On the 28th January it is Chinese New Year and 2017 is the year of the rooster. The words China and Rooster are inextricably linked in my mind with Paul Theroux’s classic ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ about travelling around China in the 1980s.
Travelling throughout China in the 1990s and leading groups across this most enigmatic of countries, I empathised with Thubron and sought solace in his words as I endured the curiosity of Chinese commuters, the blockages of loos and similar obstinacy of the train officials. I remember on several occasions having to sit with the chef and guard playing drinking games – my stomach still curdles at the thought of Bai jiu – to ensure that my lao wei clients could get private access to the dining car.
In highlighting such misadventures you might infer that I did not enjoy China. If so, I need to disavow you of any such impression. I was voracious in my learning of the language, history and customs. I am most definitely a Sinophile and a strong advocate for anyone to travel to China.
Thankfully train travel in China is now immeasurably more pleasurable and less alcoholic. Perhaps this is best epitomised by the Golden Eagle Train. Travel the Silk Road in luxury as you cross Central Asia into China and enjoy historic treasures such as the beautiful Buddhist art of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and the mesmerising Terracotta Warriors of Xian.
Beijing and Shanghai are two of China’s greatest cities and highlights. A high-speed train has now transformed this journey that gives you a ground-level view of the urban landscapes and cultivated countryside in China’s heartland. It is five hours well spent.
The Xining to Lhasa train must surely qualify as one of the great train journeys of the world. It is just under a two thousand kilometre journey that takes some twenty hours and reaches heights of 5,000 metres – making it the world’s highest rail journey – as you travel onto the Tibetan plateau and across the permafrost to Lhasa. You can take the train all the way from Beijing to Lhasa but that adds time and not much more to your journey – the most impressive scenery is definitely between Xining and Lhasa.
If you are looking for some Chinese reading other than ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, I would suggest the below:
Life under Mao
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
Fire under Snow by Palden Gyatso
Travels post Mao
Red Dust by Ma Jian
Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron
The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer