Friday, November 27, 2009
Strangers on a train...pt. 2
Sometimes a long trip on a Chinese train is a better concept in theory than in actuality...
I do like the train. I really do. I like the rattle of the rails, the mournful horns, the sense of distance and the time it takes to travel. I like having my little bunk surrounded by my stuff and a book and the feeling that I'm wrapped up in the quilt in this weird mobile cocoon. It reminds me when I was a really little kid, how I used to love to fall asleep in the car, in the dark. There's just something wonderfully comforting and soothing about the movement and the sounds of it.
Except for the fact that, you know, I rarely sleep when I'm actually on the train. There's the cheesy guangbo -- in the olden days, patriotic anthems and Chinese renditions of "Do Ray Mi" and "Home on the Range." Nowadays, it's more likely to be a video screen (which you can't turn off) showing whatever lame history soap is on tap, preceded by endless safety recitations. Lately, I seem to suffer some respiratory ailment every time I'm on a train for a long haul, which I'm guessing has to do with the cigarettes smoked in the vestibules and occasionally sneaked in compartments and hallways.
Then there's the food. I've never really gotten a handle on the dining car routine, and sometimes the quality of the food makes stocking up on snacks and fruit a better proposition. Kind of like flying United across the Pacific. Eating is just problematic.
There are the bathrooms, which can get pretty scummy pretty fast, and the competition for the washing up room -- well, this really only happened on the Beijing to Shanghai overnight train (insert your Shanghai jokes here), when as we were due to arrive in Shanghai, I waited behind several passengers who performed entire elaborate hygiene and beauty rituals at these shared facilities, and I mean tweezing and exfoliation level here, in spite of the fact that there were about a half dozen of us waiting to just do a simple teeth-brushing.
Plus there's the reality that most train stations are, well, pretty grungy, that getting on the train feels like you're an extra in a mob scene out of an escape from Nazi Germany movie, that finding a taxi when you get off the train can be problematic (today in Guilin, all of the legal taxis refused to use their meters, wanted to barter for the rate and when I finally settled on one, she spent the entire ride trying to talk me out of the place I'd reserved and into the "best hotel in Guilin, the most luxurious, the most peaceful, not too expensive!").
But the real weirdness of long train trips inevitably comes down to your compartment mates. I offer as an example my two day marathon from Chengdu to Xinjiang. After that epic misadventure, 22 hours from Shanghai to Guilin seemed like it should be a breeze.
And it really was, except for the aforementioned sudden onset of sneezing and nose-blowing and trying to do all this quietly in an upper bunk. And the inevitable eccentric compartment-mate.
The first guy in after me was a young man on a business trip, hauling a dolly stacked with some kind of, I'm guessing, electrical components housed in hard plastic cases. Naturally this couldn't fit in the overhead compartments or under the seats so it just squatted there on the floor. He was a nice guy though, friendly, and we bonded over our mutual loathing of the video that couldn't be turned off.
Next was a middle-aged woman, trim, energetic and loud. She came in hauling a large suitcase, a laptop and several shopping bags (she'd been on a shopping trip for clothes in Suzhou), and after she sat down, the first thing she did was get out a kleenex and blot her forehead, saying that she was "Re si le!" "Hot to death!" from her exertions. The second thing she did was pull out her cellphone and start up a loud and complicated conversation. Third, she grabbed a cigarette, lit it in the compartment and stood outside in the corridor smoking and chatting, until one of the train workers shooed her toward the smoking area -- "Ah, wo re si le!" she exclaimed again, by way of explanation for her scofflaw behavior.
Not more than twenty minutes into the trip, she was replaced by another man, who had asked the train workers if he could switch compartments. I didn't hear the explanation for his request, but whatever it was, the woman agreed, and with the help of one of the attendants carried her stuff into her new compartment.
Our new roommate had a small backpack and two small plastic grocery bags that looked much used. Thin, with sunken cheeks and a thick wedge of hair. He spoke in a quiet, near-mumble, at least he did the only time I heard him speak, which was to ask the young businessman that the compartment door be kept open part way, because it was more comfortable. He did not make eye contact when he asked this. At some point in the evening, one of the attendants shut our compartment door for the night, and that was the end of that.
He spent a lot of time outside the compartment sitting on one of the jump seats in the corridor. When he was in the compartment, for a long while he sat hunched in the corner, head bowed, forehead resting on hand, as though he'd been crushed by some terrible news. Actually, I think he was just dozing. He sat like this even when the lights were turned off and it was time to sleep. Finally, he did lie down, face down, arms and legs splayed out like a corpse. He never used his pillows or his quilt. Though the next day, he spent a good five minutes rubbing at a spot on one of the pillows with a wetted cloth.
The next day, I wanted to offer him one of my bananas, but as mentioned, he wouldn't meet my eyes. I thought maybe he was uncomfortable having a foreigner in the compartment, though he hadn't spoken to the young businessman either, other than that initial request to leave the door open. He spent an hour or so making notes on a folded square of paper, crossing out characters and writing in new ones. I decided he was composing poetry, though I have absolutely no evidence of this.
About three hours before we arrived in Guilin, his hand darted toward me with a square sweet neatly wrapped in cellophane -- "Hao chi," he near-whispered, ducking his head and looking quickly away.
I thanked him, offered him a banana, which he did not want, and ate the sweet -- mochi and bean paste.
Both of us dozed the final two hours of the ride. When we pulled into Guilin, he was still asleep, head the wrong way on the bunk, feet tucked under the pillows.