Ker-chhk ker-chhk ker-chhka, the train was rolling, giving out the rhythmic sound.
Sinead Morrissey, a poet from Belfast, was standing by a window of the soft sleeper, trying to catch the fleeting scenes outside.
Toby Litt, a novelist from London, was adjusting the shape of his mouth to get the right pronunciation of hua fei hua, the Chinese phrase for "a flower is not a flower." He had just learned it from Chinese poet Ye Yanbin.
Susan Elderkin, a British novelist was comparing notes with her Chinese counterpart Chen Danyan about their writing methods.
Romesh Guneskara, a Sri Lanka-born British novelist, was scanning a map to locate the cities he would cover on this exploratory train trip.
As a guest interpreter, I was traveling with a special group of passengers -- four British and four Chinese writers.
We were taking part in the writers' train program, jointly launched by the British Council and Chinese Writers' Association. Also a part of Thinkuk campaign initiated by the British Council, the program offered a chance to promote a friendly international exchange of ideas and information.
We started our 15-day journey from Shanghai on November 4, heading north to Beijing then traveling southwest to Chongqing and Kunming before riding eastward to Guangzhou and finally Hong Kong, the last stop.
A journey to learn
The experience was new for every one of us.
At the news conferences in Beijing and Kunming, Chinese poet Ye Yanbin said: "I have never had such an experience of riding on a train for more than 100 hours, travelling over 100,000 kilometres around my own country."
Of the four British writers, only Guneskara had been to China before, but that was a brief stay in Shanghai.
Toby Litt only wrote a paragraph about China in a short story, now collected into his first book, Adventures in Capitalism. The story is about a man who wins the lottery and decides to spend a year and a day believing every advertisement he sees. When he sees an advertisement for a holiday in Beijing, he has to take a holiday in Beijing.
"I felt a little like my 1995 hero; I had definitely won the lottery," Litt wrote in his e-diary after receiving the letter from the British Council inviting him to join the trip.
None of the other British writers had more knowledge about China than Litt. They said they thought of actress Gong Li and well-known writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) whenever China was mentioned.
Sinead said she knew something about China from her parents who used to be Communist Party members in Belfast, but what she saw in person was very different from what she expected.
"The number of cars on the roads in China has been one of the biggest surprises so far," she wrote in her e-diary. "The grinding traffic jams in Beijing reminded me how the China I've carried in my head -- forever characterized by shoals of Mao-jacketed cyclists -- is the China of at least a decade ago."
Renowned Chinese poet Ye Yanbin, who also serves as deputy editor-in-chief of the prestigious national magazine "Poetry," said tiring and boring were the first words that came into his mind when he was approached about the train journey. But after reconsidering, he saw it as an excellent idea.
Chinese people usually compare contact with foreign countries to a silk road because silk was invented by the Chinese, he said.
The railroad was invented by the British people. No wonder the first exchange program initiated by the British between writers of both countries should be on railways, Ye said.
Review of the past
It is not by coincidence the trip started from Shanghai, part of which became a British concession early in last century. The North Building of Peace Hotel where we stayed used to be a landmark of architecture in the Gothic style and was originally Cathay Hotel, owned by Victor Sassoon (1881-1961).
Shanghai writer Chen Danyan told us the hotel was built by Sassoon with the money his family earned from selling opium. Her connection with the hotel enabled us to visit some famous suites, including the suite for Sassoon and his family.
Shanghai was also chosen as the first city for this program because some well known British writers such as Somerset Maugham and Bernard Shaw first visited Shanghai when they came to China. In fact, Bernard Shaw used to stay in the Cathay Hotel.
The colonial history of Shanghai and the hotel itself reminded the writers of the past sour relationship between the two countries.
As Chinese poet Ye Yanbin pointed out when we started our journey, writers from both countries should have the courage to review the past while looking forward to a bright future.
Scenes of contrast
When we boarded the train to Beijing, we were told the capital city had just had its first snow -- a quite heavy fall.
We knew what that meant. The temperature in Shanghai was 27 C that day but it definitely had dropped below zero in Beijing.
We were traveling not only from the south to the north, but also from summer to winter.
Traveling by train is different from traveling by air. Planes take people from one place to another and the change in space and time is sudden. People can see nothing but clouds from the window of a plane. During our train trip, we witnessed the scenery changes outside.
"This does make the difference," poet Ye Yanbin said.
British poet Morrissey was excited when our train rolled out of Shanghai and into the countryside.
"It is fantastic," she yelled, standing by a window, which was partially open.
Instead of taking an express train that travels 13 hours from Shanghai to Beijing, we spent 23 hours on a slow train.
Sinead said she had seen the changes of the sky color on the horizon at dusk, which she described as "poetic and wonderful."
We awoke from our first night on the train only to discover a totally different view outside our windows. The fields were shrouded with a thin layer of snow and most trees were without leaves. A few yellow leaves that remained on a few trees were fluttering in the chilly wind.
Guneskara on the upper berth opposite mine took out his jumper from his suitcase and so did Litt, who was on the berth below. In the corridor we found Morrissey and Elderkin both already in their winter clothes. The Chinese writers had likewise donned warmer clothing. Zhang Zhe from Chongqing was an exception. He failed to bring warm clothes.
Guneskara kept asking me the names of the passing stations, and I told him we were passing through the three most developed cities -- Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou -- in Jiangsu Province.
But the writers were also quick to capture the contrasts along the journey.
In the well-developed areas in East China, they were taken aback by the patches of dark green polluted water and the polluted Grand Canal as well.
While on our train journey from Kunming to Guangzhou, we passed through the most poverty-stricken areas in Guizhou Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Out the windows we were drawn to the clear river waters and mountains covered with lush trees and grass.
The contrast was striking in terms of landscapes in the developed and underdeveloped areas.
We had some discussions about problems that have arisen with the economic development and about ways to deal with the problems.
I shared with them my belief that more and more Chinese have become environmentally conscious and that as watchdogs for environmental protection, the media are playing increasingly important roles.
A long journey
When Morrissey was asked about her impression of China on the platform of Beijing Railway Station, she said her first thought was that China is such a large country.
The longest train trip in Britain is only about five or six hours. "If we traveled this far on train in Britain, we would be traveling into the sea," Morrissey joked.
The Chinese writers had different feelings about the trip. Zhang Mei from Guangzhou did not talk very much on the train and Litt once said she was an enigma.
But from her e-diary, I found Zhang Mei a lucid writer. She wrote that she felt fantastic when she woke up at midnight on our first night on the train: "A tranquility reigns everything, a tranquility from a strange wilderness. My brain is crystal clear at this moment, my eyes wide open are looking out of the window. Every cell in my body seems very active and antennas of inspiration seem to have growing out of my head, trying to feel something in the darkness and tranquility."
When we arrived at Chongqing in the evening, the same darkness had mingled with moisture from the mist and drizzle, which dominated the whole city during the two nights and one day when we were there.
The bright sunshine and crystal clear sky in Kunming compensated for the coldness, the mist and drizzle in Beijing and Chongqing. Everybody was in high spirits, especially the four British writers. We strolled around Green Lake Park that is just five minutes walk away from the hotel in which we were staying.
Together with the people who were playing cards, games, singing and dancing, we relaxed and prepared for the 30 hours on train from Kunming to Guangzhou.
When we arrived in Guangzhou, all four British writers developed some minor stomach problems, probably due to the fatigue that accompanies such a long journey. Fortunately, they got much better the next day when we arrived in Hong Kong after a two-hour ride.
The long journey had finally ended.
Litt said he had written a lot of sentences beginning with "I expect..." before he joined the program, but now he started to write sentences beginning with "I remember..."
I think the same can be said for everybody who experienced this writers' train program.
(China Daily December 13, 2003)