Rails to Suzhou

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

I’ve never done the U.K.’s longest train journey. If you depart Aberdeen at 08:20 you can be stepping into the Cornish night at 21:43 that same day. The destination of Penzance is around 13.5 hours (1162km/722 miles) from Aberdeen station (built 1867), via about 33 stops. The CrossCountry train costs £102.50 in advance or £241.00 on the day. It isn’t a sleeper train. It sounds tortuous.

So, boarding the sleeper train from Humen (Dongguan) via Shenzhen North (深圳北站) to Shanghai was a little less daunting. I could spend most of the journey kipping. I departed at 19:43 and arrived by 06:50 in Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥站). Aside from a man taking my photos and two girls playing on their bright phones in the shared bedroom cubicle, it was an unremarkable but comfortable journey. Wearing a mask for the duration was a necessary evil. The return journey (10:20 from Hangzhou East[(杭州东站) to Shenzhen at 20:39) was much tougher, having to be seated for so long with little chance to stretch. The connecting journeys at either end made for a short wander (less than an hour each time). Considering Shenzhen’s station opened in 2011, Shanghai’s station the year before, and Hangzhou was built in 1992, but refitted in 2013, and all the trains were modern, it was surprisingly easy to scan my passport and travel ticketless, all for about 700rmb each way (around £79.10). Modern rail network. Fair prices – even if they were inflated for the Golden Week holiday period (黄金周).

Why did I travel so far? Well, madness. I haven’t left Dongguan’s city prefecture boundaries since March 26th 2020. The post-COVID-19 restrictions and worries haven’t helped. The first holiday of the school year gave me 8 days to play with. So, armed with an invitation by Tina, my coffee shop friend, off I trotted. The ancient city of Sūzhōu [苏州] is twinned with and often compared to Venice. It is in the same province as Nanjing, a walled-city I visited last summer. I liked there. I was certain that with everyone’s love for Suzhou that I wouldn’t be disappointed. For years I have been hearing from Tom, Dick and Harry how good the city is for travelling around. The hotel selected was the swanky Pan Pacific Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店). Located close to the Auspicious Light Pagoda (1004 B.C.) it included access to the Panmen gardens and original South Gate of the once-walled-city. Built in 1996, the hotel bizarrely has U.K. plug sockets and other western trimmings but is now undergoing a substantial refurbishment. The location is ideal and relaxing with a great Xinjiang restaurant over the road, and restaurants onsite. The swimming pool looked good, but I didn’t take my trunks.

Suzhou’s tourist areas are colourful and lively. They’re a blend of the old world and new. There’re heaps of plastic and mass-produced goods claiming to be handmade and local. The shops that sell them, and snacks, are numerous. It can feel like Groundhog Day going by the frontages but amongst the clutter there are some genuine brilliant pieces of gold dust. There are collectible shops offering keepsakes and relics, coffee shops that have art galleries and art galleries that have coffee shops. There are hidden away alleys with tiny teashops and real dabs of history throughout the city. There’s a Finnish restaurant, the usual array of western food (Sera Nera [十全街吴衙场40-1号, 近迎枫桥弄] is one Italian place I will recommend), Ann’s teahouse offers English-style food, and then there’s local bites from bugs to great fish to choose from. Suzhou seems green and spread out, it’s rather like Norfolk in that hills and mountains are rare (as goes most of that general region to Hangzhou and Shanghai). It isn’t a terrible place to be, but it isn’t amazing either. Perhaps I hanker for the sea and mountains more.

So after a few days, I am sat back in Dongguan. Echobelly’s Great Things has just played on BBC Radio 6 Music. The bass and treble were just perfect for a summer’s day. It’s not summer here. It’s 24°C. This is autumn. It’s cooler and much more comfortable than other days this year. Yesterday’s walk around Dalingshan (from Cháng’ān [长安] town’s Lotus Mountain) was nevertheless a little sweaty and warm. I’d ate an excellent breakfast (English, of course) at Ziggy’s American Diner before zipping past Chang’an Park, and heading for what’s know as Lotus Mountain. Here I spotted a lake by the Lotus Villa Hotel (莲花山庄酒店, 长安镇莲花山). Within seconds the familiar flash of a kingfisher whisked by, and disappeared into a tree. Various herons, bitterns and egrets scattered around the quiet lakeside. A smell of sewage ruined the impression.

From the lakeside I headed upwards along a road, gently winding its way to a temple under restoration. Beyond that steps and a clearly marked-path guided me to numerous summits, but not the main peak (capped by radio masts and fenced off). The huge advantage of walking to the peak is that you can carry on towards Dalingshan Forest Park (大岭山森林公园)/. That is a far quieter and greener route, however like the Lotus Mountain litter lined many pathways and piled up hugely at rubbish bins. For a country with so many plastic reusable water bottles, single use plastics really do ruin parks. The reward of a wander through Dalingshan gave me the sight of the worst camouflaged moth ever and a pretty green mantid. That and a good stretch after the long train journey back from Suzhou via Hangzhou, Shenzhen North station and Humen town.

I’ve lived in China for six and a bit years. Too many flash bars pop up, look shiny and then go. Ziggy’s Bar has come, evolved and carries on, withing Chang’an town. With the nearby diner, and a proper set aside bar, it is a refreshing collective. Mitch, the boss, and his team are welcoming. The bar has great decor with movies, music and western culture slipping between a touch of the east. Expect great ciders and beers (domestic and imported). There’s Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester (well, now Luton), cider from Beijing, great ales on tap and in bottles. Spirits needed? Plenty here. Worth a ride out of central Dongguan or other areas for a proper knees-up, pool game, board game or a chill out session. Live music is also available. I didn’t visit the bar before the walk. I stopped by the diner. Joining friends, I grabbed the English breakfast and supped good coffee. The breakfast had great bacon, hash browns, warm beans, proper black pudding and filled my belly nicely. I can also recommend the fish and chips or the burger range, having been a few times in recent weeks. I don’t too much like the colour red, but the mood of the diner, with a jukebox, appears like an advertisement for Coca Cola. There’s other décor that makes you feel you’re no longer in China. It’s an oddity to step from the footpath of Chang’an into a different world. The good thing was that my belly enjoyed the leap of faith.

The world’s first purpose-built railway station terminus was Liverpool Road in Manchester. It opened in 1830. It was the start of the first true railway too. Two tracks, timetables and proper stations accompanied the steam locomotives. Not surprisingly the first railway warehouse, Liverpool Road Railway Warehouse followed. It houses much of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry now. Looking at that example, it’s amazing to see the speed at which China slaps railway lines across its national soil. That day when Manchester and Liverpool opened their railway, the MP for Liverpool William Huskisson slipped and was ran over by Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the first of its kind, and just 50 kilometres long (31 miles). Now, in China, the network of rail covers 121,000 km (75,186 miles) and it is growing every year. It plans to plan to expand the network to 274,000 km (170,000 miles) by the year 2050. I am just thankful that the 1,758 kilometres (1,091 miles) from Dongguan (Humen) to Suzhou involved music by Los Lobos and the latest Doves album, alongside John Bude’s The Lake District Murder novel (a classical detective yarn with plenty of detail and little happening).

Thank you kindly for your time.

The Red Blue (or is it a Blue Red?)

78531392_582334829206983_7948421672325873664_n你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

I’ve never interviewed and election candidate before. I’ve never really given any questions to any political representative unless you count pinging a tweet at President Trump in anger.

Being located in China and taking into account the eight-hour difference, I finally pinned down Brahma Mohanty. Had I have been clever enough, we could have discussed politics during summer in depth over ice cream at Ginger’s Emporium in Affleck’s Palace, Manchester. Back then the world was a different landscape and Brahma wasn’t due to stand as a Labour party representative. Bizarrely, I did feel and tell him that’s where his future will be if he so wants it. So, here we are at the last broadcast (of the day).


 

Isn’t politics boring?

Brahma shakes his head. He knows my question is tongue in cheek, yet he comes back with a dismissive answer like a knife to my jugular, “In many ways football and politics can be the same. Both can be complex and dramatic. We can be perplexed. When things work, we can be exhilarated, and I think it something that we can all be passionate about. If we don’t have a say it affects us all in our everyday lives. Whether it is accessing the best healthcare or public transport – or the economy affecting pricing on everyday things and even the cost of a football game ticket.”

davI need a bit of an education. Is Brexit worth worrying about?

“Just as how these are turbulent times for Manchester City on the pitch, it is the same within British politics,” Brahma has tailored his answer to catch my interest. Off he goes again, “Now is the time to get involved and the stakes couldn’t be any higher, in terms of this election. The results will determine how Brexit is resolved. There could be a crash out of the EU with a hard Brexit. There could be a gentle yet painful Brexit with a deal that is favourable to few. Perhaps, a renegotiation that protects our workers and our rights – with a final say on the matter can be agreed. I believe Labour can offer this.”

Brahma is blue City fan. He’s also red (for Labour). I’ve heard City fans say that the vote the Conservative party because they’re blue. Politics is a contentious domain. Was choosing to represent the Labour party a difficult choice?

“Not at all,” Brahma confidently swats the question a swift reply. He continues, “Since my parents came here in the 1970s, they have voted in every election that they have been able to vote in. Now my parents weren’t necessarily politicos but they always identified more with Labour. Labour’s position on inclusivity, respecting and advocating a multicultural society gave my parents, as Indian immigrants, a voice. Britain back then wasn’t always a great place to be in but they felt that the Labour party were for them, more so then other party groups.”

So, it came as a natural selection to stand with Labour?

BManchester city centre 12th July 2017 (78)rahma beams with pride, “My family have had a longstanding involvement with the NHS, which as you know was created by Labour. Commitment to values of equality for all, whether within education, housing or healthcare were followed by my family. That has been influenced upon me deeply by my family. Supporting the Labour party when I was first eligible to vote allowed me to be in touch with society in a very inclusive way. I grew up in a region of the world where the Labour party has always been very well represented. Manchester has a great history tied to Labour’s roots and the left-wing side of politics.”

How confident are you right now?

“I’m confident that I am going out there now,” Brahma replies, “giving a positive message about that I and the Labour Party have to offer, and offering the people of my potential constituency and also across the country in marginal seats a positive progressive vision in contrast to what we’ve had to put up with in terms of austerity and the Conservative Party for almost a decade. I’m confident that this message is getting out there to our people. Obviously, we won’t know until the final polling results next week.”

What difference can you make?

wx_camera_1533826817200“In terms of difference of what I can make,” Brahma’s eyes lock on mine, deeply showing his passion in his words, “I will advocate for the policies I’ve mentioned before. We need a much more strongly and robustly supported NHS – to ensure that everyone has the best access at the point of need. Further investment into public transport, will enhance connectivity, and improve logistics whilst assisting to combat climate change. Less cars will mean less fuel and less carbon emissions – but for that we must have an efficient public transport system that isn’t seen as grimy, unreliable and aged.”

Why did you choose to set a course into the world of politics?

“Drawing on all my personal experiences,” Brahma shuffles in his seat, dropping words from his soul with confidence, “whether, it was growing up in and around Greater Manchester, my involvement within Labour and in terms of overcoming barriers and obstacles, which I’ve had to encounter quite a lot. Not just in terms as a person of a different ethnicity, but also with regards to my disability and mental health issues. TV shows such as The Last Leg and London 2012’s great Paralympic games have really swayed people’s opinions and moved us away from the term disability to realise that everyone with a disability have real genuine abilities to shine. Whilst these things may have prevented certain times of my education and career, I want to draw on my personal experience to lead and set an example by applying it to my role within the Labour party team. I want to demonstrate that anything is possible. People don’t need to be held back. Nothing is impossible with our own powerful minds.”

What are your beliefs in terms of the NHS?

P70821-144016“As I have mentioned about the NHS, it obviously needs more than a lick of paint,” Brahma states. He pauses before carrying on, “It needs a greater level of funding to ensure that we can maintain a high standard of care and assistance. Despite a decade of under this awful austerity-driven government, the NHS is still regarded as great institution domestically and overseas. It is often cited as one of the best systems in the world – if not the best healthcare system on Earth. As a Labour candidate and the Labour movement, we want to ensure that this is always the case. It cannot be privatised and sold off, to make needless profits. We’re proud of the NHS legacy – and want future generations to have the support and fallback of the NHS with them from birth to death. It makes Britain great.”

And how do you feel about the hotbed that is the railways?

hdr“Railway networks need improving to allow people to get from A to B. Our commitment to combating climate change, means we need less cars on the road and with that less carbon emissions from fossil fuels. An improved transit system such as national railways or tramlines within cities, gives people the chance to make use of an efficient system of transport. That’s the bedrock of what we believe in, in terms of improving public transport.”

For the current and potential students out there, may I ask your views on tuition fees?

Brahma’s educated answer follows, “Scrapping tuition fees stops people from being put off by further education. You shouldn’t be stopped from learning because you can’t afford to attend university. Let our people in Britain pursue their degrees and careers that they wish to. Do we want an enhanced talent pool in our country?”

Can a Mancunian truly represent people from a completely different region?

olympic celebration 2012 (26)“As a Mancunian, I can bring the spirit of never say die, hardworking determination and grit, and I suppose politics is like the current Man City team, international, diverse and going out there each week wearing the badge and colours in pride. The last decade has been the most successful period for City. I can take example from that. You don’t necessarily have to have been born in a place or from the area to advocate the best for the people there. We’re all people at the end of the day. Manchester has the People’s History Museum – a kind of de facto unofficial museum of the Labour party and the Labour movement. Not far up the road in Rochdale, we have the birthplace of the Cooperative movement. I believe that there is a museum there too. Manchester and the industrial past have been a hotbed of socialism. That naturally influenced upon me. Like the industrial revolution, Manchester’s reach has been global – and doesn’t seek to impose itself unfairly.

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. That’s 650 possible MP positions. Why Surrey Heath?

“Coming into an area like Surrey Heath, with a fresh pair of eyes can be very beneficial, “Braham affirms. “Being able to draw on my own experiences from my time working and living away from Manchester, I can apply this to the role. Just like in a sports team, each woman, man or youth player brings a different set of skills and talents – whether international or locally-born, they all sit under one banner representing their team with pride. And I’m not just talking Manchester City! This could easily be that of England – in rugby or football terms, amongst a whole host of teams.

326 seats are needed for a majority party to assume a government. With the last few elections leading to coalition governments, do Labour have a chance for a majority party government? How do you view the opposition?

“In terms of the opposition, I’m unhappy with what I see in terms of a decade of austerity that has really affected British society. Homelessness is on the rise, armed force members – past and present, lack real support, young people can’t afford to get onto the property ladder, more people are renting than ever before, or even still living at home with parents. There’s an increased use of foodbanks. This climate of austerity has led us to where we are. Do we want to be here?

The ill-feeling created by austerity is, I believe, what drove people to vote for Brexit. This conception that it was immigrants from within the EU and beyond were to blame for issues domestically, when in fact, it was as a result of Conservative-led austerity, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The terrible thing with the Brexit is not only has it impacted on the U.K.’s economy, the value of the pound sliding, but it has created an uncertain job market. Businesses are feeling the instability. It has created divisions and tensions. In the last three and half years, hate crime has increased, whether racist, anti-Semitism, homophobic, transphobia, Islamophobia, or other abuses. Brexit has unleashed a lot of bad characters, looking to put their views upon the majority of us – giving a footing for the far right. Do we really want to lose our neighbourhoods to hate?

I feel that the opposition should be held accountable for these divides and the rise of hate. I hold them responsible for what we have right now. An era of tension and division that has now led us to have a General Election, at this time when most of Britain could be better suited to enjoying Christmas – but under such circumstances, we’re hopping outside in the cold weather to cast votes. Simply put, the country is at a crossroads. We are in a period of uncertainty. ”

In what is a safe seat (historically) do you feel you have that extra sparkle to really challenge the established MP?

“Do I have that extra sparkle? I’m under no illusions that this is and always been a very safe and stable Conservative seat since its creation,” Brahma straightens up his body. He is now looking very serious. “I focus on the best possible message that I can provide, which is a positive progressive message as an alternative to the austerity-driven policies like those offered by the Conservative party, like figures such as Michael Gove have been at the foreground promoting – and indeed Surrey Heath, like much of the country was divided upon Brexit, so I’m offering a progressive view on that. I want to avoid a focus on appeasing those who voted for Brexit, or those who seek to revoke Article 50 whilst ignoring the concerns of those who voted for Brexit. The Labour party is committed to supporting the 100%. What we’re saying is, that we’re unhappy with the deal that has been carried back by Boris Johnson from the EU, which offers no assurances on the economy, business, workers’ rights, or job protection. What we’re saying, if we get into power, we want to renegotiate the deal with the EU. Once that has been done, we want to do what we believe, the most democratic thing of all – and put that information and ultimately the decision to the British people. Some may say that we have already voted on this matter, and that was the end of that. In some respects, yes, I can understand people feeling that way but at the same time, none of us could put our hands on our hearts and say that even now, we knew exactly what Brexit will or has meant. The referendum needed clarity and clear discussion. In 2016, did we have the right information? Given that the picture and the landscape of the Brexit decision has changed many, many times. Many of those who have backed a no deal have flipped sides. Many of those who voted for Brexit have changed their minds. The processes have been complex and unclear to many. I don’t think that it is unfair or irrational to say that the British people should have the final say upon our future following our negotiations because this is something that is going to affect our people in the here and now – and for future generations.

Individuals must be registered to vote by midnight twelve working days before polling day. That point has now passed. I Does voting really matter?

“I think it is absolutely essential to vote now,” Brahma’s head is full of ice, yet I can sense his belly is full of fire. He resumes, “Those who can vote, must vote. As I have stated before, this General Election is because of Brexit. It has been almost a century since we had an election of this kind in December! Brexit is probably the biggest event to affect this country since the end of the Second World War. The effects will be felt by the British people for years to come and it will have an impact not only British society but on Britain’s standing in the world. It is absolutely imperative that of you have a view on this matter – and you’re eligible to vote, that you cast your vote. Obviously, I’d hope that they would vote for the Labour party, but it is more important to vote on this matter knowing that by not doing so, you’ll be losing your say on Brexit, the NHS, the future of transport within the UK, housing, or the homelessness crisis. Voting is such an important part of the democratic process. It is one that many people have fought for and died over. All around the world people still continue to do so. It is vital to be part of that process – especially now as we reach a very marked point in the road for Britain’s place in the world.”

 Just to be clear, I personally assigned a proxy vote via my mother in Manchester.

 Much is being made of the power held by younger voters. Can younger voters make a difference to their regions?

“This is the first time that those born after 2000 will get a chance to vote. This will affect their futures more than anyone else. Cast your votes. Listen to the debates from all sides. It is so important that younger people embrace politics. Get involved.”

SAMSUNG CSC

Finally, do you have any further comments to make?

“It is vital that people vote. The key issue is Brexit. That’s why we’re having a General Election on a cold winter’s day. Just like the last General Election, people must have their say. Whilst some party groups say that will get Brexit done or conclude the matter, it is worth noting that the Conservatives have had three Prime Ministers since the referendum and are no closer to resolving the impasse one way or another. Only the Labour party is offering a viable proposal to this. At the same time, our policies are far more than the NHS. We have focuses on the NHS, improving public transport, looking after our elderly communities, scrapping tuition fees and so on.”

Brahma can see that my attention needs a kickstart. He glibly closes with a statement, “Politics is just like football. It has highs and lows. It has moments that we will remember for a lifetime and there are times that leave us completely stunned. Just like Vincent Kompany’s goal against Leicester City last season, or Aguero’s last minute winner against QPR in 2011/12, you can feel such highs in politics as well. It only works with involvement and togetherness – making that contribution. People must be involved. I support progressive values with the Labour party. We must fight for the many and not just the few. As I always say, one of our great sayings within the labour movement, by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we do alone. That underlies any team sports, just like at City. Yes, some has come due to investment, but investment alone won’t create a team. Everybody has played an important role in the club, behind the scenes and across the field – and that’s how Labour must be. We need a team for all.”

Andrew Marr, I am not. Thank you kindly for your time Brahma Mohanty – and best of luck for Election Day 2019.

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā