Go West: Black Cabs and Red Trains (Part 2)

My apartment was abuzz on the morning of October 1. Three cousins and an aunt had arrived to spend Golden Week in Beijing. Mom had woken up earlier than usual and was trying to feed everyone in sight. In addition to E, another of my travel buddies for the Go West adventure had come over to brave the commute with us.

Between the three of us going on the trip we managed to cover the sizable living room floor with colossal backpacks and small bags of every variety (fanny packs, foldable totes, day packs, Ziplocs full of toiletries, sleeping bag covers). G stood looking on with amusement at our collective excitement (mingled with a little panic) and declared he was happy to be staying comfortably at home to watch the 60th National Day parade. (In reality, his visa renewal kept him from joining us). As we packed and repacked, pulled and tugged at straps and buckles, broadcasters on TV were providing minute-by-minute coverage of National Day festivities.

When the “black cab” arrived we lifted our loads onto our backs, toppling a little under the unexpected weight, and bid goodbye to the battalion of Zhai-Li relatives. My aunt in particular was bewildered by the sight of two “wai guo ren” (foreigners) and me (half a “wai guo ren”) looking like we’re setting off for the Long March. Her sentiment was echoed by Tian shifu (Master Tian), our driver, who gave Geoff a habitual pat on the back and a thumbs up for his “good physique” (little does he know that crazy “wai guo ren” wear shorts all year round, especially if they hail from Hawaii).

Once in the car, Tian shifu asked me to repeat his instructions to my fellow travelers in English. Since his was an illegal car for hire operation any time we got pulled over by the cops I was to say that he’s a family friend who is kindly giving us a lift.

Given all the parade activities in the heart of the city, Tian shifu decided to route us through the 4th Ring Road, even though Beijing West railway station is between the 3rd and 2nd Rings. We didn’t mind. In fact, we quite enjoyed the scenic drive through streets which were for once free of traffic, looking at splendid flower displays on every street corner, and seeing Beijingers strolling arm in arm, looking joyful instead of stressed.

It was a beautiful day after a night of rain. Above us stretched a blue sky decorated with fluffy white clouds. This was no coincidence. Unthinkable though it may seem, the Chinese government controls its weather. For special occasions like the Olympics Opening Ceremony and National Day, China’s forty thousand or so “rain recruits” fire anti-aircraft guns into pregnant clouds to guarantee favorable conditions the next day.

As we drove, I listened to the live radio broadcast of the festivities with great interest. The play by play broadcast was greatly detailed: “Now President Hu Jintao is boarding his vehicle…The vehicle is starting its course down Chang’an Avenue…He is wearing a black Zhong Shan suit.” The events being relayed were laden with political and historical symbolism. For his big day, Hu had chosen the attire favored by Sun Yat-Sen who is regarded by Chinese around the world (not just mainland Chinese) as the original nationalist, the father to us all. This seemed to be a departure from previous years when top Chinese Communists emphasized their brand of Chinese-ness over other cultural ties. Hu had also chosen elements to remind the populace of Mao, like how he greeted troops along the way. (“Tong zhi men xing ku la!” or “Comrades, you’ve worked hard!”). Too bad I’m no longer in policy school – this would’ve been a great analysis for the political nerds

Before I knew it, we had arrived at the station, well ahead of time. We thanked Tian shifu as he sent us off with a look of bemused perplexity. By now, I was getting used to being thought of as a “crazy wai guo ren” who runs off to the poorest of places for a holiday.

As we joined the sizeable herd trying to squeeze through the station gates, a police officer (one of a large special force put on patrol during this politically sensitive week) pulled me aside. “Are you the translator?” he shouted while pointing at my two foreign friends.

“No, I’m their friend.” Little did I know this would just be the beginning of my being labeled “translator”. I would learn over the course of this week on the road that Chinese people have a hard time understanding me as a bilingual person who has foreign friends. They prefer to put me in the “hired help” box instead.

“Where are they from?” the policeman continued.

“America.”

At this, he was satisfied and let us through. I suppose things would’ve been a lot harder had I said “Turkey” or “Kazahkstan”! We probably got noticed in the first place because my friends, both hapa, had the ambiguous coloring that may lead one to think they’re related to Xinjiang separatists.

Inside the train station, things were as crazy as I expected. There’s a Chinese expression – “people mountain people sea” – and that’s exactly the kind of crowd I came to faced. The building itself was shiny new and outfitted with big screen TV’s (all showing images of the National Day parade) but it felt like a giant farm with all the people swarming around. There was a queue for everything – the platform, KFC, the bathroom. There was even a queue just to get into position to join the bathroom queue.

We found our friends, all six of them “wai guo ren,” conspicuously camped out in a circle on the floor of waiting room eight. Already a secondary circle of curious onlookers had formed around them and our arrival only added to the spectacle. The staring is usually worse at the train station than elsewhere in cities because the railway is where the masses convene. Migrant workers who come to Beijing for construction jobs might spend their entire year cooped up on the site, having no money or time to go anywhere else until their annual homeward pilgrimage on China’s extensive railway network. Here we were presenting migrants with the perfect “tale of the big city” to take back to their villages. A few of the braver onlookers started conversations with our group, trying to understand through simplistic questions what these foreigners were all doing here and where they intended to go with the big backpacks. The more timid ones just hovered around whispering to each other every minutiae observed, “Look, she’s eating a packet of crackers.”

The two-hour wait for our train went by quickly. The nine of us introduced ourselves (this was a mixed group of friends and acquaintances) and got familiar with our soon to be roommates for the next seven days. We compared gear (mostly from Decathlon) and gadgets (between us we had ten cameras, two Flip videocams, and more zoom lens than I could count). Then, in true Chinese fashion, the throng of people around us suddenly started to move towards the boarding gate. It was forty-five minutes before departure time!

We had a small debate among us over this “push and shove” cultural phenomenon. I did my best to explain that people are in a rush to board the train and secure their already assigned seats because many older and poorer Chinese still live with a “food stamp” mentality. If during my life time I had experienced famine and remember being the last person in line when supplies ran out, then I, too, would live the rest of my life with sharp elbows.

With little choice to do otherwise, we went with the flow and boarded the train in a hurry. It was, to my dismay, a “red skin” train. China has gone through many hardware upgrades and the pleasantness of one’s train trip can be easily divined at a glance. The newest lines (like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train) are luxurious, truly the A380’s of passenger rail. The blue-painted trains are cushy too, with private compartments and train attendants smilingly making your bed nightly. When it comes to red-painted trains things get sketchy. These are left over from the era when China bought Russian cast-off’s. The reds and greens (the bottom of the barrel) serve the poorest destinations and are consequently dirtier.

We were going to spend nineteen hours on red train for the first leg of our journey, from Beijing to Yinchuan in Ningxia province. We boarded the train at 1pm and by the time we woke up the next morning we would’ve made it halfway across China, to as remote and foreign a land as we could get without stepping into Xinjiang or Tibet.

It was going to be a long ride so we worked to settle in as comfortably as possible once we boarded the “hard sleeper” car (an open carriage of sleep berths, kind of like military barracks on wheels). I smiled at our immediate neighbors hoping to ease their nervousness at being in such close quarters with strange foreigners. I fished toiletries and sleepwear out of my backpack and stowed the rest on the luggage rack overhead. I explored the bathroom and discovered it to be in significantly poorer condition than the blue trains I was used to taking to Harbin. Oh well, time to start roughing it!

My travel buddies took the poor amenities in stride and found cheap thrills. They played cards in the dining carriage, examined every push cart that came by with interest (selling snacks, drinks, toilet paper, and bento box dinners), and tried out the classic Chinese train dinner of Master Kung cup noodles. As the sky darkened outside we grew weary and retreated to our respective berths, doing our best to protect our bodies from touching the unclean sheets. (Most of us opted to go to sleep in our dark-colored fleeces and sweatpants). As we pulled up the grimy covers and found our night-time reading the lights suddenly went off. A sweet broadcaster voice cooed to us through the PA system, “Dear passengers, it’s lights out time.”

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