The time to leave China had come. My Chinese visa was to expire the next day, and if I didn’t want to come to any precarious confrontation with the untrustworthy Chinese authorities, I had to be stepping on non-Chinese soil by the next day latest. I did not yet have any plan, so I needed to make one fast. After researching a bit and contemplating hastily upon my possibilities, I concluded to what was seemingly the cheapest solution for quickly slipping away from this country, while having it convenient to connect with the rest of the world. I would go from Shanghai to Hong Kong by train.
I purchased the ticket online (of course with the appropriate aid of one who can understand what a meaning all these grotesque symbols of accumulated lines do convey) for 234 RMB – which was by far cheaper than any of even the closest international flights from Shanghai, and the flights, too, from Hong kong to any of my candidate subsequent destinations were in average 50% cheaper of what they’d be from Shanghai.
It was about eighteen minutes past one noon, when I had just sucked the last puff of my cigarette and I was stepping from the platform of Shanghai South Railway Station into that carriage, into which I was to spend the next 19 hours of my life. It was the cheapest carriage of the train, with its tickets featured as “hard seat tickets”. However, upon locating my seat, as I did not find them any hard really, I concluded that they should rather, more accurately, have named them “cramped seats”. The carriage was suffocatingly full. All the seats were occupied and the racks upon them squeezedly packed, leaving the rest of the passengers standing in the aisle and the rest of the luggage somehow put under the seats, under our legs, on top of the tables, on top of our legs and in any place where they’d not severely obstruct the traffic of the trolley-pushing, food-and-drink-selling staff that were soon to start running up and down the aisle .
A few minuets after my boarding, the train, quite faithful in its schedule, slid upon the metallic beams, starting its way southwards. Besides the trolleys, which were in frequent intervals passing up and down the aisle offering goods of a diverse range: from water and soft-drinks, to fruits and sweets, to instant-noodles and rice-meals, to chicken-feet and duck-eggs, to cell-phone-covers and power-banks… the aisle had a consistent amount varied traffic. The most of it was constituted by passengers going to the area between the carriages, where the toilets, the smoking-area, as well as some sleeping-ground for the ones having no seats, were to be found. There was also a big number of seated-passengers strolling up and down just to unstiffen their muscles or find some willing for conversation co-passengers, and also some uniformed staff ambulating up and down with apparently no other purpose than to kill their time.
There was also that funny bloke, who would in unsuspected times make his sudden appearance, carrying always a different big box, a microphone attached in front of his mouth, and a speaker hung from his belt. That speaker was quite voluble, I happened to find out better than anyone else in there, as I happened to be sitting right in the middle of the carriage, where that guy’s chosen spot was. What exactly he was saying I cannot surmise. However he was surely very fluent, his tongue working as a two-stroke engine and the words streaming out of his mouth like cricket-chanting out of a night forest, and quite convincing as well! As long (and it was quite long, my poor ears know) his speech and demonstration persisted, everyone on the carriage seemed to be deeply committed to his show. And after he had finished, his right palm was rapidly getting filled up with banknotes, while simultaneously his left hand was equally rapidly emptying the content of each box, whatever its content in each occasion, from quiz-magazines to frame-bending toothbrushes.
Besides that commercial traveler, there was also another man who was effectively entertaining the carriage’s passengers throughout the trip, and he was no other than myself. I did not of course make any sort of exhibition, nor did I merely uttered any word at all. That was not needed. Just the fact that I was a foreigner kept the interest of everybody vivid upon my person, frequently throwing me furtive glances, catching every curious singularity of my appearance and behavior, and chuckling merrily on it.
A few of them also tried to talk with me, but such an attempt – as my Chinese skills are not any keen – could have no better result than a pigeon retorting cooing to a frog’s croaks. It was only later in the evening when the chance arose. A new passenger stepped into the train and occupied the just freed seat against me. He could speak a little bit of English, so he soon made the start and we opened a chat. In no more than a while, however, our chat had been rather transformed to a sort of interrogation, me being the interrogated, him the interpreter, and all the rest the interrogators. All the people sitting near us, as well as several others who heard and approached from more distant seats to join us, started to avidly ask me, medio that guy, various questions, ranging from where I’m from and the curiosities of my country, to whether I am married and how much money I earn per month. All the rest who were not actively participating, were keeping strict silence, from side to side of the carriage, listening deeply focused to what we were saying until, the conversation faded gradually away by late night, all of us falling asleep one after another.
By the time I opened my eyes we were approaching our destination. It was a merry, bright morning. Besides the sky, which was much clearer and bluer than the north Chinese sky we left behind the day before, many more things were differentiating sharply this part of China from Shanghai and its purlieus, as the more colorful housing, the hillier landscapes and the banana-trees and other subtropical products.
I had some time I was constantly staring outside the window and musing upon this new world, while waiting for my eyes to open properly. When I finally turned my head to the front, the first I saw was that new young guy – who probably boarded some time while I was sleeping – sitting opposite me, and placing with an abrupt movement his mobile phone right in front of my face. On it I saw “Hello brother! May I help you? Where are you going to?” displayed on the interface of the Chinese version of Google Translate.
After we spent some time chatting using that translator, we finally arrived at Shenzhen. As he had offered, my new friend helped me to find the border-crossing to Hong Kong inside that people-flooded station. Despite the vast crowds crossing back and forth the borders, I was done with it much sooner than I could expect. So by noon-time I was boarded onto that urban train heading to Hong Kong downtown.