Friday, June 09, 2006

China Stories Pt. 10: Train to Chengdu (II)

We napped and read as our train chugged westward through the rugged terrain of central China. The compartment had a loudspeaker that crackled to life every 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes it helpfully alerted us to some attraction. ("Attention, we are now crossing the Yellow River.") Sometimes music blared, jarring us awake. Fortunately, one of the benefits of the soft sleepers was a volume control. (Hard sleeper and hard seat did not have such a luxury.)

The scenery was new and fantastic — now we were in rural China. Every inch of arable soil was cultivated. Impossibly steep-looking hillsides were planted with neat rows of crops. There were water buffalo, occasionally with children riding on top of them. We saw other trains, including an ancient looking steam locomotive that wouldn't have looked out of place in the old west in the 1800s.

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Steam train. Not the one I saw, probably, but a decent facsimile. Courtesy of the internet.

Somewhere in Shaanxi (not to be confused with Shanxi), the train stopped, and we got off. It was nice to breathe a little fresh air, stretch my legs, and get something to eat besides the snack food we had brought along, and the fairly terrible food that was available on board the train.

If I thought I had been stared at before, I was mistaken. Out here, Bob and I were the main attraction. Having tons of people staring me was a new experience, and I found it a little unnerving. I bought a bun of some sort, some White Rabbit candies, and a chocolate bar, and got back on the train.

(White Rabbit candies are like taffy, I guess. They come with an outer wrapper and an inner wrapper. The inner wrapper is made of rice paper, and is supposed to be left on and eaten. I really liked them, but after 40 or 50 on the train, I decided to take a break. The chocolate bar was a total loss. It was like eating a flat brown candle without a wick.)

The train got back underway. I sipped tea from my mug. My mug was just a tin cup coated in white enamel. It had a lid, and it was big enough for instant noodles, or "fang bian mian" — literally, convenient noodles. I'd put some tea leaves in my mug, and then fill my mug with hot water from the thermos. Every so often, I'd take it down to the lavatory at the end of the car to throw out the leaves. Loose leaf tea only, of course. Tea bags were not that common. And anyway, I was in China, I wanted to have my tea the same way everyone else did.

As the sun went down on our second night on the train, our young roommate started to open up a little bit to us. He was one smart kid. I was flabbergasted when he told us the names of the leaders of the Allied Powers during World War II. (Meanwhile, American students struggle to identify Mexico and Canada on a map.)


The next day, it dawned on Bob and I that soon we would be arriving in Chengdu, and we didn't really know what we were doing. One of our fellow travelers made us an offer.

"My work unit has a guesthouse. It's nice! It has two bedrooms, a TV, a bathroom. You should come stay there."

The work unit was one of the main building blocks of Chinese society. When people joined the work force, they were assigned to work units. Work units provided people with housing, healthcare, even food rations.

This was intriguing. It would be fascinating, wouldn't it, to visit a work unit? And it would be cheaper, too.

"Oh no, we couldn't. You are too kind." We had to decline at least twice.

"No, it's as it should be. Please, don't be so polite."

After declining again, Bob and I agreed. Tonight, we would be guests at a real-live work unit guesthouse!

I was excited, but also nervous. In a couple of hours, we would have to leave our safe little train compartment, and enter a city of close to 10 million people.


At 10:00 AM, Anonymous Whinger said...

It's so charming that you had to decline twice.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger ww said...

Tuning in every day! Love this real-life story, extremely intriguing...

At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Kirin said...

...and Mr. Ish, if I may call you that, I have not forgotten about my popular request to see a photo of you from this trip. Your answer that you do not have one with you seems, uh rather suspicious. A photo from any time during your stay in China would be fine.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger riseyp said...

love these stories as always!

i experienced a bit of that "being stared at" and "being asked the same questiosn over and over" when J & I were in Japan.


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