Where is the dirt and the smoking? This place has come over all new-tech and polite. Is this really China?

I've just spent a couple of days trundling across China on a slowish sort of train. This country has become so smart since I was last here that I can only assume the Ministry of Propaganda of the People's Republic of China has got wind of my presence.

I've just spent a couple of days trundling across China on a slowish sort of train. This country has become so smart since I was last here that I can only assume the Ministry of Propaganda of the People's Republic of China has got wind of my presence.

Not that I'm getting ideas above my station, of course. I was travelling second class for example (honest), but the train itself was brand new. Fresh out of its wrappers.

Usually, Chinese trains are a sooty-green colour and look as though built by convict labour in the 1950s. But my train had blue and red stripes and clean windows. The toilet was immaculately clean. The windows were sealed and the temperature controlled. Even the communal Thermos flasks weren't decorated with chrysanthemums and peonies. They were made of chic stainless steel.

Could I have been been the victim of an extremely elaborate PR job? Was that woman hurriedly sweeping the platform as we rolled into Lanzhou railway station a party stooge? In the old days, (that is, until five years ago) everyone in China used to carry a jam-jar full of tea around with them whenever they travelled. But now everyone seemed to have purpose-designed flasks of brushed steel with screw-on lids, with words such as "exquisite craftsmanship" written on them. They had also replaced their splitting canvas bags with executive luggage with wheels and pull-out handles, and spent much of the journey talking to their relatives on mobile phones that miraculously worked - even when you could see nothing but desert and distant mountains all around you.

The first time I used a Chinese train the man in the sleeper next to mine spent the night spitting out a huge pile of phlegm on to the floor. Now, I found people looking askance at me for dropping bits of peanut shell on to the floor. And not only was nobody spitting: nobody was smoking. Instead, they were sipping tea and reading newspapers.

I've never met such model citizens. "Oh you Westerners are so clever compared to us," they kept saying. "And you are so young-looking as well."

When I pointed to my own bald-spot as a sign of early physical deterioration, they immediately responded by saying that baldness was a sign of intelligence. The man who said this the loudest was the man with the thickest brush of hair I had ever seen. My lingering suspicions of a set-up would not go away.

Anyway, I'm now in the far-off city of Jiayuguan, which has its points, but (believe you me) never claimed to be the Paris of the Gobi Desert. Last time I was here, five years ago, I was beaten up by a woman with a mop in my hotel for locking the door while trying to sleep. But look at it now! The internet café where I am writing these words contains a couple of dozen super-fast computers. Here,I am listening to Radio New York, beamed straight to Jiayuguan via the web.

Pavements have been remade in smart red and yellow tiles, as if in preparation for my arrival. Trees seem to have been planted, and are lit from beneath. Trendy people with platform shoes and foppish haircuts drift around on bicycles.

What else could be behind these extraordinary changes, except a cunning desire to hoodwink foreigners ? Could it possibly be true instead that the Chinese are trying to please themselves? Without us? What a shocking thought.

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