The thing that defines a journey is its destination.
Well, that, and how you get there, where you came from, what you do with your spare time while your travelling, who you meet along the way, and the number of times you wake up in a strange place not knowing where the hell you are anymore.
So, the first statement isn’t really very useful at all. In fact, the actual destination of any journey is usually the least interesting aspect of it, especially when you’re not in a hurry to get there.
It was time to escape the chaotic world of mainland China for a while and take a break in the metropolis of Hong Kong. Yes, I was going to have a relaxing respite in one of the most crowded and exciting cities in the world. Hong Kong is, and always has been, part of modern China, but no one seems to have told the Chinese immigration officials in Shanghai this particular fact. No one there seems to understand that one might want to leave the People’s Republic and travel The Rest Of The World for a while.
OK, so there had been a large fence surrounding Hong Kong for over a century, tightly guarded by the British as they struggled to hold onto their last treasured colonial foothold in the area. That fence is still there, but the reason for its construction is not. Today, it’s a barrier to keep certain things in and certain things out, but I couldn’t really tell which was which, or why. It was time to go through the fence and find out.
There was a long queue at the customs entrance of Shanghai Station. I noticed something very strange; absent was the usual pushing and shoving that was part of most public phenomena in China. Typically, barging to the front of a mass of people (one can’t really ever call it a “queue”) is a lot less hazardous than having everyone else barge past you, bashing their luggage into your shins and sideswiping you with their shopping bags. Everything in this particular departure hall was orderly and quiet, but I still braced myself for a round of hand-to-hand combat with vindictive octogenarians, an unpleasant fact that typically accompanies the boarding process of any Chinese train. Nothing happened, which made me extremely suspicious. Were we in the right country? This was China, was it not? Home of 1,300,000,000 people, usually squashed into a single train? Hmmm…
My train was announced, the barriers to the platforms were opened and a throng of people filed quietly and patiently through, they found their places on the train and settled in. It was all very irregular, this orderliness – no barging, spitting, shouting, fighting or any of the other features that usually make train travel in China such an event.
A few hours into our trip, I decided to make for the restaurant car and drink some beer. A few bottles of Budweiser later and I realised that I was the only traveller in the restaurant car. The rest of the people sitting in the restaurant car were either railway staff members, army personnel, or police officers. They smoked heavily, chatted noisily, and glanced curiously in my direction. The most senior-looking police officer began to stare intently at me as if sizing me up for a bit or rigorous police work later on. He continued this for a few minutes, then stubbed out his cigarette, put on his police officer’s hat and came over to my table.
‘Hello,’ he shouted at me in his best imitation of a Sylvester Stallone accent, ‘nice China?’ The man’s fellow officers giggled behind him in a fug of cigarette smoke. His face was only a few inches from mine, and he exuded a noxious guff of nicotine, mixed with other unspeakable odours, as he spoke. Or rather, yelled.
‘You nice China, OK?’ he barked at me as I repositioned myself to dodge the onslaught of halitosis.
‘Oh yes, very nice China,’ I replied. Grammar was never my strong point. ‘You Shanghai?,’ I said, pointing at his police badge.
This seemed to go down well and we quickly established that the entire staff of this train was from China’s most populous city. My thunderous companion then produced a rather interesting object from his tunic – his copy of the “Official China Railways Staff Chinese – English Phrasebook”.
The booklet that the police officer was holding was a small guide that every railway officer was required to carry on long-distance trains, and it contained useful phrases like “May I help you find the restroom.”
Anyone who takes a train in China knows exactly where the toilets are.
Another useful phrase was “I thoroughly recommend the cheese plate”, which is quite useless in a country that doesn’t have any cheese that’s actually edible, and whose population is largely lactose intolerant. Another favourite: “Please stand close when urinating strongly.” Good advice.
The police officer slowly thumbed through the well-worn pages of his booklet in an animated way, much to the delight of the rest of the uniformed staff, whose combined attention was now focused solely in my direction.
‘Welcome to China,’ stuttered the policeman in a kind-hearted, but at the same time threateningly forceful, kind of way. It was difficult to tell if the man was toying with me before making a public arrest, or if he seemed genuinely interested in improving his English conversational skills. I assumed the latter. The police officer’s next sentence was completely unintelligible, and after a few further attempts, he gave up and handed his reading material to me. The booklet was small and thin, and the basic structure of its contents didn’t seem to follow any particular learning syllabus or a logical grouping of words and phrases. A pointed finger on the page led me to think that the man was attempting to say the words “Which country do you come from?”, but the resulting string of phonetic utterances had sounded more like someone in the middle of a cardiac event.
I found the right words for Australia and Germany next to the corresponding groups of Chinese characters and showed it to the officer, attempting to pronounce the phonetic script that was written there. This seemed to both delight and irritate him at the same time and he searched through the booklet for the next conversational nugget to try out on me. A few more exchanges followed until the police officer was satisfied that he had now officially welcomed me to his country. He walked back to his table, resumed smoking and ignored me for the rest of the evening. Following my brush with the law, I had to leave the restaurant car and indulge in some strong urinating while standing closely.