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

The Guardian - Travel - - Travel -

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)

What’s on

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

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