April 24, 2015

Let's Talk About Trains

Photo by Kevin Lynch
_ foreword _

There are good days and bad days abroad; that’s neither China- nor Peace Corps-specific. Once the reality of actually living in a foreign environment sets in and the honeymoon wears off, certain factors or challenges can really affect the way in which we digest the culture of our host country. It’s from a backless foldout seat on a particularly lurchy train ride that I compose today’s entry with a real pen on real paper, much to the delight of every Chinese person within a 5-meter radius from where I now sit, and today... today is a bad day.

Thankfully, the “for-my-eyes-only” brand of cursive I employ for public displays of writing is as alien to them as 99% of Chinese characters are to me – so this entry will remain just between you and me. Today’s train ride could’ve been like any other, but sadly I find the patches of raised, inflamed, and blistered skin on my torso (which, if I didn’t know any better, had in the past 24 hours fallen victim to 47 bee stings all at once) difficult to ignore. Incidentally, the smattering of itching, stinging, oozing rashes wrapping around my ribcage have given rise to a sort of elevated awareness of exactly what it means to be aboard a train in China, an experience which I’m delighted to share with you today. And, as they say (or do they?) through trials of great suffering emerge great artwork. A timely case of the shingles seems appropriate, and I'm weathering it in one of my least-favorite settings in China, no less… so let’s see if I can deliver.

-  -  -

I think we, the foreigners, all learn a lot on China trains… a lot about this country, and a lot about ourselves. Kind of like a multi-day hiking trip where you’re like, “I had no idea so many interesting flowers existed on the other side of that mountain!” and “I really feel of stronger body and mind after that experience” but also “I never want to relive any part of that unless it’s absolutely goddamn necessary to keep the Earth spinning.”

Bearing that in mind, let’s start from the beginning: The station. Imagine, for a moment, the most crowded place you’ve ever been. Double the number of people. Now, the 5 foot tall elderly woman with seven teeth standing next to you in line for tickets is hawking a giant loogie, the four grown men in front of you keep saying “foreigner” in audible Chinese, then looking back and giggling, and the pack of teenagers in an adjacent line are borderline shouting “HELLO!” repeatedly while snapping cell phone pictures of you to post on social media.

Shaky shot of the view approaching the
train station in Guiyang, Guizhou.
You have no escape, so you grin and bear it (or ham it up – your choice) for 20-40 minutes in line. You reach the front, where the ticket seller on the other side of the glass – who definitely hates her job and who acts as though she’s been on the clock for 17 hours – barks at you in Chinese through a crackly speaker… this obstacle, you didn’t cover in language classes. Luckily (this time) you catch enough key words to communicate with the minimum efficiency needed to get by. Meanwhile, the formerly 2nd, 3rd, and 4th people in line have become the 1.1st, 1.2nd, and 1.3rd people in line, as they’re now flanking you on all sides. One man is grinning from ear to ear, simultaneously pleased with and entertained by your pathetic attempts at speaking Chinese. Another woman in heels, a black tutu-style miniskirt, and a puffy down jacket with lace has her elbow lodged into your hip and her face is fixed in a scowl. To show your discomfort, you take a half step to the side and twist slightly away from her elbow. She immediately moves to occupy the 6 inches you just gave her, and now pushes a bit harder with said elbow. Well played, well played.

At last you emerge, ticket in hand, fumbling with a wad of change and receipts, to make way for the departure gate. The security guards are largely disinterested in you, although you notice one nod to her friend and say (in Chinese), “Hey, try out your English!” followed by the usual snickers. The first guard glances at your passport, stamps your ticket, and thrusts the pair back at you. You politely say “xie xie” (thank you) but he ignores you and reaches for the next passenger’s documents.

You enter security, throw all of your belongings onto a conveyor belt, and step onto a platform to get wanded by a guard. She moves you along and you clamber to the other side of the belt to scoop up your things before they roll off the ramp and onto the ground. Hard part’s over.

This is what happens when there are weather delays for 3 hours.
Once in the station, you hear echoes of the prerecorded voice announcing departures, arrivals, and delays in perfect Mandarin Chinese… something you don’t get to hear very often in your dialect-heavy region, and something which you understand quite easily. “Thank God,” you think, “I haven’t completely forgotten this language.” You learn the location of your departure gate, your pride for successful language acquisition swelling, and set off. The station continues to swarm with people, though there’s enough space now to feel your “bubble” recovering. You meander through the crowd to find a seat near your gate, but all of the seats are taken. Not entirely by people, but also by bags.

This phenomenon of bags in chairs, despite 100+ people standing around and shifting in discomfort, infuriated you at first. However, you’ve seen enough spitting, cigarette ashing, and children defecating to know it’s probably for the best. This is also a major factor as to why the Chinese never sit on the ground – EVER – and also why you’ve became a pro at the “China Squat” when your standing muscles need a break. Still, you wonder why some folks can’t simply hold their bags to free up a seat, or make an exception just this once to help a stranger with a 50 pound backpack… but, you think with a sigh, that’s just not the way things work around here.

The China Squat in action.
The intercom interrupts your thoughts to announce that your train is boarding, and suddenly, it’s like someone yelled “FIRE!” In a flash, everyone – with luggage, babies, and giant bags of potatoes in tow – is bolting for the gate. You’re swept into the fray and feel like you’re back in the mosh at Warped Tour 2007. You try to be cordial, but each time you try to give someone space or hesitate for even a moment, seven people cut in front of you. This becomes an even heavier moral dilemma when the AARP-aged crowd seem to be the most aggressive. Finally reaching the front, you box-out someone’s grandpa and shoulder past a family of four to hand your ticket to the guard. She punches out a corner and you pop from the throng like a champagne cork.

You take five swift, powerful strides and nearly trample the person in front of you. It’s one of the 70-year-olds… you still feel the dull ache in your hip from where she elbowed you about 2.5 minutes ago. She’s not walking slow, but her pace could hardly be considered brisk. In fact, despite the chaos from before, nobody seems to be in a hurry anymore, and you’re left stumped as you shift gears to a comfortably-quick pace and easily overtake more than half the crowd who so ruthlessly shoved their way to the front before.

You’re above the tracks now, breezing over a sky walk, then down a flight of stairs, following signs for your train and car number. You find your car and hop on. If you’re putting in a lot of miles and thus have secured yourself a sleeper, you’re in luck. Most folks don’t have time to notice you as you speed down the aisle past bunks stacked 3-high. You find your bunk number, toss your luggage in the overhead bin, hold your breath, and look at your ticket to double-check your bed assignment. Will it be 下铺 lower, 中铺 middle, or 上铺 upper bed?

Personal preference will dictate each individual’s attitude toward the pros and cons of each bed, but in a nutshell:
  The 上铺 upper bed affords you the most privacy, although too much, in my opinion. For anyone over 6 feet tall, the 1-meter of clearance, after struggling up the 7-foot tiny ladder, isn’t exactly comfortable. And for someone who lets his water consumption go haywire during train travel, getting up to pee more than once at night isn’t worth climbing Everest to get back to bed.
  The 中铺 middle bunk is considered by most to be the best of the three. It offers more clearance than the top bunk (You can actually sit up? Weird.) and it’s far easier to get in an out of… no tiny ladders required. It’s the happy medium that many opt for when the choice is available.
• The 下铺 bottom bed is where my allegiance lies. Granted, there’s a massive downside to the lowest bunk in that, during daylight hours, it’s treated like a park bench. So, any Western notions of “my money, my bed” need to be left on the train platform where they belong. In the event that you’ve landed a 下铺, it’s not unusual to arrive at your bed to find 1-3 Chinese people already sitting on it. Maybe one is leaning all the way back to the wall and one may even have her feet up (shoes off, of course). If it’s your first time, you might gasp in horror at the sheer rudeness of the act… but really, it’s just business as usual. And it’s for this reason that most foreigners avoid the 下铺 at all costs, but I happen to be the kind of guy who likes to swing his legs out of bed and hit solid ground. Plus, the 下铺 has the most clearance and makes for the most comfortable writing/reading/phone-playing, even if you’re sharing that space with other people.

Panoramic of a sleeper car.

On the other hand, for shorter distances (or very unlucky long distances at peak travel times during the year), you’ll enjoy the many luxuries of a “hard seat.” Rewind to the cork-from-the-champagne-bottle moment. Now, you step on the train and turn the corner to see 100+ people crammed into a single train car. Because the seats are bench-style and face one another, half of the train can (and does) see you immediately. That number soon climbs to 3/4 of the train, after they tell their friends to have a look. So you smile, look ahead, and swim to your seat. Swim, you say? Yes… swim… because with a cluster of people and baggage blocking the center aisle coupled with the heat and humidity resulting from too many people in too small of a space, it just wouldn’t do to use any other verb.

You roll the dice and look at your number. What is it this time – window, aisle, or center seat? Always, always, pray for the window. It provides a view, VIP access to the tiny table between the two facing rows, and your single hope for a nap during the ride. The other options, you say? The middle isn’t terrible, if you don’t value having a single inch of personal space. And the aisle, well… if there’s any human (besides Chinese humans, obviously, who appear to be immune) who can peacefully succumb to being routinely bumped by passerby, having their feet run over by the snack cart, and the occasional ass-to-face encounters from standing-only ticket holders, well, I applaud you. You have won China.

Travelers pass the time by chit-chatting, napping (See Fig. B), munching on sunflower seeds, staring blankly out the window (or intently and relentlessly at the foreigner - See Fig. A), but the vast majority watch Chinese television or movies on their smart phones. Smoking is allowed, but only at the front and back of each car. This works well if you’re seated in the middle; not so well if you’re anywhere else. The restrooms, like most public restrooms in China, are squat toilets only, and the cleanliness of said restrooms is directly related to how long the train has been in motion. Needless to say, it’s never pretty to board a train that started in Beijing. There are no open container laws anywhere in China, so drinking on trains is normal. In each car (seats or sleepers) there is, on average, one group of young, rowdy Chinese people, usually men, playing drinking games. Luck of the draw dictates whether a salesman is on board your car, peddling things like milk-flavored pro-health lozenges, fingernail clippers, and light-up spinning tops for kids. They’re performers above all-else, and typically elicit a lot of laughs from anyone paying enough attention.

My bad if I incorrectly implied that
only the Chinese like to drink on trains.
Photo by Kevin Lynch
Figure B. Lucky passenger
takes advantage of an open
seat in a creative way.
Figure A. Scowling at foreigners is an
excellent way to pass the time.

By now, you’re well aware that trains are in no way a means of luxury travel. But, if you've known me long enough to know my middle name, you know I love a good bargain, so here's why trains are awesome: To travel 3 hours from my city, Liupanshui, to Guiyang (the Guizhou provincial capital), the cost is 40. That’s the equivalent of traveling from Chinook to Cut Bank, from Missoula to Great Falls, from Austin to Houston, or any other 150-mile trip, for LESS THAN SEVEN DOLLARS, with steady access to a restroom, drinking water, and snacks (or booze, if you fancy). My trips to Chengdu are 14 hours, 430 miles, with all the same luxuries plus the option to lay down and sleep for LESS THAN 30 DOLLARS. And let’s talk about the oh-so-new and oh-so-sexy bullet trains for a hot minute… I can (and will, one day) take a bullet train from Guiyang to Guangzhou (Hong Kong), that’s 650 miles, in 4 hours, for a whopping 40 DOLLARS. That’s the same distance from Bozeman to Seattle, Dallas to Albuquerque, Phoenix to Salt Lake City, or Sydney MT to Libby MT (the Hiline in its entirety)… in only 4 hours, for $40.00, in a nice, new train with clean bathrooms, airplane-style seats, and all the snacks you can imagine. Can you?
From the inside, you wouldn't know
the difference from an airplane. Reclining
seats and armrests, nice bathrooms, the works.

Booshy booshy bullet train.
Relax. I’m wrapping it up now. What I’m saying is this: On the surface, China’s public transit is less than appetizing most of the time, but this is a country that has it figured out. They come from poverty – which still very much exists – so the vast majority of this incredibly inflated population has no car, and certainly not the means to pay $50 for a 3-hour train ride to visit family or to commute for work. So, there exists a very clever, well-established, and affordable system to cater to the peoples’ needs. Trains go virtually everywhere and at all times of day. Some of the $5 rides might reek like piss, shit, and cigarettes, but those with a few more coins jingling in their pockets have the liberty of opting for the same ride for double the price and twice the comfort.

Regardless, in contrast to America, it seems that having a car in China is just more trouble than it’s worth, because the public transportation is excellent. Chinese people are both resilient and appreciative of the means they do have, which is why cramming into full seats, inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke, or bumping elbows from time to time is of little concern. It’s easy to take what we have for granted (like the ability to hop in our cars and drive wherever without spending an arm and a leg). That said, America's public transportation, on the whole, is complete crap. Although, unlike China, it’s rare to see so much actual crap on our public transit. Also, never ask me to explain why the crowd dynamics of China are the way they are… that conversation is a black pit of despair from whence there is no return.

I just caught a Chinese guy close to my age taking a picture of me when he thought I wasn't looking. It's great when they forget to turn the flash off. I looked up at him, my eyebrows raised. He said "Fuck!" and put his phone down. Why he chose to swear in English instead of apologizing in Chinese, I'll never truly know. In this moment, I just don't have the fight in me to ask. I can't stop squirming and jumping from the searing, sudden pains on my chest; this ailment is zapping all my willpower, curiosity, and patience. Today... today is a bad day. But tomorrow will be better.

PS: It's been almost a week since the train ride, and the shingles are healing on schedule :)

The chubbiest cheeks I've
ever seen on a train...
or ever in my life.
A rare exposé of senior citizens
intentionally frustrating me. These two
photos were taken at the same time
at a bus stop. Top image: How many
people were at the stop. Bottom image:
How close this Granny decided
to stand in front of me.
Liupanshui Station and a
partial view of the
less-sexy, slower, and
poorly-named "Fast Train"
we usually take to get around.

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