The orient’s new express
China will be the world’s top tourist destination by 2030, by which time a vast network of high-speed rail services will link the country. Caroline Eden boards the ﬁrst bullet train out of Hong Kong to get a glimpse of the future
Michelin-star restaurant. I marked the paper order slip as I waited, then my number was called and I was seated. Ten minutes later, a bamboo basket of fragrant steamed shrimp dumplings, a pot of tea and a plate of tonic medlar and petal cake were delivered – all for £7.70. The dumplings were predictably good, and the tea refreshing, but the “cake” was sublime – a flower-flavoured jelly made with medlars and goji berries that delivered a myriad of tastes and textures
The two women I shared my table with told me, between bites of chicken feet, that they were heading home to Beijing by high-speed train.
“Why not fly?” I asked.
“Chinese aeroplanes are often delayed and the airports are far from home,” they said in unison.
Their journey would take 10 hours and cost £120 second class; my guidebook, published only last year, reported that the journey takes 24 hours. That’s how fast the Chinese rail system is developing. And it’s just as well, given the predicted volume of inbound visitors that willl see China become the world’s number one tourist destination by 2030, according to research released this week.
After the dim sum, I took a glass elevator to the pedestrian “skywalk” on the roof. Wooden walkways lined with tall grasses led to views of Hong Kong’s handsome Victoria Harbour.
Behind me was Kowloon, a wall of dense grid-like apartment blocks with thumping basketball courts, chess players and trees filled with twittering sparrows. I’d just spent two nights there, within walking distance of the new station. I resented the curt waiters (Hong Kong service is often brusque at best), marvelled at the zen-like tai chi practitioners, and was surprised, at night, to stumble upon a gang of sex toy hawkers just off Nathan Road who laid their plastic goods out next to a row of fortune tellers.
Several floors below the rooftop garden, railway passengers were setting off on cross-border trains bound for 44 mainland stations, including Shanghai, Kunming and Guilin. For a taste of China’s highspeed revolution, and for an easy bite of an mega-city of which I knew little, Guangzhou seemed ideal. A journey there has now been cut in half, to 48 minutes, making it an easy side trip from Hong Kong (second-class tickets from £23).
West Kowloon itself is impressive, but not without controversy. Part of the station is under the control of Chinese police and customs officials, allowing for immigration checks before departure. This does not sit well with some locals, who already feel threatened by China’s increasing control over Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” agreement.
But the immigration process was swift, friendly enough and easy. On board the Vibrant Express, smartly dressed stewards passed through the spotless carriage, offering tea in large glass cups with cork stoppers. The outside world was hushed and shut off, like a silenced TV set.
We eased into Guangzhou South. Passengers, faces melded to mobile phones, disembarked, one collective army of luggage-bearers, and headed up a broad staircase. Below, rows of platforms and identical snow white high-speed trains White lightning A Vibrant Express train to Guangzhou
drinks. No outside food, no chess, no card games. Strictly no Hong Kong dollars.
Outside, young holidaying couples popped open suitcases and changed outfits, posing for photographs outside the 19th-cenury mansions, hangovers from when Shamian Island was home to French and British trading concessions. When I checked into my hotel, I followed the receptionist’s finger to a small round camera, and was photographed.
The following day, after visiting the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, with its penjing (bonsai) trees and folk art, I visited Guangzhou’s notorious Chinese medicine market, Qingping. It was grimly fascinating. Cardboard boxes of fish maw (swim bladders), scorpions and dried seahorses stood next to less controversial bags of glossy dates, mushrooms the size of car wheels and sacks of walnuts.
From there, Jane led me a short way to a nondescript statue of a man. Known as the Father of China’s Railroad, Zhan Tianyou (1861-1919) was the chief engineer, responsible for the Peking-Kalgan railway to Inner Mongolia, built between 1905 and 1909, the first railway constructed in China without foreign assistance.
Today, China’s has around 25,000km of high-speed railway lines, 66% of the world’s total. Despite setbacks with corruption and safety issues, the biggest rail expansion the world has ever seen continues to set records, joining cities and towns, and cutting through mountains, bamboo forests and snowfields. China aims to cover 45,000km by 2030. This modest statue of Zhan Tianyou, on a trafficsnarled corner of Guangzhou, stands as a reminder of how far China has come.
• The trip was provided by Bamboo
Travel (bambootravel.co.uk) , which has a tailor-made nine-day tour of Hong Kong and the south of China from £1,895pp, including return flights from London with Cathay Pacific, private transfers, B&B accommodation, and high-speed train travel between Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Yangshuo City lights Guangzhou is home to 14 million people
Rhosydd slate mine. The dwellings were terraces of workers’ cottages. The Nazcalike lines were a half-buried tramway that rolled past a crumbling Methodist chapel rather than a temple dedicated to Apu-punchau.
Where to stay
Two stylish but affordable B&Bs near the train station are Casa Ortega (doubles from €90 B&B, casa-ortega.com) and Pension Edelweiss (doubles from €85 B&B, pension-edelweiss.fr)
The traditional Foire aux Santons (santons are the terrracotta figurines used in Provençal crib scenes) runs from 18 Nov-31 Dec at Marseille’s Vieux Port.
Further information from marseilletourisme.com