U and I took the high-speed train to Shaoguan this weekend. We were heading for Danxiashan, a national park with beautiful rock formations and attractive fog, hoping to get out of the city for a bit and do some hiking. We’ve both been cooped up with our computers a lot this past month, and the prospect of hiking and/or biking (and unicycling, of course) was appealing. But a last-minute decision set us off on a totally different adventure.
This was my second trip on the HST in China. I had taken some of the slightly slower trains in Japan this spring, too, but it was still thrilling to go zipping over the landscape at over 300km/hr. It doesn’t feel like you’re moving that fast, because the ride is so smooth. Mountains, aquaculture ponds, bright green and yellow patchwork fields, high-rise towers, mid-rise apartment buildings, single people standing by the side of the track — they all pass by not so much in a blur as in a dream-like state; you can’t quite hold what you’ve seen in your sight long enough for it to gather meaning.
It’s impressive. The New Yorker had an excellent piece a few weeks ago on China’s booming high-speed rail. I read it on my Kindle when we were in Zhejiang, and I thought a lot about it while traveling this week.The piece starts with safety and corruption issues highlighted by last year’s high-profile smashup near Wenzhou, but goes on to talk about a lot of interesting features of Chinese development and economic growth in ways that resonated better with me than most coverage I’ve read.
Anyway, while we were rapidly closing the distance between Guangzhou and Shaoguan, U found some interesting tidbits on the Internet that suggested we might find great river valley hikes and rafting/boating/rapids if we continued a little farther along the line to Pingshi. We were able to figure out that the fast train doesn’t stop at Pingshi, even though it passes through the area, so we disembarked at Shaoguan and snagged a bus to the old-school train station downtown.
In Shaoguan, we had some time to kill before our train, so we biked over to an island in the river that looked parklike on our maps. We poked through some flea-market-style street vendors’ trinkets and fake antiques, picking up a few Mao badges (that’s my best guess as to what they are, at least) and old coins. We headed back to the train station and boarded one of the old “green skin” slow trains that have serviced most of the country for decades.
The station was small and jammed with people, and the trains were noisy and cluttered. Small mountains of peanut shells and sunflower seed hulls grew on the table across from us, and more passengers jammed on at every stop. No one sat with us, the two random Westerners on the train, even though there was room on my bench. The train rumbled along through some serious mountain tunnels. We spent a 45-minute stretch of the ride inside tunnels, punctuated by no more than 20- to 30-second intervals of daylight views down to the river valley below.
We arrived at Pingshi. There were mountains of trash everywhere, and the buildings were all a similar dingy grey from the thick smog in the air. We bought a couple of chicken legs from a street vendor in a busy fruit & vegetable market near the station, and they were handed over in (wholly unnecessary) plastic bags. When we finished eating them on the spot, the man gestured that we should simply toss our bones and plastic bags into the street—like everyone else clearly did. We declined and packed out our trash. We pedaled our way out of town, hoping to find a place to stay out in the “scenic area” hinted at by the Internet, even though the winds were gusting up the narrow streets, and the sky looked like rain.
A few kilometers later, we were out of town. The air was still choked with the smell of burning trash, though, and we passed road construction staging areas on steep hills. Finally, we found the turn off for the 7011 Scenic Spot. Text-heavy signs pointed us down a smaller paved road that was framed with fall foliage, so we headed in. The road got better, or rather, the road got worse but the scenery got better: attractive small houses, compact fields full of potatoes and greens and peppers, rolling river-area terrain, and where new construction was beginning, bright red gashes of clay opened in the landscape.
Finally, along our right, we saw a long, low brick building; a brick wall ran along the perimeter of the property. The road continued past, then dead-ended into a vaguely military-looking decorative metal gate with brick walls continuing along each side. We stopped just outside the gate, where the brick wall opened up to a parking lot, backed by a tall, blank-faced building.
As we pulled up, a woman came out, and U asked her if they had any rooms for visitors. She ushered us toward the long, low brick building, which turned out to be a hotel. The first room she showed us was spacious and clean — and the mattress was still shrink wrapped. We agreed to take it, and she put us in the next door room, which was identical, except the mattress had been unwrapped and the bed made up. I thought the hotel was very pretty, actually. All brick, with shuttered windows and wood doors, and the gates from the hotel to the restaurant were rounded openings in the brick wall. Red, paper lanterns hung near the guest rooms, and there were a set of cement picnic tables under some trees near the restaurant. If the weather had been better, it would have been very pleasant.
We asked to explore the scenic area before dinner, since that’s why we’d come. There were no other guests, so they ushered us to the entrance gate of the scenic spot. We paid the entrance fee (20 RMB apiece), received our ticket and our official receipt, and passed through the gate. At this point, I had imagined that the scenic spot would be a sort of paved hiking trail experience with selected photo spots of the river. The brick wall continued to our left, now, and the path was overhung with trees on both sides. Photos on the signs had suggested that there was river rafting to be had, as well.
But as we strolled, I realized that the man who had given us our tickets was still walking with us. U looked at him, and he ushered us toward a small building that looked like a second ticket booth. He was carrying a flashlight.
The man showed us a large sign with a diagram of a multi-room building and spoke to us at length in Chinese about it; we couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but we realized we were in for some kind of tour. He lead us to a metal grate of a door, and unlocked it. We followed him inside, and much to my horror, he pulled the door shut and locked behind us. At this point, we started to realize: this “scenic spot” was not famous for river rafting or hiking or nature views, but rather for being some kind of highly-fortified bunker/mine project under the mountains.
We need to work on our Chinese skills.
Relying on U’s limited vocabulary and clever sign language (often using his cellphone as a prop), our guide showed us around the maze-like cavern. Deep under these rocky mountains, the enormous complex included conference rooms, showers, dorms, kitchen, ammunition storage, electrical power generators, complex fresh-air ventilation systems, and who knows what else. The place is basically deserted, with minimal signage and no detailed information. Our guide showed us some tunnels that looked like shuttered mines, and a fresh-water spring filled a cistern in the recesses of the space. He demonstrated the defensability of the tunnel layout, the safe rooms and observation spots, the chemical- and bomb-proof doors, and had us inspect some nicely made (if high-school/industrial hallway aesthetic) terazzo floors.
During our private tour, there was also a pair of men installing wiring at one of the hallway intersections; colored bulbs hung in most of the corridors, giving it a cheesy casino feel (but maybe also taking the edge off the super-creepiness of the space, now that I think of it). As we passed by, our guide said something to a man on the ladder, and he asked U a question. I thought I heard something about “pork”, and I was right. It turns out, not only was he the electrician, he was also the cook. We agreed on pig feet, eggplant, and green vegetable for dinner, and he went back to smoking and working on the wiring. It was … surreal.
We thought that maybe we hadn’t understood enough of the tour to make sense of it, but when we got back to the room, we started doing a little research and it turns out, we’d understood about as much as there is to know. There’s not much information about the 7011. In fact, I can’t find any information about this anywhere on the web other than this entry on the Baidu approximation of Wikipedia. Construction started in 1970, and the site was abandoned in 1980. It’s original purpose is unknown (or undisclosed) as is the reason it was shuttered.
U and I laughed about the day’s debacle over dinner, which was served in a private room in the otherwise-closed restaurant. The electrician turned out to be a reasonably good cook, though the dishes he prepared weren’t my favorite, and a tall, jovial man from the staff brought us some homemade baijiu as a digestif. He poured it out of large plastic jar with a screw-on lid. The fermenting rice was still floating on the surface, U’s miniature baijiu cup had a single grain floating in it. It was surprisingly good! All in all, not a bad end to the day. Internet access was limited and there were no other guests, so we called it an early night.
In the morning, we packed up early and headed out. U had looked up some potential routes using Google Maps’ satellite view, and we set out to find our way along the river. Not far from where we turned off the road toward the 7011 site, we found a path we hoped would lead us to a smaller road along the river; a long trestle bridge crossed to the other side, where it had appeared on the maps. As we approached, a train whistled sounded and thundered over the bridge. A queue of men were walking on the path next to the rail, so we knew it was possible to cross when a train was on the bridge, so we pushed our wheels along with us and headed for the other side. It was dizzyingly high, and in the middle of the crossing, we stopped to take some pictures. As U posed, I snapped a photo, and in the backdrop, I spotted the huge iconic cooling tower of a nuclear power plant.
Before we’d finished crossing, two motorcycles passed us. We followed them down from the crossing into a small village. It was a mix of old and new construction, with an old temple, painted a mustardy yellow, at one end of town. The road wrapped around town, and disappointingly lead us back in the wrong direction — away from Shaoguan. But it was along the river, and so we made our way along, hoping for some nice scenery. It never arrived.
Our day continued a series of hilarious misadventures. We passed by gravel mining operations, road construction, and the town that hosted the nuclear power plant. We charged the unicycle battery in a construction site with some friendly guys who wanted to speak to us in heavily accented Chinese that gave us no hope of communicating. We squeezed the folding bike and the unicycle onto three buses when the roads got bad or the unicycle battery got low. We got into a ridiculous argument about bike locks standing on the side of the road waiting for one of the buses. We bought the most delicious baozi I’ve ever eaten from a lady in a tiny town; they were $0.08 a piece. We caught an informal taxi ride with a family who turned out to be Christians of an evangelical sort; they gave us a Chinese-language pamphlet with a new-agey graphic of clock on the front and talked to us about Jesu. We laughed a lot. I sweat a lot, hauling the single-speed folding bike up and down the more mountainous stretches of our path. I wore a bandana or scarf over my face most of the day to try and cut down on some of the polluted air we were breathing in.
We ended our day with a long stretch of riding through busy streets and then dusty, rutted side roads underneath the exitless freeways that bypass the region. We finally emerged onto a sleek modern four-lane divided highway with wide sidewalks/bike paths. In the near distance, tall residential skyscrapers were rising. The Shaoguan HST station presides over an enormous approach lawn; to its left is a sprawling parking lot, and to its right is a huge bus terminal. Imposing steps led up to a glass-fronted building.
Despite its size, it proved to be largely empty space. Two stories tall, with soaring ceilings on both levels. The wings on either side were empty and locked up. The design reminded me strongly of the high-speed train stations I’d seen in Japan; the bathrooms in particular were much more Japanese in design. I’d read some breatheless reporting on this kind of thing in the NYT, but I hadn’t really believed it until I saw this.
We bought tickets on a late train — all the other were sold out — and lined up to board any of the earlier trains that had standing room capacity left. We got one two hours ahead of schedule and even made it home in time for dinner. It wasn’t the weekend we’d hoped for upon leaving the city, but I feel pretty good about what happened instead!
This week, it’s adventures in politics, with the Chinese power transition getting underway and the U.S. election on Tuesday. I’ll be glued to my computer, watching returns all day on Wednesday.