It’s the Olympic games, and the whole world is pointing their cameras at China. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the country twice. The first time was a brief skip over the border to Guangzhou while visiting pre-handover Hong Kong. The second time was a much bigger trip – four weeks. We kicked off in Beijing and ended up Hong Kong. We got to know China’s trains* pretty well, travelling by hard sleeper. Each carriage had its own attendant who diligently arranged the curtains and pushed loose luggage straps back into the overhead racks. We found the Chinese to be shy but curious. We weren’t exactly pioneers but it’s clear many people there haven’t met Westerners. Hard sleepers are split into bays, open to the corridor with six bunks in each bay, and we got a constant stream of visitors, mostly who just came to look. In cities we got used to ‘staring squads’ – one bloke even going into a cafe to bring out his mates to see. Many times I was asked to join a family photograph – as I type this there’s probably a chap at Long March People’s Tractor Facility chuckling over the picture he took of me in Beijing on his pilgrimage to Mao’s tomb. We saw medieval poverty and expanding modern cities that we’d never even heard of. Hangzhou has a population of almost 2 million, and (I was told) about 150 motorcycle factories. It was like being in Britain at the height of our industrial power. Make no mistake, the future belongs to China. I lost count of the miles we travelled on the Chinese rail network – thousands. We weren’t delayed for a minute. When we got back to Heathrow, the tubes were knackered, the Heathrow Express was down and we couldn’t get a bus. We ended up spending 70 quid in a taxi home. Maybe we should get the Chinese to organise London 2012.
* From Shanghai to Guillin we flew. Air China’s inflight meal was bread and water.