New bul­let trains mean tourists can ac­cess the coun­try’s off-the-beaten-track heart­land in a mat­ter of hours

Friday - - Contents -

As bul­let trains dras­ti­cally re­duce travel time in China, lesser known towns be­come tourist at­trac­tions.

The sta­tion mas­ter is ex­as­per­ated. He puffs up and down the plat­form, bel­low­ing into his mega­phone in a fu­tile at­tempt to line ev­ery­one up be­hind the car­riage num­bers that are em­bed­ded in the con­crete. But these tough hill farm­ers won’t be drilled into sub­mis­sion. They crowd the plat­form edge to watch as the sleek, white bul­let-nosed train pulls into San­jiang sta­tion. This coun­try halt in moun­tain­ous Guizhou prov­ince is a new stop on the 1,000-mile high-speed rail link con­nect­ing coastal Guangzhou to Kun­ming in the sub­trop­i­cal south-west, which opened in its en­tirety ear­lier this year.

High-speed trains keep strictly to time, and this is just a two-minute stop so there’s a rush to load bags and sacks of pro­duce be­fore the au­to­matic doors snap shut. It is usual for sta­tion staff to bow as the train de­parts, but San­jiang’s sta­tion mas­ter for­gets this cour­tesy: he’s too busy mop­ping his brow.

I am on my way to Congjiang, a jour­ney that once took all day on a bus wind­ing through the steep-sided val­leys. The train has cut the jour­ney time to 30 min­utes, though most of that time is spent in tun­nels with only the briefest glimpses of for­est-cloaked moun­tains.

China be­gan rolling out its high-speed rail network 10 years ago, building ar­row-straight track on piers high above farm­land, vil­lages and river val­leys. When moun­tains got in the way, the Chi­nese sim­ply tun­nelled through them. There are now more than 14,000 miles of high-speed track used by more than a bil­lion peo­ple a year.

Speeds range from a cau­tious 120mph through tun­nels to a steady 185mph across the open coun­try­side. The re­duc­tion in jour­ney times is phe­nom­e­nal. It now takes hours rather than days to travel from Shang­hai to Kun­ming in the deep south or from Bei­jing to Urumqi in the far west – open­ing up the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing most of the coun­try’s high­lights on a tour by high­speed train rather than by plane.

Trav­el­ling this way is more en­joy­able and, door-to-door, trains are com­pet­i­tive time­wise: just over four hours from Bei­jing to Xi’an; five hours from Xi’an to Shang­hai.

The car­riages are clean and com­fort­able with at-seat ser­vice, and even sec­ond class of­fers twice as much legroom as stan­dard­class seats on Bri­tish trains. Over the next decade, the network is ex­pected to dou­ble in size, reach­ing parts of China that un­til now have seen few out­siders. In the au­tumn, high-speed lines con­nect­ing Xi’an to Chengdu and Chongqing will give easy ac­cess to the high­lands of Sichuan and the Yangtze River.

In the south, a high-speed track is be­ing laid from Kun­ming all the way to China’s bor­ders with Laos and Myan­mar. Here in Guizhou, the com­ing of the rail­way will trans­form the lives of the area’s eth­nic mi­nori­ties – the Miao, the Dong and the Zhuang – and plunge them head­long into the world of selfie sticks, karaoke bars and prof­li­gate con­sumerism as week­enders from the cities come to gawp and party. Or, as the Chi­nese Gov­ern­ment would put it: the rail link will im­prove the lives of

these ‘back­ward’ peo­ples who will ben­e­fit greatly from closer in­te­gra­tion with mod­ern China and the su­pe­rior cul­ture of the Han ma­jor­ity.

Zhaox­ing, home to the largest Dong com­mu­nity in China, is just a 10-minute taxi ride from Congjiang Sta­tion. (Like many of China’s high-speed sta­tions, Congjiang lies many miles from the town af­ter which it is named.) The Dong are fa­mous for their carpentry skills, us­ing lo­cal fir to build pagoda-like drum tow­ers, cov­ered wind-andrain bridges and four-storey houses, all with­out us­ing nails. Tra­di­tion­ally self-suf­fi­cient, the vil­lages are sur­rounded by ponds for farm­ing fish and fight­ing fires. Rice grows on nar­row ter­races that cas­cade down the

Un­like the largely de­serted HIS­TORIC vil­lages I’ve vis­ited in eastern CHINA, there is enough BUSI­NESS from tourism here for YOUNG peo­ple to stay and raise a fam­ily in the FRESH air of these hills

hill­sides, as does cot­ton and in­digo, for Dong women are renowned for their weav­ing and em­broi­dery. I have a vi­sion of Zhaox­ing as a bas­tion of the sim­ple life in a coun­try mod­ernising at break­neck speed.

So imag­ine my dis­ap­point­ment on ar­riv­ing to see a vast car park and a Wem­b­ley-sized ticket of­fice where I must pay Dh60 to en­ter the vil­lage. This com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of eth­nic en­claves is fast be­com­ing the norm in China as devel­op­ers – of­ten from Bei­jing or Shang­hai – buy pro­mo­tion rights to his­toric vil­lages, put up a few sign­posts, lit­ter bins and lava­to­ries, and start charg­ing for en­try to aid the area’s ‘de­vel­op­ment’.

I walk up a crazy-paved av­enue that cuts into the heart of the vil­lage and stop at a noo­dle stall. As ever in China, the vil­lage’s best English speaker seeks me out. ‘Ah, the new Zhaox­ing,’ he says with a weak smile when I ask about the turnstile en­try. ‘This street is brand new. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from Bei­jing came along and said they were widen­ing it and that was that. Now we have this ugly road served by a tourist trol­ley bus.’

In­digo Lodge, a funky con­crete guest­house clev­erly con­structed in­side the shell of a tra­di­tional wooden house by a lo­cal en­tre­pre­neur, is run by a young man who also speaks ex­cel­lent English. He tells me about paths into the hills to vil­lages be­yond roads, so I set off up stone stair­cases pol­ished by the feet of time and per­fumed by a white dog rose.

In Xi­age, I sit in the vil­lage square, watch­ing men and women laugh­ing and josh­ing as they cook up a feast in huge vats and find a vil­lage shrine packed with joss sticks.

At Tang’an, wa­ter gushes from the mouth of a stone gar­goyle into buck­ets car­ried away on yokes. The fields are full of peo­ple turn­ing the claggy mud with hand-held ploughs and trans­plant­ing rice seedlings.

De­spite the ini­tial im­pres­sion, I come to like Zhaox­ing too. Away from the main drag, life goes on much as it has al­ways done. The al­leys echo with the sound of in­digo cloth be­ing thwacked into shiny sub­mis­sion with heavy wooden mal­lets.

The men gos­sip be­neath the pagoda-like roofs of the drum tow­ers and the chil­dren play in the streams that thread through the vil­lage.

Un­like the largely de­serted his­toric vil­lages I have vis­ited in eastern China, there is enough busi­ness from tourism here for young peo­ple to stay and raise a fam­ily in the fresh air of these peaceful hills. And there are lots of young peo­ple – China’s mi­nori­ties were ex­empted from the Gov­ern­ment’s one-child pol­icy.

Zhaox­ing has much in com­mon with my home town, St Ives in Corn­wall. We too re­treat into the shad­ows as tourists take over our streets in sum­mer, and turn the other way when a cam­era is raised. But there are ben­e­fits for both our com­mu­ni­ties: wealthy buy­ers for paint­ings, ce­ram­ics and jew­ellery made by lo­cal crafts­peo­ple, more jobs and better trans­port links.

Af­ter trav­el­ling back down the line to Guilin, I board the bus for Longji Ti­tian, the Dragon’s Back­bone, where the hills have been sculpted into rice ter­races that curl away like the scales on a dragon’s spine. Li’An Lodge in Ping’an is the place to stay.

A beau­ti­ful wooden chalet built by Keren Su, the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic pho­tog­ra­pher, it dis­plays his cov­etable col­lec­tion of folk-art trea­sures.

Leav­ing the lodge for a walk to Dazhai, I pass a group of Chi­nese tourists don­ning Miao tribal cos­tumes for a pho­to­graph against a back­drop of misty hills. The Miao don’t live here, but their colour­ful dress and tin­kling sil­ver tiaras are much in de­mand, and the lo­cal black-robed Zhuang are happy to go with the pre­tence when there’s money to be made.

The wa­ter-filled ter­races shine like mir­rors in the morn­ing sun as the path hugs the con­tours of hills pleated as tight as a Miao skirt. Along the way, old ladies try to take me home for lunch and younger women of­fer to un­furl their ankle-length hair for a pho­to­graph. And who can blame them for try­ing to cap­ture a lit­tle of the tourist yuan? Most vis­i­tors to Dazhai head straight for the cable car that gives a bird’s-eye view of the ter­races. Few wan­der the lanes of this old Red Yao vil­lage where homes have been ex­tended to take in guests.

Over a lunch of chicken curry, sticky rice cooked in bam­boo and a home­made herbal drink, I watch tiny Yao women car­ry­ing pink wheelie suit­cases in wicker bas­kets up flights of gran­ite steps fol­lowed by their own­ers in floaty frocks and high heels. They charge Dh20 porter­age for each bag – a nice bonus for a poor rice farmer.

The bus back to Ping’an winds through a gorge fes­tooned with wild wis­te­ria.

On slopes too steep to log, it’s a rare sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple of south China’s orig­i­nal for­est cover, a land that en­thralled Bri­tish plant hunters a cen­tury ago. I hope it will sur­vive the scourge of overde­vel­op­ment, but in China you never know. Next year there could be another red scar on the hill­side as the road is widened to bring in coach par­ties. Go soon.

Ter­raced moun­tain­sides used to raise crops in Zhaox­ing are a com­mon sight dur­ing the train ride. Right: A scene out­side a rail­way sta­tion in Li­uzhuo. Be­low: Dong chil­dren dressed as folk he­roes par­tic­i­pate in a Taiguan­ren Fes­ti­val to pray for bless­ings...

Ota am ra vel maio­rat us­damus do­lores restibearum as an­delis aut enda des niminum in­ulpa con­se­quo inumquid

The bul­let-nosed high-speed train races through Ulan­qab, In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion of China. The train cuts travel time from days to a few hours while al­low­ing tourists to travel in com­fort


A tra­di­tional wooden Dong mi­nor­ity vil­lage stands perched on the ter­races in the Guizhou Prov­ince

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