A bullet train to nowhere

We were driving down a dusty, uneven road that wound its way through a lush valley in an isolated corner of China's Guangxi Province. The taxi bounced from pothole to pothole, its suspension undergoing a robust test. To the left and right, chickens wandered amid fields tended by hunched-over farmers. Then, from around a corner appeared an incongruous sight: wedged at the end of the gravel road was a gleaming new train station.

It had no proper entrance, no car park, no lighting and certainly no landscaping. Yet Sanjiang South station was in operation, with state-of-the-art bullet trains gliding up near-silently to the platform before zooming off and reaching speeds of up to 350kmh.

The scene encapsulated the contradictions of modern China, the station and trains representing the height of sophistication while sealed roads and other basic infrastructure were still to follow. This is a nation in a serious rush, intent on swift modernisation yet seemingly unconcerned with the thoroughness of this process. Mandarin has no tenses to indicate past or future. In contemporary China, it appears that now is all that matters.

On one hand, Sanjiang South station was a welcome sight. It had been open just one day when I arrived, and the new rail service would save me from retracing the uncomfortable five-hour bus trip I had endured to get here from the tourist hub of Guilin city, about 150km to the southeast. On the other, I knew the easier access would greatly threaten the purity of Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, a rural section of China's deep south, where the Dong people have lived for more than 1,000 years. This tribe, with its colourful garb, stilted homes and elaborately designed wooden bridges, are scattered throughout Guangxi Province.

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