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The untold spy story of WWI

In 1910 a proposed Alliance between Germany and France (See New York Times Article ) worried Britain so they sent someone to 'sniff around'.

The story is a personal journey of discovery set in the vibrant energy that is Zanzibar. Susan finds herself in the palace of the great Sultan of Zanzibar as private tutor to his children. She immerses herself in the heady experiences of that rich island. From making friends with her personal servant, Subira, to falling in love with Asim, a senior member of the Sultan's court. Susan delights in the discovery of Zanzibar and the discovery of herself. The only shadow being that she was recruited by British Military Intelligence as a spy. That compromises her love for Asim and will eventually cut the silken thread that is her journey into the exotic.

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32 hours to Guangzhou by Peter Goulding

 

China Journey

 

 

32 hours to Guangzhou by Peter Goulding

 

Although I had been saving for a year and had been particularly frugal in my journey across two continents, approaching the end of my holiday I began to run out of money.

Not that I was worried. My hotels on a bed and breakfast basis had been paid for, so starvation was not a possibility, but I hoped to save a bit of money to do the funicular in Hong Kong and the hydrofoil to Macau.

Thus at Shanghai railway station, on February 18th 1986, I opted to travel fourth class to Guangzhou. The train journey would take approximately thirty hours and, if it arrived on time, would allow me ninety minutes to make the last train of the evening to Hong Kong.

Fourth class.

First and second class were berths in a two or four berth compartment. Third class was a soft seat.
Fourth class was a hard seat.

Curiously, the prospect of sitting upon a hard wooden bench for thirty hours didn’t induce in me the horror that my friends expressed when I related the journey subsequently. If the ordinary Chinese could handle it, I thought, so could I.

Besides, it was a darned sight more luxurious than fifth class!

Being obviously non-Oriental and therefore a definite candidate to get on the wrong train, I was shown to my “hard bench” by a kindly man in a black uniform, who saluted me with a cheery grin and took his leave.
I squeezed my holdall into the overhead rack and sat down, to be met by a sea of faces. There must have been around fifty fellow passengers in the compartment and it seemed they had all turned around to stare at this dumb Westerner who had chosen to travel fourth class.

Someone said something and everybody laughed. I bit my lip as though trying to suppress a smile. A voice from the back started singing, which evinced more laughter. In reply, I howled like a wolf and the place broke up.

A couple of the young Chinese men (they seemed mostly to be young and male) had a smattering of English, which was more than I had of Chinese. With the help of my pocket atlas and a good deal of sign language and bad miming, I managed to relate the information that I was from Ireland, I worked in a shop and I was on my holidays, having spent the past three weeks travelling overland from Dublin.
It seemed everybody had a question. Did I have a girlfriend? Was I rich? Ireland was the same as England, no? Did I play football?

I had become used to the stares in Beijing but, under this constant bombardment, I decided to turn the tables and fired out a few questions of my own. Did someone come around with food? Was the train normally on time? Where was the toilet? It has to be said the miming of the latter question caused a great deal of hilarity in the compartment.

When I returned, I found my place on the bench had been taken by a moustachioed young man, who was now ostensibly asleep. I hesitated, wondering on the proper course of action. Thankfully, my next door neighbour – who seemed to have attracted some reflected glory in having the Irishman beside him – came to my rescue, shaking the usurper roughly on the shoulder. He blinked, looked up and meekly returned to his position in the aisle.

This was apparently the norm. The fifth class passengers were simply availing of the opportunity to take the weight off their feet for a minute or two. There was no sense of trying to muscle onto the hard seat, though I wondered, somewhat guiltily, if they resented me for taking up a precious eighteen inches of bench.

Every hour or so, a little stout lady with a huge urn on wheels came around and ladled out tea into eagerly proffered jugs and jam jars. I had not come across this in my travels and consequently had no receptacle. I was obviously the only one not drinking for, on her third visit, a young man opposite offered me a spare jam jar, which I accepted with many thanks.

I had been puzzling about the provision of food on a thirty hour train journey. As far as I could see, there was no access for us fourth and fifth class passengers to the dining car, but surely we still had to eat? Was I supposed to have brought some food with me?

The conundrum was solved at about the fifth stop down the line. As we pulled into the station, I could see a horde of people lined up along the track. Surely they weren’t all getting on, I thought? The compartment was heaving as it was and thick with cigarette smoke.

But no. As the train pulled to a stop, the passengers in the compartment all made a dive for the narrow slit windows, arms outstretched, shaking money at the people outside. In return, they were given a white, plastic mould, which they carried greedily back to their positions. The smell of the hot food was only delicious and when the scrum had died down and everyone had been “served” I realised again, I was probably the only one not eating!

As the train pulled out, there was a corresponding movement to the windows on the opposite side of the compartment and empty plastic white moulds were jettisoned on the side of the track. Looking back as we curved around, it seemed there was one long white mountain where a few minutes earlier there had been just gravel.

More sign language and the next time I was ready, clambering up to the window with the rest of them, a few yen waving furiously. I felt guilty about littering the station with my refuse but did it nonetheless, figuring that the food providers probably recycled the containers when we had gone.

Evening came and the train rattled through the countryside. The bench opposite me all decided to go to sleep at the same time, each man laying his head on the shoulder of the man next to him, with the man on the end being squashed against the window. Soon, I felt the weight of a head on my left shoulder. Here goes I thought, cocking my head to the right so it landed on the shoulder of the man on the other side.

And thus we slept throughout the night. Not very well, it must be said, for the shoulder pad hadn’t made it to southern China by the mid-eighties. Also when somebody needed the toilet, the chain was broken, although a fifth class passenger usually occupied the gap as soon as it became vacant.

Morning came and, unwashed and grimy as I was, I felt curiously alive. I was no longer the centre of attention but felt very much a part of this whole marathon train experience. I conversed in sign language with my near neighbours. I got up to stretch my legs for an hour. I was even starting to get the hang of chopsticks.

We stopped travelling west and began the final six hour southerly stretch into Guangzhou. It hadn’t felt like a whole 24 hours since we had puffed our way out of Shanghai and that I put down to the bonhomie and good nature of my travelling companions, who were always ready to smile and joke, despite the gruelling nature of the journey.

And then, when I estimated we could not be more than an hour from our destination, the train slowly crawled to a complete halt. Puzzled faces squinted out the windows, for we were in the middle of the countryside. A man in a black uniform went running up along the side of the train, ignoring the chorus of questions from the windows.

We sat there for two hours. By the time we started up again, I knew the connection to Hong Kong had left and I would have to find overnight accommodation in Guangzhou.

I took a few photos of my travelling companions, quite needlessly as it happened, as in the intervening years, I have never forgotten that journey. They clapped me on the shoulder as we left the train and chattered to me in Chinese, as if I ought to be fluent in the language after sharing a carriage for 32 hours. I thanked them all and shook their hands, knowing it was the end of a journey I would never forget.

My accommodation problems were very easily solved outside the large and impressive railway station in Guangzhou. Leaning into a taxi, I asked the driver if he could take me to a cheap hotel. “Yes, I know cheap hotel,” he smiled.

I hopped in the back and he executed a perfect 180° turn, depositing me outside the hotel on the other side of the street.

And the two of us roared with laughter.

 

 

China Journey

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