vast numbers of people long distances and arriving on time and year on year the rail system improves. The new station in Shenyang is a huge improvement on the one we arrived in on our first visit to this city over 14 years ago. Then we had travelled at a snails pace on hard sleepers for over thirty nine hours overnight from Shenzhen 3152 kilometres. As we disembarked from the train, not the high speed streamlined bullet we were travelling in today, we struggled to get our precious load off the lumbersome* carriage (we were delivering the printed ‘Word’ in those days), amidst a veritable tsunami of people even more heavily encumbered, everything but the kitchen sink springs to mind.
The darkness of the night was a shock there were no stars visible Shenyang is heavily polluted. In England we are so used to extensive street lighting; in fact it constitutes pollution if you are an astronomer or if you have a street lamp just outside your home pouring light into your bedroom and disturbing your sleep. Shenyang did have street lights in those days of course but they were only at strategic points. So as we exited the station, down one set of stairs the equivalent of four flights, along serpentine tunnels, all signage in Chinese, and up a long, steep, ribbed ramp matching the height of the stairs (the ribs to make sure your wheelie case or trolley didn’t run backwards out of control and cannon into some unfortunate individual following you it would have been like skittles but messier) we had little choice but to follow the crowd, who hemmed us in on every side, hoping they were going our way. Our expressions, despite any misgivings we had, were cheerful as we tried to make the huge wheelie cases seem as light as air and also to be unconcerned that we were the centre of attention from our fellow travellers, train guards and other enforcers of security on the platform and in the station of which there seemed to be an excessive number.
15 years later China is still an extreme, raw boned country outside the prestige cities, Beijing and Shanghai. Don’t get me wrong it is definitely in the 21st century with some spectacular architectural edifices which shout the triumph of China today nip and tuck with ancient hutongs and even meaner dwellings. You may think I exaggerate but every nation builds its triumphal arches. Shenyang is one of the largest cities in China, and one of the power houses that drive the commercial engines of its financial power. It is also an ancient city in fact its history can be traced back to the ice age, its documented history is over 7,200 years. It was the Summer Capital of the Qing Dynasty and has a vast palace the equivalent of the Forbidden City in Beijing though not as grand. The Emperor is represented as a Dragon and the Empress as a Phoenix. Liaoning Province in which Shenyang is the Provincial Capital is the birth place of China as we know it. China was once known as the “Land of GOD” and on the first visit to Shenyang we visited the Shenyang Palace Museum and were able to see incised oracle bones, bronze cylinders and ceramic tablets with evidence that links the Book of Genesis with the very early Chinese pictographic writing, which is the oldest written language still in use. (If you want to know more check ‘Word and Pictures’ April 30th on my blog).
We have always wanted to revisit the Palace Museum, we didn’t take photographs back then which we have lived to regret because our visits to this city are always intensely busy we haven’t time for site seeing. Earlier rulers were priest-kings (in the manor of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11-28)) and sacrificed in The Temple of Heaven to Shang Di a monotheistic deity. In every Chinese capital there was a Temple of Heaven; there is still one today in Beijing. The later Emperors of course, like the Roman Emperor Caesar, usurped the position of the deity. With successive dynasties the Emperors moved their capital to different locations taking the Temple of Heaven with them where they were worshipped instead of Shang Di. The Dragon culture still has a stranglehold on China and is so very difficult to avoid. The Roman Emperors placed an Imperial eagle above the Temple in Jerusalem which of course sparked off major revolt which was crushed without mercy. The picture of Chairman Mao in Beijing is still elevated, like the eagle, in Tiananmen Square above the Heavenly Gate, the access to the Dragon throne in The Forbidden City.
*Lumbersome I appreciate that ‘lumbersome’ is not in the dictionary but English is a language that can take that in its stride. Blending two pre-existing words to form another word is known as a ‘portmanteaux’, not a suit case or trunk honestly, and has been a means of creating new words for centuries for example smog, netiquette, labradoodle.
I met a young woman last week who said she had just read my book “Reflections of the old past” and was recommending it to her friends as a good Christmas read, made her laugh, made her cry – kept her on the edge of her seat and she couldn’t put it down? She also commented on the fact that the action took place in an anonymous part of London; other readers have also mentioned it and why did I do that? Probably to show that life’s light and shade, heights and depths go on in the lives of ordinary individuals with just as much passion or panic as will be found in Hello magazine or Sex in the City. South London by the way is one of the most diverse and vibrant communities in London and also has had more than its share of historical or present day events you just need to look.
I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to hear she had enjoyed what I had written. A big, big thank you to all of you who have bought my book. Oh by the way if you haven’t already done a review on the Amazon ebook site please do it! It will help others find it and hopefully decide to read it too. Oh and please tell your friends if you enjoyed it.