I love train travel. It is my favorite form of transport by far. There are no car horns, slamming on brakes, diesel fumes. No traffic jams. There is no getting wedged in between an obese man and a crying child in an economy seat where your cramped legs might develop blood clots. No turbulence or fear of falling out of the sky. The tracks are always straight and level, the train moves effortlessly through the countryside, the huge windows provide a constantly changing movie of new and wonderful views. It is the best way to see a country. Sleeper cars with their 6 foot beds are a luxury at night. Dining cars provide a place to lounge, have a drink, meet your fellow travelers. All in all, it is a truly one of the few places where the journey is the destination.
And then ... there are Chinese trains. I wasn't too surprised at the boarding process. In a terminal overflowing with all sorts of families, crying babies, women with dozens of oversized suitcases sitting on every open space, we waited. When someone jumped up, we all leaped like startled gazelles and formed a queue.
I remembered well the Asian Airplane Drill
where after bemusedly watching the Japanese line-up for 30 minutes, I lazily strolled onto the plane only to find there wasn't a single available overhead compartment, and had to fly with my backpack on my legs for 4 hours. So when the gazelles jumped, I jumped. We pushed in, and waited. And sweated. Finally, the line moved, and as soon as people cleared the ticket puncher they began sprinting with all their luggage to the train. I walked as fast as my foot let me. But we couldn't get on the train, the conductors stopped us and demanded our passport and Tibetan permits.
|Tibetan movie playing in the windows|
Meanwhile Chinese swarmed on around us. I noticed out of the corner of my eye 2 other Westerners jump on behind us. Lucky bastards! We had distracted the conductor for them. They also had darker skin, perhaps it had fooled the conductor. When I finally boarded, I found my bunk full. The 4-bunk compartment already had 4 people, a crying baby, and a dinner set out on a shelf. What?! Hadn't these people been in the same line I'd been in? They looked like they had been camping there for months. In broken English the man said the conductor swapped our seats so he could be with his family. Thanks for telling me conductor, but at least it was a for a good reason.
I walked to my new 4-bunk compartment to find 5 old Chinese men sleeping, smoking, and playing cards in their underwear. These men had apparently boarded just a minute before me and had already stripped naked and gotten halfway through a poker game. One of the Chinese stared at me with alarm, then put his hand down his tidy whities and commenced scratching his balls. At least that's what I hoped he was doing. I had flashbacks with the Sumo Standoff
in Japan where I got unceremoniously booted onto the street. No one spoke the other's language. After a few seconds of a Chinese staring contest, the conductor appeared and yelled at the men. The man with his hand on his ji
removed it and yelled and gestured at me. Then all the men started yelling and pointing at me. (Actually it was probably just a normal conversation but Chinese always like to yell.) Finally I just walked in, said "duibuqi" (sorry) as I moved a man's suitcase off my bunk, and set up shop. It was settled. I had learned to be pushy in China, because otherwise I always got walked on.
The next morning for breakfast I met up with Charles in the dining car. We were chatting, when I noticed Charles was staring intensely at me, and soon his hands started shaking as he explained that he didn't agree with my philosophy, and in fact that he was having a fine trip doing things his way. There was a pause. He was absolutely pissed off to the point he where had trouble speaking. My eyes opened wide, I had no idea that what I thought was an innocent comment on trying to find the good side of strangers would make him blow up. We talked a bit more, it turned out he had decided he didn't like me immediately and that he felt I was always trying to force my opinions onto him. Fair enough. I've messed up on that account before. And if two people don't get along they don't along, that is sometimes a fact of life.
It was just that we were stuck on a 2-day train to Tibet, and would be spending every moment together for the next 10 days on tour. Doh.
It was very rare for something like this to happen. Normally, backpackers form a certain club, and membership in this club requires a certain outlook on life. You have to be fairly laid back about things or you won't last very long, you have to be a positive person, someone who is a bit daring. And it really helps to have a decent sense of humor if you hope to survive.
So I was actually a little shocked that I had gotten off to such a bad start with this guy, who was a fellow American after all from New York. We changed subjects and talked about New York and LA, and tried to break each other's stereotypes about the two very different cities which tend to love disliking each other. I explained how I often found myself on the back foot immediately when anyone learned I was from there. People just had very negative reactions that were automatic about the place, especially if they had never been there. I compared announcing you were from LA akin to an American having to defend their country every time they met fellow travelers. And explained how it was a very diverse place with many different neighborhoods, the beach I lived at was actually friendly and cozy, a little slice of San Diego in LA. I mentioned, rather nervously, that Californians tended to think of New Yorkers as more intense. As he intensely stared back, and replied, "Yeah I can see that, but I'm not like that at all."
Charles was an odd cat. He never said hello. He just walked up behind you and suddenly started talking about Tibet. When I managed to catch him before he snuck up, I always smiled and said "Hey Charles, what's up?" He would stare hard through his bulky black glasses and the reply would be something like, "So we have our permits." Ummm, ok, note taken. You really don't like pleasantries.
We met again for lunch. Along with Charles was an Irishman named Garret. Garret was a typical Irish guy, very funny, a little intense, constantly talking in his sing-song accent. Soon the restaurant car waiter came over. He told us we had to leave immediately because it was time for breakfast. We had to order (which he clearly didn't want us to do) or leave. Other Chinese would soon be coming and they might want breakfast. We looked around, the car was half empty and no one else was ordering. He just didn't want foreigners there. Then I noticed the two dark-skinned Westerners sitting a couple tables over. The waiter hadn't bothered them at all, they were sipping drinks they had brought from their car and were staring out the window. The other Chinese looked at us like we should leave as well.
Now, I'm not a black American. I'll never be a black American, and I'll never know what its like to be a black American in the South. But at that moment, I did know what it was like to experience racism. And I found it a horrible thing. I felt frustrated, angry at the waiter and the other Chinese. They thought they were better than us, and there was nothing I could do. This was China, and China was literally Center Country
. Foreigners were looked down upon as inferior.
At lunch the same thing. The waiter tried to get us to move, we ignored him. Finally, he was getting so flustered we ordered. We looked around, no one else was ordering, quite a few people were eating those noodle cups you bought on the street for 30 cents. We had to buy $5 lunches to keep our seats. Then dinner, the scene repeated. I'd had enough. I was about to leave, when Charles motioned to 3 old ladies drinking liquor across the aisle. He indicated he wanted to drink some. The old ladies laughed and offered a cup. Suddenly everyone in the car started smiling, they knew that this Chinese liquor was that horrible 70% alcohol rice gasoline. The odor wafted up my nose and burnt off a few hairs. Charles took the cup, and downed it in one gulp. There was a pause. Then Charles coughed and made a face like a skunk had just blasted him in the face. The crowd went wild. The old ladies burst out laughing, all the Chinese men who a moment before were scowling for us to leave starting smiling, and then clapping and hooting. Another drunk old man stumbled up and while chowing some rice in a mouth that had 3 teeth pointed at crooked angles, he plopped down a huge white bottle of nasty ammonia and motioned for Charles to drink. Charles indicated a little amount, the man shook his head, stumbled, and poured another full cup. The crowd held their breath. Charles had no choice. It was drink it or make mortal enemies. He brought it up to his lips.
The crowded erupted again in laughter and slapped him on the shoulder and clapped again.
Suddenly the barriers between our races fell away and we were all best friends. Charles wasn't so bad after all.