Travel Journals - China - 1985

excerpt from China Pennywalk

A Train Trek to Beijing

Train Station thumbnail

The five of us are traveling to Beijing firstclass and last, three luxurious soft beds in a roomy compartment for four, and two hard seats, narrow benches with vertical backs, in a hot, crowded car.

The world seems filled with people who stick to the rules, and our porter must be their role model. He's tall and bony with big eyes and prominent teeth, and he first came into our compartment to charge us an additional 47 yuan 70 fen ($18) for the air-conditioning. Since neither he nor our Chinese roommate speak any English, getting this message across was complex, and we tried our best not to understand. Eli told him that we had paid full price for our tickets and no one had mentioned an air-conditioning supplement.

The porter left, and about a half hour later, our air-conditioning went off. We looked frantically for a switch, tried to open the unopenable windows, suspected he'd turned on the heat. Then as suddenly as it went off, it came back on. The porter returned, this time with an interpreter who said we'd better pay or they'd turn the air-conditioning off again. I counted out 47 yuan and 70 fen in the smallest bills I could find. The porter took the 47 yuan but returned the 70 fen (25 cents).

Later, just as I was pulling down my jeans in the water closet, the porter unlocked the door with his pass-key and walked in. I screamed, and he ran. Yet perhaps this was a stroke of good luck. He certainly was not a man who could cope with walking in on ladies about to pee. He was probably so embarrassed he wouldn't bother us again. We had a good laugh, delighted to be rid of him. For we all planned to spend the night together in our three soft berths.

The hard seat at this point looked like a scene from Dante's Inferno, slight Chinese men sleeping or slumping half-dressed in every available space, even in corners on the filthy floor, a few women and children sandwiched in on the hard green seats, men in their undershirts crowding at one end of the car to get water for tea and for washing, most of the water sloshing onto the ground. The heat was oppressive.

I know because I sat there awhile, squeezed between two peasant women. They were very concerned about my camera, wondering how I could tolerate that weight around my neck. They tried it on and told me not to wear it anymore. And they were fascinated by, in fact couldn't stop laughing at, the difference in skin color between themselves and me, putting their arms next to my arms, then comparing palms.

"Strange what people find amusing," said an American backpacker sitting across from us.

One of the women removed a hard red plum from a bag, wiped off some slime with her dirty hand, gave it to me, and they both waited, smiling, for me to eat it. I wouldn't. The women kept telling me to eat. I stared at the plum and indicated I'd had stomach problems.

"You're insulting them," said the backpacker, who speaks Chinese, "Anyway, I've been eating their plums all day."

Finally I brought the plum to the sink, scrubbed it, sat down with them again, and ate it, slowly chewing the sour, unripe fruit, very slowly, for I saw they had a second plum poised.

We went to sleep in our air-conditioned, soft-bed compartment. At midnight the porter pounded on our door, unlocked it himself when we wouldn't, and turned on our lights. He babbled, gesticulated, inspected our tickets. After fifteen minutes he left with the seventy fen he hadn't accepted five hours earlier. We laughed and went back to sleep.

At 1 A.M. he pounded again. This time he left no doubt, two of us had to go to hard seat. Sarah and Josh volunteered.

It's noon now, we boarded the train yesterday at 6 P.M. I've been sweating so much there's no reason to pee. I haven't eaten since lunch yesterday except for a banana, a lichee nut, and a hard-boiled egg. The food in this country has killed my appetite. Oil forms a visible layer on anything edible. Struggling hard, I managed to lose ten pounds over the past three years; I think I've lost another ten over the past three days.

The scenery outside our window has been like a fairyland. The fields are jig-saw puzzles of rice-paddies, ponds of purple or white lotus flowers, tiny patches of crops unrecognized by me, hills sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, houses red where the earth is red, brown where the earth is brown, peasants in round straw hats working in the paddies, plows pulled by water-buffalo.

The peasants are sweating from dawn to dusk in the summer sun, I'm watching from my air-conditioned compartment. I'm here writing and cool and they're tying up little bundles of straw. Perhaps that's why I was so moved by getting to know Cui in Canton. He grew up working in those fields, I grew up relatively cool, yet I felt our minds were meeting, felt we could gladly spend a lot more time together. Now we're passing patches of sunflowers and of corn, small patches with curving boundaries. The land is very orange.

I didn't know what to make of our bunkmate at first. He's a Northern Chinese man of 28, large and lively, speaks Chinese in loud short spurts and with frequent smiles, eyes sparkling. He doesn't understand a word of English, I doubt he's ever before met a foreigner. When he realized he'd be rooming with us, he systematically inspected everything in our suitcases, with special interest in Sarah's camera and our plastic water flasks. He removed our books one by one from our book bag and leafed through them. Then he gave Adolph the comic section of his Chinese newspaper. When someone came around selling dinners, he bought three extra in Styrofoam containers to give to us. At the first stop this morning, he went out on the platform and bought us three ices and a bag of green apples. Adolph, Eli, and Josh immediately began eating, though nervous. Were the ices made from boiled water, did the apples have to be peeled, how could we know?

At the next stop he bought us Chinese candy: flour, sugar, and sesame seeds ground and pressed into paper-thin, paper-flavored wafers. After the 1 P.M. stop, he plunked a bottle of Chinese whiskey and a roast chicken, head and all, onto our table, took three Chinese sanitary pads from his suitcase and dissected them to use as napkins, then skillfully tore apart the leathery chicken for us all to feast on. And we did, chicken and strong whiskey. We let him eat the head.

The porter continued to pester us every hour or so. Eli nicknamed him the mosquito. Finally he indicated that he had another bed in a different compartment which we could have for 47 yuan. Later he changed the price to 50. After we paid, he came back for another 33 yuan, still later for another 5. We paid him, and Eli told him that was absolutely the end, not another fen. But we're still short one bed for tonight. Our bunkmate told us to lock the door and hold it shut whenever the porter comes around.

A girl from Hong Kong came to our compartment and gave us an opportunity to talk to our bunkmate. His first question: what were we reading? It was nice that he was so interested. We later noticed the cover of Sarah's book of D. H. Lawrence stories: a pencil drawing of a naked man and woman in bed.

He told us he supervises the goldfish pond and flower garden at a farm in the North. He's on a business trip, traveling first class, expenses paid by the government. He could have brought his wife along had he been willing to travel more cheaply. We thanked him for being so wonderful to us. We've been damned lucky in the people we've met. Even the girl from Hong Kong brought us crackers and chewing gum. That was our supper.

The porter is the exception. He came in to tell us that if our bunkmate moved to the bed we had just bought, Sarah and I could share his bed. We said we'd stay the way we were. Later on he told our bunkmate to go to the other compartment. The bunkmate screamed and fumed and refused to move.

The toilets in China tend to be holes in the ground, and people squat, which is treacherous for objects in pant pockets. Women seldom close the stall doors if there happen to be doors. The public ladies' room in the middle of Canton was reminiscent of a stable, stall walls a yard high, a drainage ditch down the middle. Feet go on either side of the ditch. The room appeared empty at first, then I realized there were squatters in many of the stalls.

This country is so overpopulated that everything is done on a mass scale. There are limited supplies, especially of space, space to walk on the sidewalks, space in buses, in hotels, in trains.

The importance of the one-child family policy becomes more and more apparent to me. There isn't room for any more people. And the irony becomes apparent: in a country with such masses of people, the importance of the individual shrinks, and the family is needed as the main emotional support.

Not that I understand this place at all. I'm an outsider at whom people blatantly stare.

[previous] [top] [next]

[Rosenblatt Gallery] [Suzanne home page] [Writing portfolio] [Travel journals] [China]
[Visual Art portfolio] [Feedback]

Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Rosenblatt. All rights reserved.

( No pathinfo hits since 10 June 2002)