Riding the trains

I have many other memories of travel in China that include riding on the trains.  China has an extensive rail system and has various levels of trains such as local trains that stop at every village.  The seats are hard and straight-backed and very uncomfortable – if you get a seat.  I didn’t mind riding on local trains but I had a hard time getting tickets because everyone crowded the ticket booths, pushing and shoving; there were no lines.  Also on the local trains there were no lines to board or get off.  Pushing and shoving was the rule of the rail.  Sometimes people were trampled and bones broken.  One time I was in the countryside and needed to get on a local train back to my campus.  The strong, hardy peasants were pushing far beyond my strength to cope, so several of my male students took me to the carriage where my seat was and asked passengers already in that car to put the window down and they hoisted me through the window.  I held my ticket in my mouth and they handed my bag to me through the window.  As I was getting settled I discovered a railway policeman watching the little drama.  Fortunately he allowed me to enter by “some other way”.  That was so funny and I can imagine what I must have looked like smiling from ear to ear holding a ticket in my teeth.

One summer while I was back in the United States I happened on J. R. R. Tolkien’s books before they became popular, and bought the whole series to take back with me to China.  During the winter recess I rode a sleeper train to Kunming which was a several thousand mile journey and read his books.  I bought a top berth just under the roof (three berths on a side facing, which made an open compartment).  With that relative privacy, I was transported to strange, exciting worlds.  When I needed more food I dashed off the train to buy from hawkers. That was much cheaper than eating in the dining car, just as it would be here in the US.  The quality of the passengers was better so it was sometimes fun to try to chat with them or play Yahtzee which they caught on to quickly.

Not all long train rides were uneventful or pleasant, however.  I was going to Harbin to see the “Ice lights” and took a train similar to the one described above since the trip from Beijing was about 24 hours.  In my open compartment was a man who had been a tour guide for foreigners during the 1980s so his English was understandable.  He considered himself an expert in both our language and culture, however, and was insufferable.  One minute he was helpful and the next he was castigating me for one thing or another.  After listening carefully to him and evaluating his behavior, I decided he had some mental glitches and tried to stay peaceful in our conversations.  Since I was carrying a lot of money for my vacation, I hid it in the bedroll at the head of my bed.

During the ride two peasant girls came into the car where I was riding.  They were very curious when they saw me and wanted to speak with me.  The matron of our coach forbade them but I asked her to let them come and sit on my bed.  One girl had deep carvings cut into the back of her hand and I asked her why.  She explained that it was the Chinese New Year and this was her offering to her god.  The deep carvings, by the way, were bloodless. She was demonized.  We talked peacefully for a short while and then she became riled so the matron moved her away.  The girl became wild and grabbed the railway policeman who was guarding the carriage entry to keep her confined.  She tackled him like a high school football player would tackle a dummy and he held onto the door frame to keep from being overwhelmed – she was strong!  After while some of the railway personnel gave her and her friend enough alcohol to make them drowsy and they quieted down.  When the train arrived in Harbin I began to gather my possessions to debark and couldn’t find my money.  Frantically I searched. At last the ex-tour guide handed me my money with the comment that he could have easily stolen it.  Apparently that was a delaying tactic to keep me in my compartment because as the guide scolded me the police dragged the two girls by their hair down the aisle.  Two of them stopped at my compartment to warn me to keep my mouth shut about what I had seen, the guide shouting his translation at me in self-importance.  The student who was to meet me boarded the train to find me, dressed in a sharp black suit and white shirt so the police and guide weren’t sure who my connection was and quickly melted away.

I decided that if the Chinese didn’t want that scenario told, that was exactly what I would do, as much for my own protection against the officials as – I didn’t know what.  I started by telling the young man who met me and he was speechless, then told me to be quiet; he didn’t want others to overhear me.  When I returned to my campus I also told the teachers there and at other schools employing foreign teachers (they weren’t all Americans). I found out other foreigners had had similar experiences and reacted the same way I did – to tell what we saw with names and places, even writing home about it.

In another very disturbing case, one of our Japanese students who was in China to learn the language and culture, was traveling alone. The Chinese hate the Japanese and blame every native of Japan for the atrocities of World War II. As our young student was about to board a train from Wuhan back to our university he was attacked and severely beaten. Someone drug him aboard the train, fortunately, saving his life, and saw that he was dumped at the correct stop. When we all returned to the school we found the young man in a fetal position on his bed, not able to talk or eat for the trauma he had suffered. He slowly gained strength with much care among his fellows and showed incredible emotional courage to continue his studies in a very hostile environment.

 

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