Planes, Trains, and Automobiles II

When it came time for me to take my journey, Beijing was not yet open to international flights. The only way I could take a flight out of China and back was via Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. Furthermore, I had to make sure that upon returning, I’d have enough time for the mandatory two-week quarantine. (As it turned out, however, the mandatory quarantine for returning travelers had been lifted, and though it would be too late for me, Beijing was scheduled to re-open to international travel at the end of March—all this I learned only after my trip was booked.) And so, I would leave Beijing a couple of days early so I could recover after the trip down to Shanghai, and so that I would have time to take a PCR test in time to make my flight—entry requirements for the United States stipulated a negative PCR test within forty-eight hours of the flight.

When I left Beijing for Shanghai, it was cold, grey, raining, and miserable. The rain was a steady drizzle that developed over the morning. I went out early to catch a cab to the railway station, where I had reservations on the bullet train down to Shanghai’s Hongqiao station. I waited nearly an hour and a half to get a car, but eventually succeeded in acquiring a ride. Technically, Beijing South Railway Station isn’t too far from where I live, but Beijing’s rush hour traffic, being what it is, lengthened the trip considerably.

When I arrived, carrying my luggage (a backpack, and large duffel bag, and a shoulder bag), and hobbling along on my cane, I had to go through an airport-style security system to gain entry. It wasn’t so bad; generally, lines that seem long in such situations tend to move along quickly. I think either that it’s a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon, or that I am learning to be more patient in my middle age. Not having used the railway before, I quickly found my departing gate, and prepared to wait. A vast sea of humanity filled the station, which was easily the size of an aircraft hangar. There was no place to sit and wait, so I stood and leaned upon my cane. I did not notice any ticket counters, which worried me because I had only the confirmation receipt on my phone. I approached one of the officers at the gate, and was told that all I needed was to show my passport, and the system would show my ticket and log me in. In fact, the officials there were very considerate, and not only helped me check in, but insisted on carrying my luggage and conducting me down to make sure I found the correct carriage and seat assignment. It wasn’t long before I settled in, and off we went.

The high-speed train was impressive. Normal speed was 345 kph. We had about four or five stops along the way, but leaving Beijing at 11:00, we made Shanghai by about 15:30 or 16:00. It was very much like flying, only I had a lot more room than is usual in Economy Class. And, I was lucky to have two seats to myself. I had hoped to be able to watch the scenery go by on the way down South, but the grey mists, overcast sky, the rain, and the tinted windows of the carriage made the outside world seem unfinished, somehow. A world of phantoms and shadows flew past my window. It reminded me of a short story by Robert Heinlein, in which when looked at directly, the world was being ‘un-made.’ –That story was, I believe, the basis for his novel “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.” It was eerie and depressing, and I felt as though these odd conditions portended something deeply unpleasant for my trip home.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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