Several problems present themselves:
1) I need to buy some gloves. It will be cold in Sinkiang (Xinjiang).
2) I need to post some gifts back to the UK.
3) Cash. Credit and debit card cash machines are difficult to find where I’m going, so I must plan on taking enough money to last me through to Chengdu.
I ask for directions at reception to the post office, and am told it is one block up. This turns out to be a lie. I walk four blocks as the rain starts to pour down. I find the post office near Soochow Creek, nowhere near where I’d been directed to.
The building is worth the effort: huge and European in style, it has a sweeping double staircase, all carved with great care in the finest stone. Upstairs I find a tranquil scene – perhaps 120 kiosks, but only 4 open for business. A very helpful chap wraps my gifts in brown paper and string with great nimbleness… and at absolutely no cost!
Just when I think everything is going swimmingly, I hit Chinese bureaucracy. I am presented with four forms:
3) More customs
4) A fourth form in French… and my French is very fourth form.
I spend a happy ten minutes declaring all sorts of things, and assuring the Chinese government I’m not exporting priceless antiquities, then queue up at the kiosks. (My written assurances weren’t good enough it seems, and the package arrived in the UK some weeks later having been thoroughly searched.)
We English pride ourselves on our queuing, our ability to wait our turn in an orderly manner and not complain. Hmmmh…
An important lesson learnt – kindness and manners have little currency in a Chinese post office. After I’ve been rudely usurped three times, I see my chance and dive in elbows out, putting my height advantage to good use. The package is snatched away from me by the member of staff, weighed, stamped, stamped again and dispatched. I am almost dragged out of the way by the next customer.
Gloves are not fashionable in China as far as I can see. I trawl the department stores of the Nanjing Road, but all I hear from the shop assistants is ‘No got’. In the process I am offered some smashing gloves ‘for lady’, fingerless driving gloves with chequered pattern, and my favourite – a pair of boxing gloves! Imagine crossing the deserts of China wearing a pair of those beauties.
I finally manage to pick up a pair of North Face gloves from a street stall. Closer examination of the general build quality leads me to think these are more South Face than North Face, but hey, they work. I also pick up a small SW radio to listen to the BBC World Service. I stock up with a huge wad of money from an ATM, and return to the hotel to pack. I feel weighed down with food and water, but I’m not sure what to expect on this colossal train journey. Rather take too much than too little, I decide. I shower then stash the cash in my boots.
I check out from the eccentric Peace Hotel, then take a cab across town to the railway station. We drive on elevated roads for most of the journey through Shanghai. It is still raining hard. Cold English rain. The neon reflects in puddles. The cab stinks of cheap, harsh tobacco, and a small flat screen in the headrest blasts out adverts in a language I don’t understand. On either side the skyscrapers loom and I feel like I’m in the film ‘Blade Runner’. This is the future. This will be one of the most important cities of the 21st century. A sudden pang of nervousness at the thought of where I am, what I am doing and where I’m going.
What a station – vast and busy. I walk into the ‘Hard Class’ waiting area, where thousands of people sit on the floor beside their carefully tied luggage. I show my ticket to the inspector and he laughs, and hurries me through a locked door and steers me into the very plush ‘Soft Class’ waiting area with chrome and leather seats, a café,the promise of a wash room and even drinking water. My bags are scanned, and the bleeper goes wild at my Faraday Bag (see retro blog 1). Nobody is bothered. I see that they have no interest in the result of the scan; they just happy enough to see that you’ve been through the process. Chinese bureaucracy is a strange animal.
My train number appears reassuringly in red on the smart electronic board, but it’s not boarding yet. I’ve still an hour to wait. I tuck into Evelyn Waugh and relax a little.
Shot into Shanghai at 420KPH aboard the MAGLEV train, I am to leave on the less glamourous T52 to Urumqi… and in the pouring rain.