Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strangers on a train...pt. 3

(Part 1 and Part 2).

Regular readers of this blog know that trains are my preferred mode of travel in China. I like trains because I can see something of the country, because I can get up and move around, read comfortably, use a toilet when I need to.

But mostly, because of the stories I get out of every ride.

Submitted as an example: the trip from Kaili to Kunming.

Richard and I had been stymied in our attempts to take the train from Nanjing to Guiyang and from Guiyang to Kaili. We were determined to at least take the train to Kunming. For that, we were told, we would have to go back to Guiyang -- though Kaili is on the rail line from Guiyang to Kunming and actually closer to Kunming than Guiyang, sleepers were always sold out by the time the train reached Kaili.

Except this once.

The lovely folks at the Kaili China Tourism Office, who had been among those telling us that getting sleepers from Kaili was impossible, had somehow managed to secure two berths for us, so we wouldn't have to double back to Guiyang. Nothing against Guiyang, but, you know, not the most interesting place I've ever visited.

We got to the Kaili train station, and understood why everyone had told us, it was "a little chaotic." The Kaili station is a pretty typical, old-fashioned small town station. You wait for the trains on the upper floor, which was standing room only:

EXCEPT right up at the front of the line, which was a posted "No Smoking" area, and therefore undesirable.

The train arrived. We made our way to our assigned car and presented our tickets to the conductor, a young, pretty woman (most of the conductors are young, pretty women. I am reasonably sure that this is a factor in their hiring).

Her brow furrowed. "Xiao wenti," she muttered. "Buhao yisi..."

There's a little problem. She's so embarrassed.

We have a pretty good idea where this is going...

No sleeper car. There would be berths in a few hours, so we'd have a place to sleep. "Not a problem," I said. "Just give us some place to leave our luggage, we'll go to the dining car and drink beer for a few hours."

This apparently would not do. The conductor asked if we would mine splitting up and staying in separate compartments—we could change to the same one later on the trip.

Fine by me.

I was ahead of Richard in the corridor that runs along the sleeping car, so I said I'd take the further compartment.

Walking in, my first thought was, "Boy, did I make a mistake."

My compartment mates: 3 middle-aged Chinese men.

Now, I have nothing against middle-aged Chinese men (I am pretty much in the "middle-aged" demographic myself) except for one thing, in this context: they snore. I don't know whether it's because so many of them smoke, but count on it—three middle-aged guys in a compartment, odds are overwhelming that at least one of them, and more likely two, will snore. Loudly (I have a convenient Snoring Magnitude Rating system, in which two Category 3 snorers are equivalent to one Category 5 snorer, and so on).

Well, I don't take trains in China for the good night's sleep. I smiled, shoved my bag under the lower bunk, put on my train slippers and tried to look inconspicuous.

That wasn't gonna happen.

This was a very chatty group, especially the fellow sitting across from me, a government official from Hunan. I immediately got hit with the questions: how long had I been in China, where did I learn to speak Chinese, what places had I visited, what did I think about China, etc. etc. etc. Another man joined us, a young guy with shoulder-length hair and a John Lennon T-shirt, from Wenzhou. With his accent, I had a hard time understanding him, which was too bad because he was very interested in talking to me.

The government official had traveled to the United States—either during the time of swine flu or in some capacity related to swine flu (#ChineseFail on my part). He'd been to Boston, to Washington D.C., to San Francisco, even to the Grand Canyon. Had loved the experience! And he'd learned a lot, particularly that, in his estimation, "America is much more developed and wealthy than China. It will take China thirty years to catch up!"

"Thirty years?" the young guy from Wenzhou said with a snort. "More like three hundred years! And do you know why? Because Chinese people have no freedom, that's why! Take your President Bush..."

"Heh," I said. "Yeah. I don't like him."

John Lennon T-shirt wagged his finger. "You see? You are allowed to say this. We can't say these kinds of things about our leaders. You have elections, we don't. That's why China can't catch up to America."

You'd think there would be a lot of argument about this, or fear, or something, but no. Some chuckles, some nods. And then a discussion about my iPhone: which generation is that, third or fourth? How much does it cost in America? That cheap, really? (I tried to explain that the low price for the device came with a commitment to a lengthy contract but am not sure that I managed to get my point across)

I think about 20 minutes had passed before Richard poked his head in the compartment. I gave him the recap: "Official thinks China will need thirty years to modernize, John Lennon T-shirt guy from Wenzhou thinks it will never happen because Chinese people have no freedom. And iPhones are expensive in China." He sat.

A few minutes later, the same conductor who had looked at our tickets in the first place came by. Richard turned to me: "She totally gave me the third degree just now." On certain train routes, conductors will swap your paper tickets for plastic ones (and then back again at the end of the ride), and along with that, ask for your identification and if you're a foreigner, your passport. Her interaction with Richard had gone far beyond that: she asked all kinds of questions, about how long he'd been in China, where he was traveling and why.

Now she leaned against the doorway of our compartment. She saw my hand-made Chinese notebook and asked if she could look at it (it has all kinds of vintage images of Chinese leaders taken from old Newsweeks). Where had I bought that? And my postcards, from Guizhou, could she see them? She examined each image (I hadn't filled them out yet). We decided she was not so much about the third degree as she was curious. And chatty. She was from Kunming and had a lot of ideas about the best restaurants there (she wrote them down in my notebook, with my pen, which she also thoroughly examined).

This was a happy train, overall. Even the surly dining car attendant was giggling when I returned there after hours to buy a bottle of water—there she was, giving one of the train workers, a big guy with a big shaved head, a scalp massage, and she waved in greeting along with the others, wished me a good night when I left. Maybe it's that Guizhou vibe I mentioned, that just passing through is enough to make people weirdly friendly.

While Richard dealt with the world's friendliest, most adorable attack toddler in his compartment (he was fascinated by Richard's bag and glasses), I settled down for the inevitable night of snoring.

Sure enough. The quietest man in the compartment, the guy on the upper bunk who during our conversations had mostly listened, smiled and nodded.

I'd put him at Category 4.

Early the next morning, as we approached Kunming, John Lennon T-shirt came by. "How did you sleep?" he asked me.

"Hai keyi," I replied. Okay/so-so.

A few minutes later, he returned, to give me an energy drink and a pastry.

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