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Trains, Planes and Ships in the Middle Kingdom

March 11, 2017 Planes and Ships in the Middle Kingdom Trains

As you may recall, the "middle kingdom" is China around which the rest of the world revolves. The transportation and infrastructure of China has been transformed over the past thirty-five years to rival that of most anywhere. 

In the old days, there was no such thing as round-trip tickets as you had to produce your passport in order to get a departure ticket from any location. Therefore, quick turnarounds having secure return flights were not possible. Accordingly, the author chose to pay a visit to Anhui province to see some remote oil fields out of Hebei and evaluate them for a rehabilitation project. A simple flight to Nanjing was fine but it was then followed by a long drive, miserable accommodations and a hard seat train trip back to the mecca of Guangzhou.

With that background, we will begin with our first chapter which is trains. For those of you who have never heard of hard seats, they were wooden upright train bench seats with no leg room. They faced a cozy group of friendly knees across from you and a small table in between. Hard seats still exist today but they now have meager cushions. When the author and his Chinese handler jumped on a train like the one shown below, it was not particularly pleasant.

There were hordes of people crowded into a small compartment surrounded by massive jars of tea that were continually replenished by staff bringing around hot water. When asked, the handler said there was a dining car and away we went to find similar hard seats but a bigger table for the two of us and some friendly cockroaches. There were glasses that we wiped clean and filled with copious quantities of duty free cognac from the author's emergency supply to numb the mind and body for a long ride. 

The whole train travel spectrum has changed as evidenced by the high speed bullet trains shown below which now service an extensive network of China. In fact, the 12,500 miles of high speed rail lines in China are more than that of the rest of the world combined. It is almost like the adage "if you build it, they will come" which was the logic to build the high speed rail connections to major cities from remote areas and create new suburban commuters. More than 75 million people live within an hour of Shanghai and can travel by high speed rail at a cost of just a few dollars per trip. Can you imagine there are now high speed trains into Anhui province? On the other hand, this concept was expanded to other more remote areas to build infrastructure for cities designed to develop new industrial parks. Often, these developments became "ghost cities" resulting in tremendous state debt with no source of debt service.

Moreover, the service staff are radically different than those from the past though they look similar to the Radio City Rockettes. 

The point is China has spent massive amounts of money to strengthen their infrastructure with high speed bullet trains. In turn, the debt of China Railway Corporation, the state-owned operator of the rail system, is equivalent to 6% of the GDP of China.

Recently, transportation on the world's longest train route arrived in London creating the term "The New Silk Road." The East Wind train completed a 16-day trip to become the first direct freight train linking China and Britain. The train carried 68 containers of goods and travelled 7,200 miles making it the longest train journey in the world and thereby creating a new train opportunity for the novelist Paul Theroux. The East Wind name came from Mao's saying that "the east wind will prevail over the west wind." This adage is in keeping with the old "middle kingdom" rivalry of China with the "manifest destiny" of the United States. The "east" and "west" rivalry outlined by Mao remains very much at the forefront of U.S. relations.

Now we move on to our second chapter which is planes. A number of years ago the author was on an Air China flight that attempted a one wing/one wheel landing into Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It was apparent on the final approach that the pilot did not realize what he was doing. In fact, the author had time to take his passport out and hold it for future identification purposes, as learned in previous near misses, though without the wet towel provided by U.S. airlines. It came as no surprise when the right wing tip touched the tarmac. However, we were fortunate on many fronts. We did not catapult, shear the wing or blow up. The pilot was awakened, gunned the engines and lifted off to begin an endless circle pattern with no announcements. My distraught neighbor asked what the pilot was doing to which my response was "cleaning his pants." The hope was that he would recognize he did not have sufficient fuel to return to Beijing. After a lengthy time of burning fuel to shorten the extent of a fire on a crash landing, we came in. The next morning the China Daily newspaper blamed Mongolia for the incident and the disruption in their schedule for loss of an aircraft which evidenced the prevailing arrogant trait of the Chinese.

The author subsequently asked a senior Boeing official as to his choice between flying Air Mongolia or Air China and surprisingly it was Air Mongolia. His response was based on the fact that the Mongolian pilots grew up flying Russian aircraft that seldom worked properly and had great innate flight skills that the Chinese lacked as they trained in flight simulators with automatic pilot devices. Remember that when you see all of those cheap tickets on the plethora of Chinese airlines, Trip Advisor may not share the inside industry advice.

Despite the issues of pilots, China is well on its way to overtaking the U.S. as the largest consumer of commercial aircraft. Boeing has estimated that China will buy more than 6,000 aircraft worth $870 billion by 2033. It will represent 45% of the Asia-Pacific market and China would then become the largest consumer of commercial jets.

So now we come to our third and final chapter of ships. Since the beginning of this decade, China has spent more than $45 billion expanding its ports and shipping network to rule the waves. China has acquired ownership positions in ports along key trade routes including Houston and Miami.

On the Horn of Africa, China has announced plans to build their first overseas naval base in Djibouti where they will have a presence for at least the next ten years. China has the world's fastest-growing navy among major powers. In fact, China sent its first aircraft carrier to Hainan, a Chinese island, across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. That move may have been in response to President Trump's early overture to Taiwan. The Chinese ship equation also includes the world's largest fishing fleet. 

Therefore, there has been a dramatic change in the traditional mentality that land defenses were paramount given the historical Chinese experience with the Mongols and the Japanese. Ocean trade routes, naval control and dominance are the future to maintain the exports of China of which their economy is dependent.

On the other hand, what good is all of this developed infrastructure when pollution results in the cancellation of air travel and an impairment in one's life expectancy?



In the Victorian era small "tobacco silks" or "cigarette silks," printed in a wide variety of motifs were offered as premiums in cigarette packs as a marketing tool. Women didn't smoke cigarettes during the Victorian era - but they would encourage the menfolk to smoke a certain brand so they could get the latest silks, which the tobacco companies encouraged women to make things using the fabric. 
Although there were many different subject matters with the outbreak of WWI, military badges, regimental colors, uniforms, medals, regimental crests, warships, war heroes and country flags became the order of the day, especially for the male smokers.  The British Tobacco company included images of the Thai flag during that period to promote their exports to Thailand.
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