When I travel between cities in China, I nearly always take the train. China has an extensive rail system, for one. For another, you get to see more of the country than you ever will from a plane. Mainly, you meet people, you talk, and even though the experience isn't always comfortable (don't ask me how many times I come down with some kind of respiratory bug after a long train ride), it's always interesting. I remind myself of this when I commit to doing things like, taking a two day train trip from Chengdu to Xinjiang: "It will be interesting! Yes, I am sharing a compartment with a crazy woman, her husband with the tubercular cough and Obsessive-Compulsive Guy! But think of the stories!"
Here's a friend I made while I was in Tunxi:
It used to be that many hotels would purchase your train tickets for you. This came to an abrupt halt last year when the government started requiring verified identification to buy tickets, which in the case of foreigners means, you have to show your passport. Most hotels, at least the kind I tend to stay in, don't want to deal with that. So, off I went to the train station to attempt to purchase train tickets with my less than fluent Mandarin. I'd done my research. There was a train leaving Tunxi in the morning that would get me to Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. From there I could take a high-speed train to Beijing the next day.
I really wanted to try one of China's shiny new high-speed trains. Even though one of them had crashed into another last year, killing forty people and exposing the staggering corruption of the railway ministry. Odds were that wasn't going to happen again, right?
The price of my ticket from Tunxi to Hefei was 32 yuan. About five dollars. It was an eight hour ride. I realized, somewhat after the fact, that I'd booked myself on the slowest local train, and that it had to be hard seat only. Hard seats are the cheapest rail tickets you can get. It used to be that a hard seat ticket didn't even guarantee you a seat, but in this case, I had an assigned number. Plus, the trip was during the day. I figured it couldn't be too bad.
And in a flashback to the China I'd first encountered in 1979, I'm guessing most of them had never seen a foreigner up close before. One guy, middle-aged, wearing the PLA snoopy hat, walked up to me, staring, absolutely beaming, like I was, I actually have no idea what. Some kind of weird, semi-miraculous apparition. I said, "I'm just an ordinary foreigner." But I guess, for him, there's no such thing.
On the wall of the train station was a billboard of the new bullet train, watched over by Comrade Lei Feng. Lei Feng was a PLA soldier supposedly devoted to the Revolution, utterly selfless, the sort of fellow who helped little old tai-tai's across the commune. After his unfortunate death in 1962 (apparently he was hit by a truck), he became the subject of an intensive propaganda campaign, the model Communist who all good comrades should emulate. What he has to do with bullet trains eludes me.
In any case, our train to Hefei was one of the ancient green ones, the slowest of the slow, the ones I didn't even think they used any more. Inside, it wasn't bad, mainly because it wasn't crowded.
Most of the people in my compartment were young. The girl across from me was a college student. Older than she looked, she told me at one point. She looked very young to me, almost frail, her hair cut in an uneven bowl shape, like she'd tried to do it herself, wearing a neon-yellow parka with white cotton cuffs pulled over the sleeves to keep them clean.
We talked for a good chunk of the eight hour ride. She was returning to college after dropping out for a while, which she'd had to do to help her family. Her life was difficult. Her studies were hard. Her family, poor. Her father hadn't wanted her to go back to school; she hadn't worked hard enough, he'd said; why should they spend the money? And it seemed that she wasn't sure herself why she was doing it. She was studying accounting, but could she get a good job, after? The competition was so fierce. The corruption, so terrible. And she was old, so old, maybe too old to find a husband.
She also wanted to know why President Obama was against China, as evidenced by his support of Japan in the Diaoyu Islands dispute. They had discussed this in her college classes, she told me. There have been a lot of protests in China about these islands, at times violent, the kind of nationalistic expression the government encourages to channel public discontent in an acceptable direction but that often threatens to bubble out of control. "The islands don't matter very much to the United States," I managed. "Not important to our national interest. Most Americans don't know anything about them."
During the ride, every hour or so a train worker, a cheerful, good-looking young woman wearing no-nonsense tailored slacks and shirt would come through with things to sell. Not the usual snacks and drinks. Instead, she had toys and magical washcloths that would clean your hair without water, at least I think that's what it was supposed to do. I was much clearer on the toys, which included a bullet train that played music and flashed colored lights as it trundled up and down the aisle. I had to get me one of those. "A little expensive," I told her, hoping I could bargain down. "No, this is a good price!" she insisted. "Outside it's thirty kuai. Here, only twenty-seven!"
Who could resist?
(crossing the Yangtze River)
Some eight hours later, we arrived in Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. It was hard to tell exactly when we'd arrived. Hours before the train pulled into the station, you'd see huge construction projects, blocks of half-finished high-rises, associated with some town I'd never heard of, in one of China's poorest provinces. What were these places? Who would live in them? How and why had they been built? In China, you never know. There are "ghost cities" throughout the country, massive developments where no one lives, shopping malls with no stores, a real estate glut fueled by the need to keep China's economy booming and workers employed; also, corruption.
I spent the night in Hefei, at a Holiday Inn, because I'd never stayed at a Holiday Inn in China before, and I didn't know anything about Hefei, and I wouldn't really have time to see any of the city, which from the ride from the train station to the hotel looked to me like every other second or third tier Chinese city in the middle of a building boom on steroids: high-rises going up, a subway system tunneling under.
I woke up early the next morning with a pounding headache and a churning gut. I was pretty sick. And I had to make it on that train to Beijing that left at 1:30 PM. I'd paid over a hundred dollars for the ticket. I had a room at a hutong inn waiting for me in Beijing.
I swallowed some Dramamine and Coca-Cola and dragged myself downstairs to take the hotel shuttle to the train station. I would do this thing. I would not throw up in the shuttle as it lurched through stop-and-go-traffic, swimming in exhaust fumes. I would get to the train station, find the soft-seat (first class) waiting room, curl up in an overstuffed chair, and it would all be fine.
Except, there was no soft-seat waiting room. There was only a waiting hall, filled far beyond capacity, crowded with smokers, no place to sit. And it was cold. They didn't heat the station, apparently, and the temperature was close to freezing.
And...the train was delayed.
This. Never. Happens.
But apparently a storm had dumped a load of snow on the route by Beijing, and the shiny, new high-speed train couldn't negotiate it.
The red diode signboard, and the public address announcement, said only that our train would be an hour late. The hour came and went. No updates. I asked a station worker, who told me that they didn't know when the train would come, or if it would be cancelled.
Meanwhile, some young, hip business-guys standing close to me were discussing the situation, the one getting angrier and angrier and finally getting on his smartphone to the rail authority, saying things like, "How are we supposed to make plans when you won't tell us what's going on? What arrangements am I supposed to make?" and remarking to his friend that in the U.S., this wouldn't happen, they don't start a service like this before it's really ready to go. I was kind of tempted to tell him that in the U.S., we can't get our act together enough to build something like this at all, but I was too tired, too cold and too sick.
Finally, I did what a Chinese person would do in this kind of situation: plopped myself down on my soft-sided suitcase, rested my chin in my hand and went to sleep.
The train eventually did arrive.
I had paid for First Class, which isn't even the nicest class -- that would be "Business," which was twice as much as my hundred dollar plus ticket. I glimpsed one of those Business cars. It was incredibly swank, club chairs grouped around little tables, with attendants hovering around the few guests, bringing them drinks and snacks.
But the First Class was impressive enough. Deep red seats, only two across. Plenty of legroom, and leg-rests. Bathrooms with smoked Lucite doors. And attendants who were wearing what looked like old Pan Am stewardess uniforms, with the little hats, the white gloves and everything. It felt like a hallucination, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't.
The car was half-full, if that. The seat next to me, empty. The trip passed in a blur, the train whirring down the tracks so quickly that it felt like we were somehow hovering above the landscape, a ghostly gray darkening to black.
In less than four hours, we arrived at the Beijing South Railway station, me clutching my toy high-speed train...