Just a few days ago, a Chinese sleeper-bus collided with a methane-laden tanker in the northern city of Yannan in Shaanxi province (BBC report here). Sadly, at least 36 people lost their lives due to this tragic accident. While this particular incident has made it to many international media outlets, there are numerous similar cases that only get published in the local Chinese media and go unreported internationally. Sure, these kind of accidents can happen anywhere in the world, irrespective if it is the developed or the developing world. However, various factors (such as bad infrastructure, poor driving skills, driving rules not followed etc.), have indicated that road accidents may be more apparent in developing countries.
With state figures showing that in 2011 alone, at least 62,000 people perished due to road accidents in China, road safety is the one of the key issues set on the Chinese government's agenda. Because of the high frequency of these accidents, it has become (sadly) a common trait for staff to take mugshots of every passenger on a coach before the journey. This is so that they can identify you in case you have an accident. It may not be a comfortable feeling to know this, however it is a fact that every passenger has to experience before his or her journey. Similarly, for train journeys’, we (passengers) have to provide a copy of our passport number or ID card number so it would be easy to trace and inform our relatives in case of an accident (god forbid!).
The bus involved in this crash was a 'sleeper-bus', and considering the design of such buses and the way in which it crashed, it may sadly be assumed that most of the passengers would have found it difficult to escape immediately because of the cramped conditions.
So, what's it really like to take a 'sleeper-bus' in China?
Cramped is just one of the many words that may be used to describe the conditions in such buses. Sleeper-buses are normal long distance coaches modified to have a maximum of 40 beds installed instead of seats. While it may not be a healthy and comfortable environment to be in for a 12-hour (or more), journey, it is nevertheless much cheaper than taking a train or plane for long distances in China. The bunker style beds are stacked in a very 'stuffy' 3-story set up with a narrow aisle in the middle of the coach interior. Another way to look at it may be to compare it to being on a fully flat bed in first class of a plane, but the only catch is that you'll most likely end up banging your head every time you try to get up (and plus the food and environment may not be so..err...cosy).
Most journeys start in the evening at around 6pm, and last for anything between 12-15 hours. I fondly recall taking a sleeper-bus from Shenzhen to Guilin in 2004, a journey of around 13 hours, and costing RMB 85 (approx. equivalent to £5.00 in those days). By contrast, if I had taken a plane then it would have taken only 50 minutes, and total cost would have been around RMB 500 (around £50.00). I took it for the experience to see how the locals travel.
On that particular route, the vast majority of the passengers consisted of university students, or local farmers returning to their villages’. Amidst the entire chaotic journey, I can say that I did manage to get a few hours' sleep (except the bumpy roads that we came across). However, even while I was sleeping I recall having this fear that something bad may happen such as someone may take away my belongings, or the bus may overturn (especially when it turned at sharp corners). There is very little or no chance that in case of an accident anyone can safely escape, even if they had the courage to break open the glass windows. So, you can imagine that the unfortunate souls in the accident in Yannan were just stuck there without any hope.
Various factors such as the lack of space to sit up properly, the strong smell of food, smelly feet of other passengers (and other unmentionable human smells), and just the feeling of being stuffed in a tin can for 14 hours made the whole experience intolerable. Most coaches don't have toilets installed, so there are regular stops too. On top of that, expect it not to be a quiet journey at all, especially when you have 39 other people trying to keep each other motivated by telling each other stories.
In recent years, Chinese coach companies have looked at ways of developing a more user-friendly coach for long distance travel. Designs have included coaches that have more space for passengers, and are safer to be in (and more comfortable). Even so, while China’s economy is booming at a dizzying pace, and with the government looking at ways of improving road safety as a top priority, it is still going to be a massive challenge to reduce the number of road accidents on Chinese roads.
The first time I heard about ‘TianZifang’ was last week when my journalist friend asked me in sheer surprise when I was hoping to while away the afternoon. ‘Oh you have never been to Tianzifang?!’, ‘Why?, you are a Laowei, you must go and see it!’. She said. ‘Tian Zi Fang?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard about Xiantiandi, Moganshan Lu, and Shikumen, but where’s Tianzifang?’. Therefore, I went to explore further. Yes, rather embarrassing as it may be that as a travel writer I have not been here before. However, never too late to explore as they say.
One of Shanghai’s latest tourist destinations was largely unknown until around 2006, and is neatly tucked away in the city’s famed French Concession area. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo site only around a 20 minutes’ walk away, the historical Tianzifang is an area full of significant modern Chinese and Western arts and crafts.
The best way to get to this popular tourist attraction is by taking metro line 9 to Dapu Bridge and then walking across the street to Taikang Road (known as Taikang Lu in Chinese). While there are slight similarities to places such as the Shikumen or Xintiandi in terms of architecture, this destination is more for the tourist. You are more than likely to bump into someone with a Canon or Nikon as opposed to a bunch of Shanghai yuppies having business lunch. The right way to describe is that it’s a wonderful carnival of art, design and architecture. However, at the same time its less eccentric and classy than, say, Moganshan Lu.
Originally built in the 1930s as a Shikumen residential district, Tianzifang remained very hidden to the outside world, and was not a touristy attraction until about 2006 when it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
Many Chinese artists, café owners, and boutique French bistros owners settled in the area around 2006, and eventually in time the place has become a beehive for tourists. There is still some reminiscing of how people used to live their life here prior to the area becoming open to the world. The generic architecture consists of the concept of having people work downstairs in their art shops, cafes, and restaurants, and above them (or in the back alleyways) are the original homes of the locals who have remained in the area. Some art galleries belong to famous artists such as Ren Wei Yin, who had to endure being a shoe repair person for 15 years during the Chinese revolution because in those days his art was not recognised in China. You’ll find all kinds of souvenirs here from ancient watches to shirt’s with an improvised image of President Obama embedded into a Mao Zedong image and labelled ‘Oba Mao’, to all kinds of weird bric brac.
A complete contrast to the ivory towers of Lujiazhui in Pudong, here you’ll find bicycles, hanging laundry from the windows, and even people washing their utensils outside their homes. If you love contemporary art and design, or just want to inspire yourself by knowing what it may be like to live in the real Shanghai then make sure you have at least half a day free to explore this part of the city. I even managed to discover a cleverly designed handmade lamp made from fork and knife sitting outside someone’s home.
After being in Guangzhou for nearly 4 months, I returned back to Shanghai from Guangzhou for a couple of short visits earlier last week. It felt like going to another country because everything is just so different in Shanghai compared to Guangzhou. Food, people, culture, weather, quality of life…and just about everything else (including language!). You can immediately feel the aroma of high life lingering everywhere around this fast paced metropolis. On the way from Hongqiao Airport to the Jumeirah Himalayas Shanghai hotel, which took around 40 minutes door-to-door, I passed 3 Ferraris, 2 Mesaratis, and countless number of Mercedes Benz luxury cars. Most of the drivers seemed to come across as being young professionals rather than your stereotypical mid-60s aged CEO of a multinational. Then there are the US$6 million villas dotted around the Jinqiao area of Shanghai, which is the kind of stuff that English footballers would love to have as their Asian holiday homes. If there is one city in the world that is defying the global economic crisis, and growing at a horrendously dizzying pace, then it is Shanghai. In a nutshell, Guangzhou and Shanghai are like oil and water.
Compared to its southern Guangdong friend, Shanghai’s culture and economy is forging ahead at an electrifying pace. Yes, the rooted Shangahinese culture and the history are there, but it just does not feel like China. There is too much affluence, too much arrogance, too much competition, and it’s just too damn fast. Talking of speed, things do generally get done quicker in Shanghai compared to other cities (even my former hometown Suzhou is slower paced!). So for example if you go to the bank to get a new bank account, or if you are waiting for a taxi, or even if you are waiting to have your freshly brewed coffee made for you, then in my experience it all tends to be quicker (and smoother without the language misunderstandings) in Shanghai. Then there is sheer glamour, which must promote Shanghai as China’s vanity capital. A recent example of this has been the arrival of the former Chelsea footballer, Didier Drogba. The African from Ivory Coast has joined Shanghai Shenhua, a club that is currently languishing in 13th place in the 16-club league, for a reported US$350,000 a week. This is in a country that has plenty of ambition to rise up the ranks of global football, but are struggling to do so. Such feasts of money can only be added to Shanghai’s history of creaming to attract the world’s attention. Last week, the club hosted Manchester United for a friendly in another vanity show (much as they strived to achieve their best in the heat and humidity, they lost 1-0 to the visitors).
But among all this hustle and bustle, one thing sticks out clearly. Some observers have pointed out that Shanghai has already reached the accumulative elegance and affluent reputation enjoyed by Hong Kong. Chic fashion, money, glamour, and absolute snobbery are all the cultural ingredients that make up modern Shanghai. The Bund and Pudong areas are paved with gold. Perhaps a strong sign that the city which used to be known as the ‘Paris of the East’ during the pre-second world war years, may now enjoy the title of being dubbed the ‘New York of the East’. Indeed, Shanghai (and other 1st tier Chinese cities) are being exposed to a myriad of foreign brands, especially American goods and products due to inward investment as keenly encouraged by the Chinese government.
In my viewpoint, China’s newly found middle-class and upper-class are indulging in tastes of western food and other shopping traits, more than what European people or Americans’ would indulge into. KFC, Pizza Hut, MacDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Subway Sandwiches and others have outlets in every street corner of the major cities (even in 2nd tier cities). You name it- all the big American brands have established base in China, and business wise they are profiting at a higher rate than back in the USA because selling Western fast food to Chinese people is no longer a mission impossible. The downside of this could be that the younger generation of China may not appreciate their own way of culture and food in years to come. I don’t know. This is just my own personal viewpoint.
A sheer example of speed being used to the max in Shanghai, and its dramatic connection to technology (literally) is the super high speed Maglev train. Balanced at around 20mm above the tracks, Shanghai’s Maglev Train breezes the 32kms between Longyang Road Station and Pudong International Airport in a remarkable 7 minutes 30 seconds. Winding up to the maximum commercial speed of 431 kph takes about three minutes. There are no seatbelts - at this speed it’s not worth worrying about the consequences (really). The front of the train displays battle scars - victories of scrapes with birds and bugs. The train banks into a slightly tilting angle, and produces a quick fire shotgun-like sound when it passes other trains at speed. This is as close as passengers will get to enjoy the feeling of what it may be like if a plane was speeding on the ground instead of at 37,000 feet. The adrenalin rush is felt from the moment the train begins its journey right the way through to the end. The feeling stays with you for a while after disembarking the train – almost like as if you have touched down on earth again.
However, I found out last week that even the technological heights of the Maglev are a world away from reality of rural China. Because of a severe typhoon hitting Guangdong Province last week, I decided to take the plunge and embark on a 14-hour train journey from Shanghai to Wuhan, and then on from Wuhan to Guangzhou (costing a total of RMB 1000). If I had wanted a real adventure, then I could easily have taken the direct 15-hour night train from Shanghai to Guangzhou (costing only RMB230), however there were no sleeper beds available and only hard seats (not wooden seats as may imagine, but still uncomfortable for a 15-hour night journey). Now, without being stereotypically negative, from my experience I have found that while 1st tier Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing may have world-class infrastructure and sheer affluence, however the culture and quality of life in the rest of the country still needs improving. With a thriving economy, the issue that stems out is that China is a large and complex country with many things on the government’s agenda that will take time to resolve. Because of the extreme cultural and social contrasts, China is a country that you either fall in love with, or you end up despairing. I adore the former concept because of the color and vibrancy of the place.
The train journey itself showed a different side of the country as opposed to the ivory towers of Shanghai. Some of the odd and eccentric behavior I encountered on the train journey (and this was in the first class cabin) was: people carrying live chickens in their hands (read = dinner/lunch for those who have no fridge), loud snoring (with mouth open), playing mah-jong, non-stop chain smoking, a bunch of grannies talking non-stop, kids keep taking photos of me and then running to show their parents ('mum/dad, look a foreigner!!'- they would say), slurping loudly of noodles (!), loud slurping/sipping of tea cups, spitting with a loud 'Krrraaggg thoo', people drinking alcohol and barbecued meat at SIX in the morning at Wuhan station (!), people wearing pajamas during the daytime train, mothers breast-feeding their babies in front of everyone (!), strong stench of human waste coming in from the open train lavatory, cutting finger nails (non-stop), loud mobile phones (annoying music tunes to go with them), and just endless…noise. It was an experience....
I noticed someone took a photo of me, and as we came close to Wuhan station a young couple from Hunan approached me asked me if it was OK for them to take a photo with me (because I am a foreigner). It wasn’t a quiet journey, even if the cabin was meant to be a ‘quiet cabin’. People stared at me in curiosity. These days, in the bigger cities Chinese people would not even blink an eyelid if a foreigner walked passed them because they have got used to us. However, in rural areas and places such as a long haul train, it is still common for people to stare at foreigners. It’s just friendly curiosity.
Even as I am sitting here in a café in Panyu (Guangzhou), people are randomly stopping by and curiously just standing and watching what I am doing. Because I can understand Mandarin, I can hear things like ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei (foreigner), what’s a Laowei doing here?’; ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei using the laptop, so many Laoweis’ in China these days!’; ‘I think he must be from Iran, yeah looks Middle Eastern. Shall we ask him?’. It goes without saying that questions like these may be common place for any human being to be asked at if they are in a non-international/non-multicultural environment. So, yes I may get those kind of questions and curiosity from the locals even if I go to, say for example, Africa, North Korea, or Burma. In all my years in mainland China, I have got used to these kind of comments (even though I personally don’t like it). However, I am sure that for any newcomer to China it may make them feel: either 1. Annoyed, 2. Feel like a superstar, or 3. Spoil them because people are treating them like a VIP. I wonder if North Korea would be the same one day (if they open up to the world as China has done).
Yes, neon lit cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Suzhou give you the impression that China is as advanced as any other global city in the world. The infrastructure in China is one of the best in the developing world (and in some parts even better than the developed world). For example, I have not experienced a power failure in all the 9 years I have been in China (like India experienced earlier this week, where half of the country had a power shortage- that kind of thing can never happen in China because the infrastructure is much more advanced).
The younger generation who live in the big Chinese cities have not been exposed to the difficult humble upbringings that their forefathers endured during hardships times in years gone by. This goes especially true for the 2nd generation who are born after the 1980s who are perhaps more used to having dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, or drinking their morning coffee everyday at Starbucks instead of tucking into traditional Chinese breakfast. However, it’s only once you enter the countryside and the 2nd tier cities you immediately realize how much improvement there needs to be made in order to get the rest of the country to where it should be. On the train journey I took there were a whole host of things that made me feel how damn lucky I was not to have taken the all-night hard seat train as that would have been a million times worse than the daytime experience.
Below are some photos from my time in Shanghai (and some of the train journey as well).
- Navjot Singh
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