‘What a weird pack’, says one of the rural men beside me. He looks it over carefully, its straps and belts and zips and its odd shape. Or at least, that’s what I guess he is saying, since my Chinese is rudimentary at best. His companion joins in and they engage in an animated debate, laughing and examining my pack once again. Not long ago, I had slung the pack on my shoulders – the glorious moment that signals it is time to depart, to take to the road. The feel of the pack’s weight first on one shoulder and then on the other; the tightening of the waist belt to shift the weight to my hips; a small adjustment and I am off.
A few stops on the metro line bring me to Chengdu North Railway Station. Most Chinese cities have more than one station, given the sheer complexity of the railway system which transports millions of people daily across a vast country. At the station, an old man carries an equally ancient bag from which the handles have fallen off sometime before the Cultural Revolution. An old and round woman with a shiny face from the humidity sits and eats and watches me write. A young woman clicks past on high-heeled footwear, attempting to gain some height from a reasonably low point. As is characteristic in the south, her face is rounder, with fuller lips and a matching fuller shape. Meanwhile, the two farmers continue to discuss my pack.
If I have any lingering doubts as to the press of people, they are dispelled by the check-in. (Already I have gone through two checks, one a full security scan at the gate and the other for entry into the waiting room for my train.) Hundreds of black heads bob and sway as we shuffle forward. The smallest vacant space beside me is immediately filled by yet another person, in a way that speaks of small personal space. And if I have any continuing doubts as to my solitary status as a foreigner here, they are dispensed by my scan over the heads of those around me. The waiting room is overflowing with nothing but Chinese people. Do not foreigners fly, or perhaps take one of the new high-speed G-trains? Needless to say, I am somewhat of a curiosity.
More than twenty carriages await me on the platform, and more than twenty young women stand at each door to welcome passengers. Uniformed in blue, they hold their hands at the midriff with elbows out in the traditional indication of being there to help.
The beautiful woman at carriage four smiles and holds my elbow to assist me up the steps. Do I look that old? Does she know in some way that I am a grandfather? Or is it the assumption that a foreigner is not familiar with such a train?
A T-train it is, with its soft and hard sleepers, soft and hard – seriously hard – seats. The staple of the Chinese long-haul rail system, they trundle along at a comfortable pace for hours and often times days. My journey will take a full day, from the south-western province of Sichuan to Beijing. I must admit that I continue to be amazed by the Chinese rail network, which is surely the most comprehensive and efficient in the world. Some information: five types of train criss-cross the country. The oldest and slowest trains simply have a number, and they are the cheapest, since they specialise in hard seat and no seat tickets. All of the others are called “fast” trains, or rather, variations on fast. The K- and T-trains are “fast” and “faster,” since they were once the most modern trains available. Luxuries include beds, washing rooms, and dining cars. By comparison, most countries in the world with serious long-haul lines use similar trains. In China, the “very fast” trains are prefixed with a “D.” They too have beds and travel at a decent pace of 200 km per hour. Not long ago, they were the sleekest and most modern of all – and they certainly seem so to anyone who has travelled by train elsewhere. But now the “extremely fast” G-trains have arrived, and their network stretches ever further across the country. Belting along at more than 300 km per hour, they have dedicated tracks and brand new stations along lines that run for thousands of kilometres. The only other places with occasional trains like this are Europe and Japan, where they travel the ridiculously short distances characteristic of those curious parts of the globe. But with the G-train network, China has given yet another indication that it now leads the world in terms of technology.
As I wind my way along the corridor, I realise again why I prefer a train like this. Grandparents haul massive bags into compartments while scolding a grandchild. The ever-present attendants slip past in a way that indicates how easy and creative people here are with space. At my cabin door I am met by a waft of body odour. It seems to belong to the bald fossil, with barely a tooth in his mouth, in the bunk across from me. An additional flavour for the journey, I guess. In the bunk above a couple snuggles close in a way that suggests they may engage in the transfer of bodily fluids at some point during the night. But then their young son turns up and clambers into the other bunk.
I try some rudimentary Chinese – names, place of origin, family, destination. That is about it, until the man from upstairs pulls out his smart phone and starts firing off words that seem like English. With the phone between us, we engage in a conversation of sorts, each searching for words to express what we want to say. Meanwhile, his son starts singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ in English. I join in, to scattered applause at the end. He is both dying to try out his English and yet embarrassed to do so. But we speak nevertheless, with me constantly rephrasing what I want to say until he registers the meaning.
Soon enough, food is shared, as one does in these parts. Rockmelon, bananas, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts festoon the small fold-out table by the window. Multi-coloured cups of two-minute noodles follow – including my own. I have learnt quickly enough that relatively few people grace the dining car or even avail themselves of the food trolley. It may come clattering past at regular intervals, with its driver calling out that food is available, but people mostly avoid it. Why? It is simply too expensive. Better to get hold of the universal travel food – noodles and assortments of fruits and nuts – before departure and make your own meals. It helps that even the newest trains have a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage. Here one may obtain hot water for drinking, or pour it into one’s tea flask, or fill a cup with two-minute noodles and let the boiling water do its job.
Meanwhile the attendants seem to be everywhere, always on an errand, always impossibly smart and always smiling. One comes to our cabin for the routine introduction to the carriage, while another cleans out the cabin bins every 30 minutes or so. Another stops by with a folder, into which she puts our tickets in exchange for a plastic card. To prevent ticket swaps on the way, I assume. The toilets too need a regular wash down, as do the bins where the locals love to put their soiled toilet paper. The carpet needs to be swept before everyone falls asleep, and the emergency mess – from a child – in the third cabin requires urgent attention. A guard stroll by and jokes with one of the attendants, while later be brings their meals from the dining car. The woman pushing the clanking food trolley comes by again, yelling in her mechanical way behind a clear face protector so she doesn’t splutter on the food. Multitudes of people need numerous attendants, but it is a good way to keep high employment.
At times, I take to the fold-out seat in the corridor. In most other parts of the world, such a seat would seriously block the corridor; it may even be designated a hazard for emergency escape. Here, people simply make their way past the seated person. Even the rattling food trolleys manage to get by without a fuss. In a strange way, that small seat in the midst of the corridor bustle enables one to find some quiet space, as much mental as physical.
Out of the Window
By evening, the potentially randy younger man upstairs is already asleep. But he is doing his best to ensure that no-one in the carriage, if not the train as whole, will not sleep. His apnoeatic snores rattle windows, threaten to tear down curtains, and seem to shake the heavy carriage itself. No wonder his wife has slept long during the afternoon – clearly a survival mechanism in such a marriage. Somehow I manage to drift into sleep too, switching off to the thunderous noise around me and feeling the deeper movements of the train.
By then we have already travelled eastward from the Chengdu plateau. Nestled at the foot of the towering ranges to the west, Chengdu sits in a lush part of the world where rice grows and civilisations have flourished for thousands of years. Eastward are mountains too, a little lower but still toweringly jagged in a way that speaks of recent geological history. No wonder earthquakes happen frequently hereabouts. Through these mountains we pass on our way to Chongqing and then to the river basin of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) at Wuhan. Here we will turn north and travel along flatter terrain during the night.
So I make the most of the daylight and soak up the landscape. On the journey to Chengdu, we passed through vast river plains and over never-ending bridges. But on this journey, we travel through the mountains after reaching the end of the Chengdu Plateau. We creep to the top of the range, only to plunge through endless tunnels and yawning gorges as we drop down, down off the plateau and into the river basin below. In between the tunnels, I see houses, with the typical pointed eaves, clustering in villages in folds in the hills. Ripening crops of late spring – cabbages, potatoes, local herbs, and green items I have not seen before – appear in pockets of rich, red earth where one least expects them. Odd corners, flattened rises, twisting valleys, terraces on the slopes, beneath overpasses; a list like this cannot really provide the feel of such a land where every conceivable piece of land is utilised. And there is no mono-cropping here, for in each small field a different crop grows – for mutual protection from pests, for giving off the best odours and signals that encourage their neighbours, for differential use of the soil’s nutrients. Terraced rice paddies follow the lines of creeks and rivers across slightly larger open spaces. On the lower slopes with their gentler inclines, the rice paddies are almost everywhere. Now that the plants are reaching maturity, the paddies are drained and the water pools beside them are full, awaiting the next sowing season when their contents will be needed again. Occasionally, the clothes of scarecrows flutter in the breeze. Unlike other places in the world with their single scarecrow to a field, here one finds many such figures. I ponder why one is not enough. And finally I realise why: since the fields are usually full of many tanned people, an equally great number of scarecrows is needed. The birds are simply used to seeing multiple figures at any one time.
Chinese cities may be construction zones, particularly in the hinterland now that the eastern coast has had its major phase of rebuilding, but the vast majority of the country is rural. Through the cities and towns we pass, with their cranes and building sites and scaffolding. We stop for a while for the usual passenger exchange, for the eager walkers and smokers who wish for a breath of fresh air, but most of our time is spent ambling through tunnels, across bridges, along ridges and on the sides of mountains. I can look up and down the slopes, but rarely across an open landscape.
My sleep is long and deep, and when I wake the snorer is up and about. He reeks of his morning cigarette, which obviously helps his sleep apnoea immensely. But for me it is time to wash off the night sweat. In the washroom, I am jammed in with children (who stare) and mothers (who try not to stare). I strip down to my waist and soap up using one of the three taps. Rinsing leaves my pants doused with water, but I splash on while washing my hair. For some strange reason, not much is more pleasurable than a travel wash with a trickling tap. Refreshed, I fill my last container of noodles with hot water and await the run into Beijing.