Friday, August 8, 2008


I got the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, which was slow and quiet and fun. On the train, when you look out of the window, you can tell you're in China.

You can tell because so many people are just hanging out, sitting around. Sitting on stools in the shade of trees, talking and smoking. Sitting on newspaper on station platforms and rubbing their shins as they talk. Leaving wooden chairs and plastic stools and even office chairs on wheels, out in the street, in rows, to sit on next time.

You can tell because the buildings in the cities look half finished, and you can’t tell if they’re half built or half demolished. Concrete frames packed roughly with bricks. Buildings stained by humans like plates stained by food. Some of the older buildings are reduced to shells, with the new ones, their replacements, visible through the holes. These new, cheap post-modern buildings all have something ill-proportioned about them: a funny hat on, a bridge halfway up, a hole through the middle, fins waving madly at the top. Like problem body shapes in women’s magazines, gangly or stumpy, a little too fat, a little too lopsided.

In the countryside, two storey buildings run alongside the tracks like relatives waving you off at a station. Simple, grey and squat, with low-tech solar panels on the top. Lined up in rows. Built out of concrete, bricks, tiles, and nothing extra.

You can tell from the landscape, endless, flat, and so many different types of green it’s like getting a train through one long garden centre. Long brown dusty roads with skinny trees growing along both sides for shade. Motorbikes bumping along, man driving, woman on the back, going nowhere. Paddy fields and flooded rivers reflect the mist above them. Occasional chimneys punch into the air.

You can tell you’re in China because the trains are 20th century trains. The carriages sit in sidings and roll past in different colours, red orange orange green blue blue red, all with a single white stripe down the sides. All designed by painters and artists who had no art to do. Simple colours that didn’t have to advertise or compete or look like they could go faster than the rival franchise operator. Trains that formed rainbow colours when they were put together.

You can tell you’re in China because life is simple outside the window, because everyone is living their lives in the open. And it's beautiful.

Photos by Gemma Thorpe