My first journey to Kiukiang, Kiangsi (江西,九江), was by no means adventurous as Dr. Perkins's train ride deep into the Greater Siberia in 1913 but paled in comparison. Nor was it enthralling like the steamboat ride Mrs. Perkins took in 1918. Nevertheless, it was not easy, perhaps in its microcosm.
The original plan was to fly to Hong Kong from the Western Hemisphere and then go north to Nanchang (南昌) by air before reaching Kiukiang by train. Nanchang is the closest big city to Kiukiang that offers a real airport and a high-speed train station. There is no serviceable commercial airport at this point in the small town of Kiukiang. Fortunately, access to Kiukiang via high-speed rail just became available not too long ago.
My First Kiukiang Experience <我第一次到九江的经历>
Hong Kong was the choice as a landing spot in Asia and not Shanghai due to the desire to run up Mount Victoria from sea level. It would be my second attempt after cheated on the first one years ago. While it is a challenging task, especially for those scaling their second half of the century, and that I am by no means an athlete of any kind (and my uphill runs are more like fast walking), it is not as daunting as it may sound. The Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, where the TV Reception Antennas sit, is only 540 m above sea level and 140 m above the Peak Garden-Lookout Point, where the tram would drop off the tourists after a near-vertical ride. The total elevation gained over the course is ~ 650 m (or ~ 2,100 ft). The real challenge is perhaps the extraction of oxygen from the thick, hot, and wet air even at 5 AM. The treat is the breathtaking panoramic view even on a cloudy day (see below); and another wonder is to know that even at 5 AM, one is not alone. There would be already dozens of retired people walking or running up the trails, including those well into their 70s and 80s.
I am not worthy.
Then came the T8 Typhoon Haima that blew me literately all the back to Shanghai with Her 70-110 mph wind-speed. I was forced to take solace at Pudong (浦东) Airport while waiting for an early morning flight to Nanchang. An uneventful flight ensued, except waiting on the tarmac for the Traffic Controller's approval for the actual takeoff because of the overcrowded airspace, which has been annoying traveling in China. The other strange habit was that they love to bus passengers from departure gates to an awaiting plane parked not too far away on the tarmac, while countless sky bridges are unused. I have never understood the logic of this.
For the first time, I am in Nanchang, but the taxi ride to the train station downtown confirmed to me that I would not be spending any time here - not this trip anyway. With the Chinese Modernization Process being carried out not longitudinally across the landscape but in prioritized waves, Nanchang's number had just come up - quite recently, I presume - based on my conversations with the driver. The city is in complete transition - it reminded me of Shanghai in the late 90s. "What does this foreshadow about Kiukiang?" I thought.
Stepping into the Nanchang Train Station, my initial excitement of "wow, great - not too many people here" quickly turned into "wait, is this a functional station?" Not a single soul could be seen, which is nearly impossible in China. That suspicion was confirmed by asking a guard. So, back into another cab, I went. Pretty much all operations have been moved to the newly opened Nanchang West Station (南昌西站) - 20 km out west of downtown. This one may be on me for not doing careful enough of homework.
Once there, I found only one ticketing window open for the entire new station, although there are many automated ticketing machines for those who hold a personal Chinese Identification (身份证). But for a foreigner like me, I was stuck in this very long line. I would spare the theatrics at this small and crowded Ticketing Room (售票处), as there would never be short of human theatrics when traveling in any crowded space. I will leave it at that.
I was both amused and concerned (and tired), and my turn came at last. I pride myself now on finally understanding the importance of holding my place and space when standing in lines in China. With some exceptions, people by and large respected the process of "they also serve who only stand and wait."
I also pride myself on knowing enough Chinese to get around these days.
"我需要买去九江的高铁来回票 - 这是我的护照 - 谢谢 (I need a round-trip ticket to Kiukiang via High-Speed Rail, and here is my passport - thank you)."
"现在没有去九江的高铁也没有动车 － 要等到今天晚上八点; 现在只有快车; 你什么时候回 (There are no tickets right now for High-Speed trains or "Moving" trains - the earliest is tonight 8 PM; only "Fast" trains are available right now; when do you plan to return)?" The ticketing agent answered me through a speakerphone mounted on the window glass.
With a brief struck of disappointment and anxiety - thinking I had messed up my pre-trip research again, I quickly chose the "Fast" train. I grabbed my passport and tickets, as the gentleman behind me was becoming increasingly impatient.
Now a brief clarification is needed here. "Moving" and "Fast" are direct translations of the original Chinese words, and they imply only the relative speed versus that of High-Speed. "Moving" is good, as it essentially means the same speed as "High-Speed" with the train making a few more stops, and thus slower overall, while "Fast" is bad news, as it means slow and–my goodness.
After a two-hour wait in a westernized coffee shop situated on the second floor of this super spacious modern train station, I boarded the "Fast" train, which was a throwback train from the 1960s. Intriguingly, I was much less shocked than a group of confused Chinese women standing by the door - trying to confirm with the Conductor.
"不是快车吗? 这可不像快车 - 这么老 (This train looks so old - how can this be a high-speed "fast" train)?" They asked.
I guess they misunderstood the word "Fast."
I will not describe the bathroom conditions in my train cart except the following conversation with a train attendant.
"先生呀, 你用完了 - 你冲一冲吧 (Sir, after you are done, please flush)!" I was completely startled by his comments that came with a high pitch, while I was struggling to open the door that had no locks - to get some light to see.
"师傅, 这一切可都不是我的 - 我也想冲 - 但我看不见, 也不知道'push'那一个'button' (Oh no, Sir, none of this is mine; I too would like to flush, but I could not see in the dark - nor could I find the right button to push)." I made enough hand gestures, as I spoke politely but brokenly to him, hoping he would understand me.
He was actually very nice. He agreed, "先生呀, 我知道这些都不是你搞的, 没有想责怪你, 但我还是要请你冲一下; 冲就按一下哪个 (Sir, I am not trying to blame you for all this stuff, but I still ask that you flush; just push that button there)." He pointed his finger at a small blue button below a tiny sink as he spoke.
I flushed, checked the bottom of my shoes, and found my seat. I put away my water bottle and gingerly sat on the edge while staring out the now moving train window, trying to focus on beautiful thoughts.
Amazingly enough - unlike in the 1960s, the throwback train was not crowded -
I guess most people prefer to wait for the modern High-Speed trains.
And it arrived early, "下一站, 九江, 快要到了 (Next stop, Kiukiang,
the train is approaching the station)." The announcement came,
as the train slowly made its way across the famous Poyang Lake (鄱陽湖)
amidst a steady cold drizzle - misty and foggy.
So "原来, 这就是九江!" And here I come, Kiukiang!
Benjamin Sun (孫賁)
October 29, 2016