Arriving at the Beijing South Railway station I wasn’t sure whether our taxi driver hadn’t accidently drove us to the airport. The grand, modern building with the security screening at the entrance and large screens displaying times of departures and arrivals, resembled more the international ports of embarkation rather than local train station.
Inside its clean and spacious interior, passengers were completing last minute shopping, ensuring the abundance of edible goods for their long journeys. Colourful screens tempted the more reluctant buyers with the mouth-watering pictures of food in the ads, while the YouKu channel showed Durian Mousse Cheesecake recipe. The food and travel in vital symbiosis.
Minutes before departure, outside our gate to the platform, a queue began to form. Patient travelers standing neatly one by one, awaited the arrival of a petite woman who soon appeared by the sliding door. Her red lips announcing to the headset microphone that one should get their passport ready. In China, whether you’re booking a train ticket or paying an entrance fee to the Forbidden city, your passport will be required.
The neat interior of the train soon began to clash with the chaos brought by its passengers. The seats in our carriage were soon filled with families busily arranging their luggage in the overhead compartments. The commotion was accompanied by a series of distressing sounds. To the shock of many foreign tourists, many Chinese people still have a habit of making a snorting sound to clear out their nose and sinuses of excess phlegm, which is then often spat out. To someone unaccustomed to such practice, the noise associated with it appears rather reprehensible, although those engaging in the activity would surely point out that according to the Chinese medicine retention of mucus harms the health of our body. And so we spent the next five hours surrounded by the sound of snoring, snorting and random exclamations coming from a loud video game played by the little boy with a passion for kicking seats.
In my desperate attempts to block out the clamour, I increased the volume on my headphones and directed my attention towards the window. Behind the rows of neat trees planted in perfect lines, I could notice fields and occasional farmers. Their bent over silhouettes clad in the iconic rice hats, its conical shape protecting them from the sun. Within a matter of minutes, the farmers would give way to the concrete forest of the city’s skyscrapers. These giants growing out of nowhere, making you feel lost in the jungle of sameness. There was something sad in the contrast of the high speed train and the changing landscape.
As we sped across the cityscape and countryside I couldn’t help but feel that there’s a discord between China the country and its people. The large building sites, colossal housing projects and perfect rows of trees planted in equal intervals provided the sense of controlled progress, yet it seemed to be a progress that people were not yet prepared for. In most of the places I’ve traveled to, the development seemed more aligned – cities would grow organically, expand more by the movement of people than the municipal lines. Here, the growth seemed imposed. Everything seemed like a big project that was well planned and executed, but that was failed to be communicated to the people. The Chinese Communist Party seems to know what to do to bring China not up to speed with other countries, but to exceed them. But it seems like they don’t always remember to bring people on board, leaving the Chinese lost in this unknown reality, stuck between attempts to adjust and their longing for tradition. If this was anywhere else, I would wonder which side will win in this battle between future and the past. But China has a unique ability to accept the dualities, to bring the yin and yang together and carve for itself a pocket of calm right in the middle of the taijitu sign. Maybe that’s the key to success in today’s world.