A railway journey that led to a lifetime story
Bruce Connolly (R) and Mr. Li. Photo taken in 1987. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
"There are many ways of seeing landscape quite as good and none more vivid, in spite of canting dilettanti, than from a railway train." 19th century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's book Thoughts on Walking.
Rail travel has always been, and still is, my preferred way to travel. Exactly 30 years ago this week I arrived in China by train on a journey from Glasgow, Scotland to Hong Kong's Hung Hom Station. China was a country I knew little about apart from a few confused preconceptions. It would have been easy to fly to Hong Kong but to appreciate a country, or in this case two continents, overland travel encompasses the geography, of watching Europe slowly give way to Asia, of meeting people and observing how they also physically changed, and learning from people about their countries. That journey was also a life changer. If I had not taken the train, my China story would never have happened - 30 years later this country remains my adopted home! The experiences - incredible!
A warm July evening, retreating from the gravelly wastes of Mongolia's Gobi Desert the green eighteen coach train pulled into Erlain, China's border town. A fellow passenger, Mr Li, a journalist with the People's Daily East Berlin office, shook my hand while welcoming me to China. Minutes later we were both under the train watching the wheel bogies being manually swapped for Chinese track gauges, narrower than Mongolian and Russian.