August 6, 2015
I’d forgotten the way that the slow growl of the diesel engine and the light tottering side to side begs me to sleep. Or the way the thrown open curtains, brushes against my just-too-long-for-the-bunk legs, and never-ceasing chatter keep me from it. But that’s travel by the slow train in China.
It’s been a while. A busy couple of months. My personal life got a little weird; school came to an end; my parents, sister, and brother-in-law came to Beijing, accompanied me to Xi’an, then left again. My friends Matt and Dave came to Beijing, too. I might come back to it all later, but for now, it’s on the road.
There’s five thousand kilometers of rail and road ahead of us; one thousand behind us. Beijing, China to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Go west, young men, someone decided, so that’s where we’re going.
Anyway, we were on the train.
The first leg was Beijing to Lanzhou. Twenty-eight hours by slow train, and man was it slow. Brisk-jog slow. But beyond the windows was China.
Just outside of Beijing, the mountains reared up from the plain, craggy and cliffy in whites and reds. Shrubs speckled the softer sides and added color in smudged greens to the muddy rivers that slinked through the valleys below. Hamlets of grape and corn farmers clung to the hills where the train plodded in and out of tunnels in alternating light and dark.
Further along came the coal towns. There, herds of ravenous sheep rambled across rolling hills shredding the greenery. The houses were broken clay. Circular mound graves broke up the plants. As the sun set, DaTong rolled by and a nuclear plant loomed in vaguely disconcerting contrast to the crumbling hovels in its shadow.
Then nighttime. The shades came down. The old men pulled out their liquor. Matt, Dave, and I spent the evening in the dining car, spilling grease on our clothes. The beer cans stacked up. Eventually, one of the staff came over and made a sleeping motion with his hands. We packed up, and he seemed proud to have gotten his meaning across to the lone table of foreigners. When he returned to the staff table he told them of his triumph. They chuckled and took turns making the sleep-time signal with their hands.
Back in the sleeping car the dozen inlets of half a dozen bunks – low, middle, and high, in pairs – buzzed with people coming and going from washing faces and changing clothes. Some young men played cards. Some families chatted. They were impressed with our China Famous Brand Red Star 二锅头。It made us a fast friend, sitting a few inlets down on the tiny seats that fold out into the aisle next to the window.
He wore a gray wifebeater, rolled up over his substantial, drooping belly.
“Come drink!” he shouted down corridor, the sound waves bouncing from bed to bed and into the ears of sleeping children and finally to the table where we were playing cards.
“Sit!” he yelled, only a little less loudly, as we arrived. He lifted the cut-off bottom part of a coke bottle, which is serving as his liquor glass. We lifted our bottle. Then moved to the in-between-cars section where smoking is tolerated.
We talked of LanZhou, his hometown and our first and brief stop. Our new friend’s skinny friend joined us. We talked of LanZhou beef noodles and of their deliciousness and cheapness and of standing in line – children and old men and bosses and soldiers alike – to get them. I said that in China, everyone stands in line. The skinny friend clapped me on the shoulder.
“In China, everyone stands in line,” he repeated then barked a toothy cackle. “You’re an Old China Hand.”
Talk turned to Chinese cigarettes and local legends and Obama and Xi Jinping and Mao ZeDong. I tried to translate for Dave but most of it I couldn’t understand.
At 11, the lights went out.
“You’re an Old China Hand” the skinny friend said again and slapped my shoulder.
“When we get to LanZhou, I’ll treat you to whiskey,” the big man said, then paused and cracked another grin. “In China, everyone stands in line.”