The station master is exasperated. He puffs up and down the platform, bellowing into his megaphone in a futile attempt to line everyone up behind the carriage numbers that are embedded in the concrete. But these tough hill farmers won’t be drilled into submission. They crowd the platform edge to watch as the sleek, white bullet-nosed train pulls into Sanjiang station. This country halt in mountainous Guizhou province is a new stop on the 1,000-mile high-speed rail link connecting coastal Guangzhou to Kunming in the subtropical south-west, which opened in its entirety earlier this year.
High-speed trains keep strictly to time, and this is just a two-minute stop so there’s a rush to load bags and sacks of produce before the automatic doors snap shut. It is usual for station staff to bow as the train departs, but Sanjiang’s station master forgets this courtesy: he’s too busy mopping his brow.
The bullet-nosed high-speed train races through Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia autonomous region of China. The train cuts travel time from days to a few hours while allowing tourists to travel in comfort
I am on my way to Congjiang, a journey that once took all day on a bus winding through the steep-sided valleys. The train has cut the journey time to 30 minutes, though most of that time is spent in tunnels with only the briefest glimpses of forest-cloaked mountains.
China began rolling out its high-speed rail network 10 years ago, building arrow-straight track on piers high above farmland, villages and river valleys. When mountains got in the way, the Chinese simply tunnelled through them. There are now more than 14,000 miles of high-speed track used by more than a billion people a year.
Speeds range from a cautious 120mph through tunnels to a steady 185mph across the open countryside. The reduction in journey times is phenomenal. It now takes hours rather than days to travel from Shanghai to Kunming in the deep south or from Beijing to Urumqi in the far west – opening up the possibility of seeing most of the country’s highlights on a tour by high-speed train rather than by plane.
Travelling this way is more enjoyable and, door-to-door, trains are competitive time-wise: just over four hours from Beijing to Xi’an; five hours from Xi’an to Shanghai.
The carriages are clean and comfortable with at-seat service, and even second class offers twice as much legroom as standard-class seats on British trains. Over the next decade, the network is expected to double in size, reaching parts of China that until now have seen few outsiders. In the autumn, high-speed lines connecting Xi’an to Chengdu and Chongqing will give easy access to the highlands of Sichuan and the Yangtze River.
In the south, a high-speed track is being laid from Kunming all the way to China’s borders with Laos and Myanmar. Here in Guizhou, the coming of the railway will transform the lives of the area’s ethnic minorities – the Miao, the Dong and the Zhuang – and plunge them headlong into the world of selfie sticks, karaoke bars and profligate consumerism as weekenders from the cities come to gawp and party. Or, as the Chinese Government would put it: the rail link will improve the lives of these ‘backward’ peoples who will benefit greatly from closer integration with modern China and the superior culture of the Han majority.
Terraced mountainsides used to raise crops in Zhaoxing are a common sight during the train ride
Zhaoxing, home to the largest Dong community in China, is just a 10-minute taxi ride from Congjiang Station. (Like many of China’s high-speed stations, Congjiang lies many miles from the town after which it is named.) The Dong are famous for their carpentry skills, using local fir to build pagoda-like drum towers, covered wind-and-rain bridges and four-storey houses, all without using nails. Traditionally self-sufficient, the villages are surrounded by ponds for farming fish and fighting fires. Rice grows on narrow terraces that cascade down the hillsides, as does cotton and indigo, for Dong women are renowned for their weaving and embroidery. I have a vision of Zhaoxing as a bastion of the simple life in a country modernising at breakneck speed.
So imagine my disappointment on arriving to see a vast car park and a Wembley-sized ticket office where I must pay Dh60 to enter the village. This commercialisation of ethnic enclaves is fast becoming the norm in China as developers – often from Beijing or Shanghai – buy promotion rights to historic villages, put up a few signposts, litter bins and lavatories, and start charging for entry to aid the area’s ‘development’.
Dong children dressed as folk heroes participate in a Taiguanren Festival to pray for blessings in the new year in the Guizhou Province of China
I walk up a crazy-paved avenue that cuts into the heart of the village and stop at a noodle stall. As ever in China, the village’s best English speaker seeks me out. ‘Ah, the new Zhaoxing,’ he says with a weak smile when I ask about the turnstile entry. ‘This street is brand new. Government officials from Beijing came along and said they were widening it and that was that. Now we have this ugly road served by a tourist trolley bus.’
Indigo Lodge, a funky concrete guesthouse cleverly constructed inside the shell of a traditional wooden house by a local entrepreneur, is run by a young man who also speaks excellent English. He tells me about paths into the hills to villages beyond roads, so I set off up stone staircases polished by the feet of time and perfumed by a white dog rose.
In Xiage, I sit in the village square, watching men and women laughing and joshing as they cook up a feast in huge vats and find a village shrine packed with joss sticks.
At Tang’an, water gushes from the mouth of a stone gargoyle into buckets carried away on yokes. The fields are full of people turning the claggy mud with hand-held ploughs and transplanting rice seedlings.
Despite the initial impression, I come to like Zhaoxing too. Away from the main drag, life goes on much as it has always done. The alleys echo with the sound of indigo cloth being thwacked into shiny submission with heavy wooden mallets.
The men gossip beneath the pagoda-like roofs of the drum towers and the children play in the streams that thread through the village.
Unlike the largely deserted historic villages I have visited in eastern China, there is enough business from tourism here for young people to stay and raise a family in the fresh air of these peaceful hills. And there are lots of young people – China’s minorities were exempted from the Government’s one-child policy.
Zhaoxing has much in common with my home town, St Ives in Cornwall. We too retreat into the shadows as tourists take over our streets in summer, and turn the other way when a camera is raised. But there are benefits for both our communities: wealthy buyers for paintings, ceramics and jewellery made by local craftspeople, more jobs and better transport links.
A scene outside a railway station in Liuzhuo
After travelling back down the line to Guilin, I board the bus for Longji Titian, the Dragon’s Backbone, where the hills have been sculpted into rice terraces that curl away like the scales on a dragon’s spine. Li’An Lodge in Ping’an is the place to stay.
A beautiful wooden chalet built by Keren Su, the National Geographic photographer, it displays his covetable collection of folk-art treasures.
Leaving the lodge for a walk to Dazhai, I pass a group of Chinese tourists donning Miao tribal costumes for a photograph against a backdrop of misty hills. The Miao don’t live here, but their colourful dress and tinkling silver tiaras are much in demand, and the local black-robed Zhuang are happy to go with the pretence when there’s money to be made.
The water-filled terraces shine like mirrors in the morning sun as the path hugs the contours of hills pleated as tight as a Miao skirt. Along the way, old ladies try to take me home for lunch and younger women offer to unfurl their ankle-length hair for a photograph. And who can blame them for trying to capture a little of the tourist yuan? Most visitors to Dazhai head straight for the cable car that gives a bird’s-eye view of the terraces. Few wander the lanes of this old Red Yao village where homes have been extended to take in guests.
Over a lunch of chicken curry, sticky rice cooked in bamboo and a homemade herbal drink, I watch tiny Yao women carrying pink wheelie suitcases in wicker baskets up flights of granite steps followed by their owners in floaty frocks and high heels. They charge Dh20 porterage for each bag – a nice bonus for a poor rice farmer.
The bus back to Ping’an winds through a gorge festooned with wild wisteria.
On slopes too steep to log, it’s a rare surviving example of south China’s original forest cover, a land that enthralled British plant hunters a century ago. I hope it will survive the scourge of overdevelopment, but in China you never know. Next year there could be another red scar on the hillside as the road is widened to bring in coach parties. Go soon.
How to travel on China’s high-speed rail network
Classes of travel
There are three classes of seat: business, first and second. Announcements are made in Mandarin and English, both verbally and on screens above the carriage doors. Trains have a buffet kiosk and a trolley service for food and drink.
Advance booking usually opens 60 days ahead of travel. First-class tickets can sell out within hours on popular routes at peak times. Make an advance reservation with an online agent who will snap up the seats the moment booking opens. I recommend China Highlights (chinahighlights.com), which answers email enquiries and sends instant confirmation with the vouchers needed to collect the tickets from any railway station in China (there’s an small fee if it’s not the departure station). It will post the tickets to your hotel for a fee. At short notice, ask your hotel or guesthouse to buy you tickets online to be picked up at the station.
The new high-speed stations are often a long way from the centre. There may not yet be a metro stop or bus service, so be prepared to pay for a taxi. At most stations you must show your passport and ticket at the main entrance. Station concourses are laid out like airports. Passengers sit near the relevant gate until the train number lights up in green and you proceed through the barrier on to the platform. The gate closes about 10 minutes before departure.
China Less Travelled (chinalesstravelled.com) can design offbeat train-based itineraries countrywide on a bespoke basis, staying in boutique hotels and lodges such as the Li’An in Ping’an and the Indigo in Zhaoxing.
seat61.com has good background information on all aspects of rail travel in China.