On A Midnight Train To Beijing

May 19, 2010

A definite theme of this trip is beginning to emerge.

Sitting on the overnight train to Beijing from Nanjing, I can’t help thinking that I am a member of a society on the decline. If the 20th-century belonged to America (one in which we’d hitched a ride on the coattails of), things are most definitely not trending that way in this one.

I mean, come on! Here we are on what is a regular high speed train route, covering 1,100+ kilometres, in relatively comfortable if cramped quarters, as a simple matter of fact. At least, I assume it’s matter of fact based on the ease with which our two Chinese, non-English speaking cabin mates share their bottle of clear, solvent tasting but with a hint of blue cheese liquor with us. They regale us with grand stories of adventure, I assume, given their reaction to the tales they tell. We all sleep like babies until I stumble out to the bar car a couple of hours before arriving in Beijing in order to take in the passing scenery.

At home this kind of trip is treated as a novelty. Train travel as a throwback to an earlier time; something to do when you’ve run out of other vacation options. A relic of the past that has no real bearing on the future.

A side blurb in a Macleans magazine issue last month talked of China’s negotiations with 17 Asian and European countries to develop high speed train travel traversing the two continents, culminating in a Beijing to London link over some 8,100 kilometres in 48 hours. And we can’t even get our shit together enough to come up with a comprehensive plan to build a modern rail system throughout the GTA and Golden Horseshoe region. No, diesel does not qualify as a comprehensive plan, people. It’s merely indicative of small-minded, short-sighted thinking and a lack of leadership and balls. (The emerging theme for those who just tuning in.)

Oh sure, I hear you mumbling out there, a half a day behind me, we could be all out on the forefront and cutting edge too if we gave over to authoritative, autocratic rule. Making the trains run on time is easy if you set aside democracy. If China’s so great, why don’t you just move there, you slavering, pandering, useful idiot Sinophile? (Huh. A passing side thought. If you’re a fan of Chinese movies, does that make you a Sinocinephile?)

You know that’s not what I’m having you suggest I’m suggesting. It is far from perfect here. Even ignoring the political reality for a moment, China is still very much a developing country in many, many aspects. It is dirty, polluted and does consume an ever increasing amount of the world’s resources although it does seem to realize that and is investing heavily in alternate sources of energy to a much larger extent than we are in the west. There is a sense that by watching the emergence of China we are being offered a glimpse through the window of what our very own industrial revolution might’ve looked like. It is a very relevant question of whether or not China is attempting to sustain what is not sustainable.

But this is not about China. It is about us, the former masters of the universe, the west in which the sun is very much threatening to set upon. We are being eclipsed not because of imbalances in trade or democratic principles. We have simply lost our way, locked as we are in a useless and unimaginative ideological either-or standoff. Money, and the accumulation of it, has replaced vision and grand dreams of progress and enlightenment. There is an assumption of superiority on our part owing to the fact that we have already overcome the battles China is now waging. Been there, done that. We are waiting for greatness to return, assuming somehow that it is our birthright. This is how it shall be for it has always been thus.

History doesn’t work like that. It is largely trial and error, learning from our mistakes and adapting to new and varied environments. Past success does not guarantee future success. In fact, as we who once were giants might slowly be realizing, resting on our laurels is the surest, quickest way to find ourselves standing at the back of the que as the rest of the world blows on past us faster than, well, a high speed train on its way to Beijing.

wistfully submitted by Urban Sophisticat