Thursday, June 08, 2006

China Stories Pt. 9: Train to Chengdu (I)

It was time to go to Sichuan. I packed my backpack with lots of warm clothes, since it was February, and Sichuan was reasonably cold. Furthermore, many buildings in China had poor or nonexistent heat. I had my food, my tea and teacup. My toilet paper. I was ready.

Bob and I made our way down to the main Beijing train station. The Beijing train station was bewildering, and a little bit frightening. Since it was Spring Festival, the station was packed with travelers coming and going. Plus, countless thousands of poor peasants who came to the city in search of work camped outside the station with their belongings.

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The main Beijing train station. Courtesy of the internet.

Bob and I found our way inside the station. It was noisy and crowded. Everywhere we walked we were met with blank stares. We didn’t know where to go, and what few signs there were weren't very helpful. And by the way, the signs were in Chinese. (The nerve!)

We stood around trying to get our bearings, trying to figure out where our train was and when it was boarding. Bob and I eventually found our way to the “soft sleeper waiting lounge,” which mercifully was quiet and less crowded. It was not exactly the Red Carpet Club, but compared to the main halls of the station, it was heaven.

Finally it was time to board. I was excited, but a little apprehensive at the same time. I’d never been this far from home, and now I was going even farther away.

The soft sleeper cars were divided into enclosed cabins, with an upper and a lower bunk on each wall. During the day, the upper bunks folded up so that the occupants could sit. There was a small table in the middle of the compartment, and a thermos bottle of boiled water for tea.

Bob and I boarded the train, and the attendant took our tickets, and asked for our passports. We handed them over. He looked at them, and then gave us plastic tokens.

"What are these?" we asked.

"You keep this. When we get to Chengdu, you give me the token, I'll give you back your passports."

I had read about this, but it still made me nervous. Letting my passport out of my sight was a little bit nerve-wracking. It was part of my security blanket.

We put our packs in the storage rack, sat down, and took a deep breath. With the hurly-burly of the station behind us, we could finally relax a little.

After a few minutes, our "roommates" arrived: two middle aged men, one traveling with his son, about 4 or 5 years old. They were well-dressed, and seemed nice. The man with the son worked at some sort of research institute, I can't remember exactly what. It was clear from the fact that they were traveling soft sleeper that they were, by Chinese standards, well-to-do or well connected, or both. They did not seem overly perturbed to be sharing their accommodations with foreigners, nor did they seem uncomfortable around us.

The little boy was shy, but curious. We spoke to him. "Hi. What's your name? How old are you?" He hid his head. We continued talking with his dad. But then he reached out and touched the back of my hand.

"You’re hairy," he said. True. By any standard, I had a fair amount of hair on my arms and hands.

"Your face is hairy, too!" he said. Also true. If you've seen the picture in my profile, this may surprise you. But once upon a time, in 1989, say, I still had a full head of hair, and I had grown a beard. By Chinese standards, I was a blond Sasquatch.

Eventually the train pulled out, and we were underway.

"You're hairy!"

We sat chatting. Sometimes, people walking past the open door to our compartment did a double-take: we have foreigners in our train car! Some of the passersby were bold enough to stop in for a visit. They wanted to talk to us, which was great-- this was why we were here, right? To meet people, to speak the language? To break down cultural barriers?

"What country are you from?”
“America is great. It's a rich country.”
“Do you like China? China is a poor country.”
“How old are you?”
“Where did you learn to speak Chinese? You speak very well!"
“Would you like a cigarette? Are you sure?”

We really enjoyed the interactions, at first. But over and over, it was always some variation on these same questions. About two hours in, it started to get tedious.

I’m American.
Yes, I like China.
How old do you think I am? 35? No, I'm 20. That’s right, I'm 6 years younger than him.
I learned Chinese in college in the US. Thank you.
No thank you, I don’t smoke anymore. (Much easier than trying to explain why you didn’t smoke at all, which was odd.)

It got to the point that we really only enjoyed the people who asked different questions.

"Does your family own a car? How much money does your father earn? Are you married?"

We got to talk a lot to a lot of different people, which was good. But eventually, both Bob and I just wanted to rest, read, and look at the scenery. But the well-intentioned visitors wouldn't leave us alone.

I began to wish I had never spoken, so that I plausibly could have pretended not to understand, and gone back to reading my book. Over the remainder of our trip, on several occasions I pretended to be asleep so that I could stop talking for a little while.

As we chugged westward towards the setting sun, we drank tea, chatted with our guests and watched Beijing peel away. Then suburbs gave way to farmland, and we continued westward, into the night.


At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Kirin said...

Can you post a photo of yourself from this trip? It's not just that I wanna see you with blond hair (yes, it is), it's just that it would lend much to the narrative. thanks

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Green said...

I second Kirin's motion.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Changeseeker said...

And the resolution passes!

*gavel sounds*

At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ish, I'm really enjoying reading your China Stories. Please keep going :)

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Ish said...

I'd like to share the picture, and I will try to get it. Unfortunately I don't have it in my possession right now.

In the mean time, enjoy a photo of the Beijing train station that I found on the internet.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger k said...

you know, i've never seen a picture of you (as an adult) with hair, either. count me among those looking forward to the expose.


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