The very idea of hurtling along on a train at three hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, is both scary and preposterous, especially given that our Albury to Melbourne fast-train service, struggled to reach jogging speed in places. Before we boarded, we began hoping and then actually praying that these Chinese tracks allowed for a slightly more reliable and less hazardous journey than ours. The ride exceeded any scenario I could have come up with. It felt remarkably like flying in a large jet-liner. It turned out to be very smooth and comfortable although the scenery flashed by so fast that we didn’t feel quite at ease, especially with the digital monitor at the end of each car constantly displaying the current speed.
We reached Shanghai alive, which is always a bonus, but immediately became assaulted by the heat and humidity as we left the train. We managed Beijing’s dry heat, but this …? Within minutes, I become a human sprinkler system, spraying unsuspecting victims every time I moved. At the terminal we were picked up by an Australian expat, who put us up for a few days. Over that period, we received an education on all things Chinese, particularly the food. One of the local hot-pot restaurants called ‘The Little Sheep’ became our favourite. Each table came with a sunken pot, with a heat source underneath; something akin to a steam-boat in the middle of our table. Initially, we filled the boiling water with herbs and spices, and later with a range of local produce, which included some ‘not so local’ New Zealand Lamb. We also found a good dumpling restaurant, aptly named ‘Discovery’, with great varieties to choose from. In fact, we ate an awful lot in Shanghai, perhaps because of our exertions, or more likely, because of the air-conditioned facilities. Some of the dishes included spicy fish head, donkey, frog, snake-head fish, black wood fungus and goat, to name but a few.
On one of our days exploring the city, we discovered the ‘Alleys of Taikang Road’, which originally began, when an Australian opened an illegal restaurant to avoid zoning regulations, called the ‘Communard’. It became so popular that eventually all of the old houses in this tangle of streets become restaurants, quaint bars and galleries. Later that night, we visited ‘The Cotton Club’, which is particularly famous if you love live jazz; not unlike ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ in London. A classy mixture of Europeans and locals, belted out song after song, but the action really began, when an African-American woman joined the band from the dance floor and sang the roof off the place. Eventually, two other American gals and one stunning Bulgarian joined her. It turned out to be no accident; the girls became a group so that they could sing their way around China, at two cities per week.
In the middle of our Shanghai experience, someone recommended we head south on another fast train, to visit the city of Hangzhou. We initially found this small Chinese city of only four million people, very smoggy and unappealing; wondering why we ever ventured here. Then we discovered the ‘West Lake’, which is the city’s gem. It looked particularly beautiful at night, especially the fountain displays in the lake, which combined timed sprays of water, with coloured lighting and classical music. Despite the wonders of the lake, Hangzhou’s humidity almost did us in. Even the unimaginable crowds of local people and other tourists seemed to wilt; most, wetter than the eels in the bottom of the lake. Once again, the ever-present icy poles (roughly translated as La-bing-wa), saved us.
We travelled back to Shanghai with sobering news. Another fast-train, travelling from the same station as ours, crashed over a bridge after being struck by another train, with forty souls lost. Apparently, a lightning strike stopped the first train, but not the second, which couldn’t stop in time. We missed the same fate by moments and felt sick thinking about the grief suffered by all of the victims loved ones. It only strengthened our resolve to live life to its fullest and not waste a precious moment … while we still could.