Saturday, August 4

23 hour train ride

"This vast ocean-like expanse, furrowed by sharp ridges of rock, inhabited by gazelles, dotted with white and red lamaseries...I am obliged to understand it."

"I still, you see, don't know where life is taking me," he wrote to his friend Max Begouen. "I'm beginning to think that I shall always be like this and life will always find me a wanderer."

- Teilhard de Chardin, French paleontologist who worked in China
(quoted in For the Time Being by Annie Dillard)

(WARNING: long post ahead)
I took the train from Beijing to Yanji a few weeks ago, on the way back from my vacation trip to Qingdao and Xi'an. I had a lot of time to observe, read, and write. It was a great chance to learn more about this China that I am "obliged to understand."

Across the seat from me: a 9 year old or so girl whose face comes to a point at her chin. The girl is quiet, content to be close to her mom, not doing much. Next to them is a girl in her twenties who has an amazing capacity for sleeping in these straight backed seats.

Next to me: a university student who speaks a little English. She is sitting in front of the table and sets it up in a way that reminds me of the way you see bingo players on TV. She has a book, which surprises me because I have only ever seen one other Chinese person with a book on a train. They sometimes read magazines, but never books. (This amazes me - that they can be so content on long journeys with almost nothing to do.) This girl, however, doesn't read more than a few pages of the book during our long train ride. Instead, she uses it to file pictures of her boyfriend after taking them out periodically to gaze at them. She has her food stash, which is sizable, especially for such a small girl, in a mound on the edge of the table. She pulls out a bottle with sand, flowers, and little messages rolled up in it that she sets up. Later, she pulls out a small photo album, a portable Winnie the Pooh fan, and gum. She arranges each of these items, shakes the bottle every once in a while and plays with her phone.

Across from me on the next bench up is an older mom with a really fat baby. The mom is giving her banana pieces alternating with cake pieces and the baby has banana in her buzz cut. The woman holding her apparently can't chew with her mouth closed. I can see everything that goes in as well as the whole process of chewing.

When I first got on the train, it looked might there might be a few seats left, but by the time we leave, I can see that was a silly assumption. There are people standing almost two deep all along the aisle because there aren't enough seats. Although most of them get seats as others get off the train, I am amazed that people will actually buy a ticket for a 23 hour train without getting a seat. I had actually planned on trying to switch to a sleeper once I got on the train, but now that it's so full, I don't want to get out of my seat.

10 minutes into our trip, people are already eating: shrimp flavored chips, steamed corn rolls, cucumbers, packaged cakes. The lady next to me spills drinking yogurt on herself and the lady across from me generously offers her a napkin. (Tissue is a valuable commodity on the train!) Soon, the mom and daughter combo pick up some chicken feet from the passing food cart. The student next to me opens up a huge pack of unshelled sunflower seeds, the essential Chinese train food, and we share them. Later on, three of the four other people in our area buy a package of spicy flavored tendon to chew on. I feel a bit left out, but decide not to join them in their munching.

The mom and daughter soon fall asleep. First the daughter falls asleep in her mom's arms, then they trade places and the mom falls asleep on the girl. I want to take a picture, but then remember how I despised it when people took pics of me sleeping with my mouth open on the last hard seat trip to Harbin in the winter. The drinking yogurt woman has graciously given up her seat temporarily to a guy who is catching himself from falling asleep with jerking motions. I try to think of some way to help him out but can't think of anything short of giving him my shoulder to rest on, which would definitely not be appropriate.

The woman with the fat baby looks old enough to be a young grandma, but I know she is the mom because she's been breast feeding her quite openly. The baby apparently made some secret signal because the mom quickly moved over to the inside seat and positioned the baby over the floor (the baby is wearing split crotch pants even though she's barely old enough to walk and can't say much of anything). The friend of the mom quickly puts some toilet paper on the floor, but it doesn't catch much of the numbers one and two that are squirting out of this baby onto the floor. So, the friend spends quite a while cleaning up the rest of the mess with toilet paper. I can't take my eyes off the whole scene...that this baby actually just did her business on the floor of the train. A little got on the edge of the seat and the mom's sock. Yuck. Diapers were a great invention, even if they are horrible for the environment and keep children from learning to be toilet trained until later.

I finish one of the books I brought with me and start another one after I brush my teeth in the sink at the end of the car. A woman gets on the train at the next stop and starts yelling at someone at the end of the car. I have no idea what she's talking about, but she provides some entertainment/distraction for the rest of the car. They all stand up and look at her. She proceeds to do this after almost every stop for the next two hours.

The girl next to me has taken her boyfriend pictures out of the book and propped them up against the glass bottle so she can look at them some more. Soon, she puts them away again and we all lay our heads on the table or contort ourselves into strange sleeping positions as we get ready to try to sleep as much as we can.

I sleep pretty well. I wake up a lot, but since I am sitting near the table and the girl has cleared most of her stuff off so we can rest on it, I lay my head on the edge and don't feel too sleep deprived. In the morning, most people get up, wash their faces and comb their hair. One guy even changes shirts. I don't see much use in any of that since I won't be seeing anyone I know until after I get home. The guy next to me gets a bottle of vodka like liquid and a package of dried squid from the food cart man as he passes. Breakfast of champions. I get hot water for my instant coffee and enjoy it with a muffin I bought in Beijing while the mom and daughter finish off their chicken feet and share a bowl of instant noodles, which is the same thing they had for dinner.

As I pull out my breakfast foods, people stare at me. I imagine it's to see what the foreigner is eating, although it's a more Western stare than I'm used to. They look at me, but then look away when I look up instead of the more common stare-at-me-whether-I-notice-or-not stare. There's a morning mist coming off the river we pass that is really beautiful. The corn on the stalks seems to be so much taller than when I left and the rice fields aren't as green.

We get closer to my stop (the second to last one on the train) and the train begins to empty out. I stretch out a little and try to focus on reading to pass the time, then we finally get there. I'm thankful for a day of cultural insight and really thankful that it's over!


Elaine said...

I can't imagine riding a train like that for so long. Thanks for such a descriptive account. I hope you make it to your sister's in time! Call me in Chicago if you need anything! (my mom gave your mom my #)

mad4books said... goodness!

Spicy tendon and chicken feet for sale on a 23-hour train ride? Open urination and defecation--with splatter--in a crowded train car? Sleeping upright, resting your head on a communal table? Dried squid & vodka for breakfast?

You are amazing. I am obliged to understand YOU.