Shanghai, 24 January 2013

The bullet train pulled out of Beijing South Station forty minutes late, starting its five-hour trip to Shanghai. After a gentle canter through the outskirts of Beijing, the train powered off when it reached the countryside, reaching peaks of 300 km/hour – small screens over the doors helpfully clocked the speed. It was quiet in the train, disturbed only by the sudden jerk to the left caused by trains whooshing past in the opposite direction – and by certain passengers talking very loudly on their phones.

After reading a few pages of a dense report, I gave up and stared mournfully out of the window. The weather was cloudy and foggy, throwing a bleak and bleary light over everything. The land was flat, flat as the Po River plain in northern Italy. There was a thin covering of snow, not enough to make the scene beautiful. The field strips were small, reminding me of the fields around Neusidlersee to the south of Vienna. Some had been planted in corn – the stalks were still standing, some had fruit trees, but most were bare of anything. Copses of poplars broke the horizontal monotony. A few villages flashed by, a group of houses huddled together in no particular order, some proudly bearing a solar water heater on their roofs. Often, the country’s modern development would intrude, with bare, broken, worked-over ground waiting for the concrete and asphalt to arrive.

The countryside was empty save for shepherds leading small groups of sheep through the bare fields, particularly the corn fields, where the sheep were stripping the standing stalks of some nourishment. The shepherds were probably Muslim Chinese who had migrated centuries ago from the west of China and are now scattered throughout China’s eastern seaboard. They brought back memories of northern Italy, where you can also see shepherds who have come down from the mountains and are feeding their herds in bare winter fields.

The only other presence was the dead. Countless gravesites dotted the landscape. You can tell a Chinese grave by the way the earth is heaped up in a conical mound over the deceased. Groups of four or five of these mounds were visible at the corner of almost every field, or so it seemed. There was no wall around them like we would have in Europe, nothing to separate them from the world of the living. Often, there would be dark trees, pines perhaps, planted nearby to keep the dead company. They reminded me so much of the cypress trees that flourish in the graveyards of Italy.

Darkness slowly set in and everything outside my window dissolved in the murk. As we started slowing down to pull into our first stop, I sighed, put on my reading glasses, and hauled out the dense report again.