I have arrived in Shanghai, and my mission is to get across China as quickly as possible. First, though, I must get off the ferry—no small task.
How to queue in China
As the Xinjianzhen docks at the Shanghai International Cruise Terminal, I join the queue of passengers on the main deck waiting to disembark. Order descends into chaos as the gangway is lowered. The Chinese tourists, most dragging rice cookers behind them on miniature wheeled carts, push with increasing urgency towards the exit. A hundred frenzied voices combine into a cacophonous din—arms flail overhead—elbows jab into ribcages—rice cookers and electronic Japanese toilet seats tumble across the floor. I actually witness a man in an Indiana Jones hat throw a bent old lady to the ground as he claws his way towards the exit.
Once off the ship, and only 10 meters away, everyone piles onto the idling shuttle bus that will take us to customs. Indiana Jones sits near the front, mopping his brow—he made it first!—as the old lady he trampled is led shaking up the steps. The passengers chat gaily; the riotous stampede I witnessed a few moments ago is all but forgotten. Such is the method of queuing in China.
Collecting my Iranian visa
My first task in Shanghai is to find the Iranian consulate and pick up my pre-arranged visa. The embassy is closely guarded by Chinese police officers. They stand at attention, guns in hand, and narrow their eyes in suspicion as I approach. After much hand-waving, they reluctantly press the buzzer next to the gate. Shortly thereafter a scowling consular official appears and asks me what I want. When I tell him I’m here for a visa, he reluctantly motions to the guards to let me pass.
The ease of the process is almost a letdown. The consulate already has a copy of my letter of invitation (actually just a code) on hand, so I just need to fill out an application form, supply a photo, and pay. I am told to return the next day.
When I return the following afternoon, the guards are in a less agreeable mood and will not let me pass, telling me that I should phone the consulate and make arrangements to be met outside. They refuse to take any action until I show them my passport, which of course I cannot do because it is locked behind the very walls they are guarding. I refuse to budge, and eventually a guard relents and presses the buzzer, all the while giving me a look that says, “if this isn’t important, I’m going to arrest you.” The scowling official appears at the gate, hands me my passport (visa glued onto page 5), and then disappears back into his office without a word.
Shanghai: The star of the east
While I wait for my Iranian visa to be processed, I have a day to explore Shanghai. The city is massive, rich, and growing. Gleaming office towers lord over a vibrant cityscape, and an international populous crowds the streets at all hours. Around my hostel near the Bund, pockets of classic Shanghai are still in evidence, where vendors line the twisting alleys selling everything from calligraphy brushes to stewed fish heads. But the wrecking balls are closing in, and I see whole city blocks that have recently been demolished for redevelopment.
I visit the sprawling Ye Gardens to get some peace. I wander freely along its paths, which lead through countless archways and courtyards, each more beautiful than the last. The rock gardens, water feature, peak-roofed building and graceful bridge have been placed to achieve aesthetic perfection. I find a narrow and contorted stone staircase leading up to a deserted pavilion, where I sit alone for a while to admire the garden.
Getting around Shanghai is easy by subway, which, like the rest of the city, is modern and clean. It costs only 4 renminbi—less than a dollar—to go almost anywhere. Guards are posted at every entrance to x-ray the passengers’ bags, a process that, to my surprise, does not seem to cause much delay in the flow of traffic.
After dinner on Friday I head to Shanghai’s main train station where I am to catch the first of the four trains that will take me across the entirety of China. I fall asleep in a Western-style sleeping berth aboard a modern high-speed train heading for Xi’an.
Xi’an: the ancient capital of everything
For a large portion of history, China was the richest and most powerful nation in the world, and Xi’an (then Chang’an) was its spiritual, political, and economic center. China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty, ruled here from 690-705 CE. Ruthless and power thirsty, she ascended the throne after eliminating all opponents, supposedly even murdering her own daughter. Chang’an was a center of learning, and it was at its temples that Buddhist writings from India were translated into Chinese. It was also the symbolic start of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route along which the riches of China flowed westward.
I explore Xi’an from atop its ancient city walls, which have been restored as a museum. While walking along, a young man on a bicycle approaches and asks to talk so that he can practice his English. Davei (as he calls himself) hopes to study at an American university for a master’s degree next year, and currently works as a Chinese-language tour guide at the nearby history museum while studying engineering full-time. He tells me that, twenty years ago, the walls were neglected and crumbling, and squatters lived in ramshackle dwellings on top of the ruins, but that the government had restored them to their former glory in recent years. The magnificent lanterns erected for Chinese New Year are still on display, decorating the grey stonework with splashes of colour and light.
That evening, as Davei tours me around the ruins of Tang dynasty palaces, I observe the city’s denizens at their evening social activities. In one public square, thousands of people have gathered for a group dance aerobics class. In another, a choir sings, conducted by a stately gentleman in a robe. Members of a trade union bounce by, all wearing matching shirts, pant happily as they compete in a nighttime half-marathon. It seems to be a happy place.
Just before climbing on my next train, Davei buys me dinner, despite my objection that I should be the one thanking him. And before I know it, I’m off to Lanzhou on another high-speed sleeper train.
Pollution and expansion
The massive expansion of construction and industry in China has exacted a heavy environmental cost. The skies around the cities are polluted with a permanent haze, and deep ruts, abandoned construction roads, and piles of sandy soil form thousand-kilometer-long scars along both sides of the new railway lines I travel on. Many of the rivers have run dry, their waters claimed for agriculture and industry, the thirsty land abandoned to the inevitable advance of the desert.
As the train pulls into Xi’an North station, I witness first-hand the fabled Chinese construction boom that has accompanied decades of double-digit economic growth. Miles before we reach the city, rows of identical high-rise apartment buildings sprout from the fields in neat rows, the new cash crop. Many are still under construction, and those that are finished look unoccupied. A grid of streets, lights, overpasses, and highways have been constructed in anticipation of the needs of the new communities. The railway station is brand new, massively proportioned, and empty. Ours is the only train; the other platforms lay idle, awaiting the hundreds of thousands of passengers that, it is hoped, will soon live nearby. The scene looks like a scaled-up architectural model, with a handful of little plastic benches and the occasional plastic person glued to the floor amongst the cardboard and papier-mâché walls to give the building a sense of scale.
When I arrive in Lanzhou, I take a taxi from the old station, where I arrived, to the new station on the outskirts of town, from where my next train departs. The scene is much the same: the enormous monolithic entranceway of the station looms over a buzzing construction site, where there will soon rise apartments, shopping malls, and offices. The atrium of the station is so large that I fear a weather system might form inside. The waitress at one of the station’s many cafés appears flustered when I walk in to order breakfast; clearly she isn’t used to customers. When I try to order food by pointing to various items on the sandwich board, she shakes her head, so I assume the kitchen isn’t operating and order a coffee instead. Fifteen minutes later, the chef unexpectedly appears at my table and unveils a plate of rice and curry with a flourish. They don’t even charge me for it.