Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strangers on a train...

Two days on a train is a long time.

Maybe if we were talking the Orient Express here, it would be more of a vacation, like a cruise, but most Chinese trains are decidedly not the Orient Express (is the Orient Express even the Orient Express these days?). Even if you take soft sleeper.

I am past the point in life where I need to take hard sleepers to save money and/or prove a point. Not like thirty years ago, when we were students trying to save every kuai we could. More to the point, the Chinese authorities back then didn't want us saving money by taking hard sleepers (and not paying steep "foreign friends' rates" on just about everything else), and they wanted to keep us as segregated from ordinary Chinese as possible, which was all the more reason to fight for them at every opportunity.

Of course, sometimes we were grateful for the privileges granted "foreign friends." Like the time our Chongqing minder had his final act of revenge.

I don't want to smear the guy inaccurately, so I'll have to double-check my old notes and letters home, but I'm pretty sure he was the person responsible for handling our train tickets from Wuhan to Kunming - a long trip, more than thirty hours at that time, as I recall. And he booked us in hard seats. At the height of Spring Festival. And didn't tell us.

Hard seats are the only option for many Chinese, and just because you've purchased a "hard seat" ticket doesn't guarantee you anything like a seat. It means you can get on the train, cram yourself in somewhere, on a table, in the aisle, in the corridor outside the toilet, with everyone's bundles and baskets and TV sets and earthly goods, and make do. For over thirty hours.

We crammed ourselves in two actual seats, amazingly enough, with space on the little table to rest our things, and told ourselves okay, thirty hours plus of this. At least we saved some money. Meanwhile the car continued to fill with passengers and their baggage, to the point I wondered how I would ever get out of this seat to, you know, use the toilet. Which on a ride this long I would certainly need to do.

The train crew saw us. They were horrified. This. Would. Not. Do.

So they took us to their xiuxi car - the rest car for train workers. A lovely, nearly empty hard sleeper.

We shared the car with the train workers when they took their breaks and with another passenger, a pretty young woman who'd been traveling alone and had gotten a top bunk - the train personnel were afraid that she would be "bothered" there, or maybe she already had been, so they brought her to our little sanctuary as well.

Paul at the time wore a baseball cap sent to him by a friend in America - after months of hearing us complain about Chinese bureaucracy, she'd found a cap with "KAFKA" embroidered on it. Baseball caps were a novelty in China at the time, and all of the workers and the young woman, wanted to try it on. I have slides of them, smiling, wearing the Kafka hat.

So. Anyway. Nowadays, soft sleepers are fine by me.

A soft sleeper is a closed compartment with four beds for four passengers (a hard sleeper, by contrast, is an open car with three pallets facing three pallets in an open compartment). Your experience on a soft sleeper, therefore, depends largely on who you share your compartment with. Particularly when the trip is two days long.

My cabin-mates: an older Chinese couple who looked to be from the countryside. Their relatives, presumably, had helped them load their things onto the train. The woman was short and round, heavy, almost appearing swollen, skin brown as a nut in a way that did not look to be from the sun. She had some kind of chronic illness; one had was partially paralyzed and she had difficulty sitting up and getting to her feet, something serious having to do with her brain, her husband explained to me. "But she can still walk." That was as much as I understood of his explanation. He spoke a heavy dialect, Sichuan, I gathered, as that was their original home, though they'd lived in Turpan for the last twenty years. Her dialect was even thicker; I could hardly understand a word she said. I don't know whether this was due in part to her illness, whatever it was. She seemed a little odd. Her husband spent a lot of time out in aisle, gazing out the window, and sometimes she would become agitated and call for him in a hoarse voice. He either couldn't always hear her or had learned to ignore her when it was convenient. By contrast he was thin, wiry and seemingly fit, except for an intermittent cough, so severe it sent him into near-convulsions. He didn't smoke, so maybe he was sick. His wife had it too.

Oh, great, I thought.

The fourth person in our compartment I dubbed, "Slightly Obsessive/Compulsive Guy" - the first thing he did when he entered the compartment was to straighten up the communal table so that the newspaper lined up perfectly with the little aluminum tray. He was my age, and kind of a health nut, one of the rare Chinese men who doesn't smoke and doesn't approve of smoking. He also had a lot of ideas about diet, and about healthy psychological attitudes (he found me admirable for some reason that I've forgotten now). He spoke in Sichuan dialect too but was able to reply to me in Mandarin and translate my Putonghua into dialect so that the old woman understood what I was saying as well. She seemed unable to grasp why it was that I could speak some Chinese but not understand her, so this was helpful.

The first morning I woke up to the loud, cheesy guangbo (broadcast) telling us that it was, in fact, morning. Yeah, I needed to know that. Outside, steep peaks and snow. Gravestones interspersed in the fields with ragged paper flowers and lantern tributes, facing the tracks.

I was restless, that first day. I finished one novel and read another. And realized that I was out of books, and my Treo was nearly out of juice. The Treo has my Chinese dictionary (I do have a paper backup), my ability to connect to the internet on the road and all kinds of things I could potentially read on it. None of the electrical outlets in the soft sleeper car worked, and it was the only soft sleeper on the train. Hard sleeper cars, at least on this train, don't have any outlets. The train worker tried to explain the situation to me, why the plugs didn't work; there seemed to be some larger reason, but I couldn't understand. Later, she took my Treo and the charger to the xiuxii cabin, where there was a working outlet. She seemed happy to be there, doing this job, a woman around thirty with big, striking features accentuated by the makeup she wore, precisely applied; she was always singing, humming along to the guangbo, singing her own songs when the broadcast was silent.

I calmed down after that. The Treo would be charged. This did not solve my problem of running out of books, or being stuck in a cabin with an ill, maybe slightly crazy person, her husband with the consumptive cough, and Slightly Obsessive Compulsive Guy, but I'd managed to slow my mind enough so that I thought I could deal with it all, and anyway, they were nice people, really. And I'd started feeling bad for the woman. Occasionally she would look down at her lap, at her hand that didn't work properly, and sigh, looking as sad and alone as a lost child, and say, "Wo bingle." "I am sick."

Other times, she seemed obsessed with feeding me. Cherry tomatoes. Peanuts. Hunks of smoked duck. "Chi yidian," she would say. "Have a little." I would politely decline. "Chi," she'd repeat. "Chi," and then, angrily," Chi!"

She was a little scary. So I ate.

By now the green of the south was far behind us; the land had grown hard and brown. We entered Ningxia province. Little villages of brown brick, old mud walls, eroded battlements. And in most towns, a new mosque: usually white, often constructed of the ubiquitous white tile still found out in the countryside and less sophisticated cities. At first the minarets were usually topped by green Chinese style roofs in miniature; as we headed further west, the Chinese ornamentation fell away. How were these mosques funded, I wondered, in villages that looked too poor to build them?

I spent most of the day gazing out the window, taking occasional notes. The woman stared at me as I wrote, because I'm left-handed, and this is still seen as very much an anomaly in China. I remember on that train ride to Kunming, when we stayed in the train workers' rest cabin, trying to write letters to our friends. Both Paul and I were left-handed, and the workers and the young woman couldn't get over this. At one point we told them that all Americans were left-handed. Hey, how would they know?

Nowadays in China, all I hear is that if you're left-handed, it means you're really smart.

"Look!" the old woman said, pointing at me as I wrote. Her husband and Slightly O/C Man looked and nodded. "That means she's clever!"

Here's what I don't get: if Chinese people think that left-handed people are so clever, why don't they let Chinese kids be left-handed?

Late in the afternoon, somewhere past Zhongxin, we passed a wall, a fake Great Wall, something built for tourists, and then giant "sand" constructions, steep pyramids with a vaguely Babylonian vibe. I have no idea what it was, why it was there, in the middle of nowhere. The Chinese equivalent of giant dinosaur statues in the middle of the Arizona desert, I guess.

Darkness. Music on the guangbo: super-cheesy Chinese pop, with a female singer whose pitch could break glass. Slightly O/C Man has retreated to his upper berth with a beer. He keeps slapping himself, mostly on the forearm. Is this some kind of, I don't know, weird wuxia practice? Some form of acupressure? Now he's singing along to the music, off-key. The old man grins, and cranks up the volume. It's so loud the speaker rattles, and every time the singer hits a high note, I'm pretty sure my eardrum is going to burst. I smile rigidly.

"She doesn't understand," the old man says.

Which is true. I really don't.

Around 9 PM, everyone decides they want to shui jiao (go to sleep) early. Fine with me. I read a few more pages in my last available novel and switch off the light. Fall asleep.

A couple hours later, the old woman calls loudly for her husband. She wants...she do something. I don't know what. Her husband, meanwhile, decides it's time for an 11 PM snack. Then my three cabin-mates have a conversation about where and what time the train stops and the relative merits of train versus long-distance bus. This goes on for quite a while. Finally, the old woman yawns, loudly, theatrically and repeatedly. On the one hand, it's annoying. On the other, maybe it means we get to go back to sleep soon.

Apparently it does. Everyone quiets, and we sleep.

Hours later, I am awakened by a loud, high, HEH! A sneeze, of sorts. It repeats, at escalating volume. The old woman pauses in her "HEH!"ing to laugh at my funny sleeping habits, among those, apparently, my blinking confusion at being awakened by this. Then the old man starts coughing, that horrible, wheezing cough choked by phlegm that sounds like he's going to die on the spot. The old woman coughs along. I think uncharitable thoughts about TB and bird flu and urge my immune system to be strong.

Around 4 AM, Slightly O/C Man gets off the train. But first, he gets his stuff together and makes a phone call. All of this is done at a normal, daytime volume. I'm coming to the conclusion that sleeping in China is meant to be a communal experience, which is to say, everyone sleeps, or no one sleeps.

When he's finally ready to leave, he wishes everyone "Man zou," and in spite of my irritation, I manage a big smile and a wave. Because everyone seems truly kind, beneath it all.

The next day: we know we've entered Xinjiang because the guangbo tells us so, beginning a recitation of the province's qualities, its natural resources, "ethnic minorities," main cities, extremes of temperature, progress in economic development, and mostly, the food. A lot of talk of mutton and Islam. For a while they play some really cool traditional music, and then they switch to this tenor going on and on about how "everyone" (which I'm assuming means Han people) should "lai lai lai!" (come, come, come!) to Xinjiang, the land of opportunity.

So far, Xinjiang is desert, miles and miles of it, open land that stretches on until it meets distant mountains.

The old couple live in Turpan, about an hour from Urumqi, the train's final destination. The woman starts getting agitated about an hour and a half away from Turpan. I try to tell her, you still have a while to go, but she's anxious - "zhaoji." She can't move well, can't carry things, they had help back in Chengdu, who will help them in Turpan? I offer but the husband politely turns me down. Finally, about 20 minutes before we're due in Turpan, she convinces her husband to move their things to the front of the car for a quick exit, and we say our goodbyes.

Alone at last. As we pull into Turpan, I watch for the couple, but I can't see them in the crowds that exit the train.

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